Powerful. Humbling. Unimaginable. These words illustrate the feeling I had while walking the grounds at the Dachau memorial site, knowing so many others before me had brutally suffered, lived and died — right where I was standing. As we walked the grounds, our tour guide set the stage drawing us back in time, so we could imagine the experiences of those who had been held in the camp. By way of history, we learned that Dachau was not considered an “extermination” camp but served to disperse its prisoners to local labor sites. Make no mistake however, tens of thousands were exterminated at Dachau and for those who were hearty enough to survive, living conditions there were beyond horrifying and treatment by the guards was truly atrocious. Around 30,000 people are known to have died at Dachau – in the very shadows of where we stood. Pictures of those who were imprisoned at Dachau lined the walls of the recreated barracks. One of the many things I am struck by is the fact that up to 10 times the number of people the building was designed for, occupied the space in what must have been incredibly unsanitary, deplorable conditions. I think about how hard it is for me to have a productive work day after a lousy night’s sleep (and fully recognize that I don’t even ‘begin’ to understand what a truly lousy night entails). Here, their lives literally depended on making it through very long, labor-intensive work days at an expected speed and capacity amidst deplorable conditions and near starvation.
Still deep in thought, we walked through the gas chamber and crematory area. I was readily brought to tears with the thought of what occurred here. It’s truly despicable and horrifying to think of how one human being could treat another. We’ve learned about the Holocaust in school, but statistics like six million fellow humans killed, become so much more real to me here. Yet it’s still all stunningly unimaginable. When I see pictures of the deceased piled on one another, I’m overwhelmed at what I see as the magnitude of the atrocity, but then it suddenly clicks that what I’m seeing is only a tiny fraction of the six million whose lives were callously snuffed out by a vicious regime. I’ve caught a small glimpse of evil. Coming from a country which cherishes freedom, we take for granted the ability to choose and move freely. Those who were forced to reside in Dachau could not leave. Many even chose suicide, such as throwing themselves against barbed wire, as their only means of escape. Seeing pictures of those who were forced to stay — where we currently stood freely — truly makes you appreciate how blessed we are to live in a free country where ‘all men are created equal’. As I freely leave Dachau, I’m reminded of the abiding privilege to come and go as I please – a privilege that was denied to so many before me. Let us never forget that freedom is not a right, but a privilege. Let us never forget Dachau or what we saw and felt here today.
As a side note, my mom visited Germany in 1989 during her college days. Dachau was one of the places she visited. I was struck when I saw a picture of her younger self standing right where we were at the Arbeit Macht Frei gate. Besides the coincidence of that, I love the fact that she visited the site close to thirty years ago, and in another thirty years and every year in between, many others will too. We shared how we each were moved emotionally and more importantly, changed, by our individual experiences at Dachau. I know that both of us will never forget what we experienced. Perhaps a tiny redeeming victory of the atrocity is that the incredible number who suffered unimaginably and died in places like Dachau is now well exceeded by the number who visit these memorial sites to pay homage and remember — so the world can never forget.
I can write of nothing else today, because my heart is heavy and I want to stay focused in this moment.