Day 8: The Lie That is “Arbeit macht frei”

Sunday, May 13

This morning we visited the memorial site of the Dachau concentration camp. This was the first of the Nazi concentration camps to be established. Although it was not intended to be used to carry out systematic mass executions, it served as a model for future camps that were constructed in other parts of Europe during Hitler’s regime. The dictator was careful to ensure that none of the mass-execution camps were located in Germany itself.

In the twelve years that Dachau was operational, 43,000 prisoners died of disease or malnutrition, were tortured to death, were killed in medical experiments, or died in an attempt to escape. These prisoners included, among others, political opponents of the National Socialists, traitors to Nazi Germany, disabled persons, homosexuals, Catholic priests, Jews, and Russians.

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Our tour guide, Bernd Kroeger, was very informative as he led us throughout the grounds. We walked through one of the barracks that was still standing, the inside of which was crammed floor to ceiling with wooden cubby-like compartments. Each of these was to serve as a sleeping place for two or three prisoners each. How did they all fit? The average weight of a Dachau prisoner was 80 pounds.

We then made our way between the rows of barrack foundations and into a forest trail, where the pistol ranges for many special executions were located. Emerging from this, we then took a walk through the gas chamber and crematorium. Although there is no evidence that these facilities were ever used to murder prisoners, the true intent behind the uncannily efficient system carries a sinister weight.

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Having the brain of an engineer, I tend to think a lot about the design and production processes in everyday life. Every manmade item had to have been planned and designed by somebody somewhere. Some inventions take years of work and thought. These execution machines are no different. A team of people designed the building and the rooms. Another team of people invented a way to pipe toxic gas into a chamber disguised as a shower room. Another team of people designed the furnaces for cremating the dead bodies. The extent of the planning is just sickening.

This is an extreme example of engineering gone sour. In addition to sustainability, ethics is another very important concept that engineers must always consider. An engineer’s job is to develop technologies that, whether directly or indirectly, will help improve the daily lives of people, both now and in the long term. A technological development that is ethically questionable may need some rethinking, and an incredible amount of foresight. These Nazi engineers strayed from the basic principles of their craft.

Hardly a word was spoken among the group members the entire time we were there. Our last stop on the tour was a walk through the museum building. Here were more pictures and descriptions of the agonizing existence of Dachau prisoners. After the tour ended, we had about half an hour to walk around on our own. There were a few places that we didn’t get to on the tour, such as the religious memorials and the far side of the camp wall. I decided to wander around and respectfully take a few photos.

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As I made my way back to the main gate to take a picture of the inscription, “Arbeit macht frei,” or, “work sets you free,” I spotted none other than my German professor and one other student from a class I had taken this past semester. They were doing a separate Pitt abroad program centered around Munich and Bavaria. It was somewhat of an awkward location for what should have been a happier meeting, but it was still cool to witness the phrase, “It’s a small world,” in action.

At around 1:00 PM, we walked back to the bus. When we arrived back at the hotel, the clouds were threatening to burst, and it was time to work on blogs and presentations anyway. I spent the entire afternoon working due to the free, virtually nonexistent WiFi, and actually wound up getting Subway for dinner after 8:00. As it was a Sunday, any other stores that had been open were most certainly closed by that point.

Overall, it had not been an upbeat day.

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Step count: 15,263

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