No words can truly describe what I experienced today, but I am going to try my best. I did not feel comfortable taking pictures today.
We woke up early to head to the Dachau Concentration camp, which is only about a half hour outside of Augsburg. The weather was cold and rainy, and it really set the tone for what was to come.
Dachau had 602,000 prisoners in its 12 years of operation, and today, I started my tour the way that most of the prisoners started their walk to death; I walked through the Prisoner entrance with the words “Work will set you free” engrained above the door. Those words could not have been further from the truth.
We walked through the gate into the main square where all the prisoners would line up in the morning and the evening. In front of the prisoner barracks stood the main building that housed the entrance process for new prisoners and some of the offices of the SS Officers.
We walked through the check-in rooms, and it was a solemn feeling. The prisoners would hand over all their personal belongings and get assigned a number. As soon as they were “numbered”, prisoners were dehumanized. They then removed all of their clothing and took showers. Following the shower, they received striped prison clothes and were officially conscripted to their next decade of slave labor.
SS Officers were extremely cruel and would unnecessarily punish people. One of the punishments included handcuffing prisoners’ hands behind their back and making them hang from the rafters, dislocating their shoulders. Whipping, beatings, and other cruel punishments were very common. Sometimes, they would punish the prisoners for petty things, like if there was dirt on the floor of their barracks. Guards would find everything possible to use as a punishment.
The camp opened in 1933, but as the war raged on, the camp soon became overcrowded. Four people were assigned to a bed, and locker rooms were eventually removed from the barracks (they stopped giving out an extra pair of clothes), and meals consisted of bread and soup. The pictures of the people in the camp on its liberation day in 1945 were horrific. People were skin and bones. Out of the 30,000 prisoners housed in Dachau when it was liberated, 10,000 of them were sick.
In 12 years, only 1 person escaped from Dachau, in its opening year in 1933. He was a political prisoner who opposed Hitler during his campaign. Unfortunately, he ended up dying fighting in the Spanish Civil War a couple years later. I was amazed that out of 600,000 prisoners that stepped foot in Dachau, only one managed to escape. It was also the same time it opened, so there were never any wartime escapes.
We left the barracks and walked down the main road between the endless rows of barracks and reached the crematorium, where they burned the bodies of the deceased. While the SS Officers did build chemical showers for exterminations, they were never used at Dachau, but it is unclear why. However, there were 32,000 documented deaths at Dachau. They were mainly due to disease, starvation, and extreme working situations. Later in the war, Dachau became inhabitable, and was a cult of disease.
The most horrid part was the crematorium. It was horrific looking at the pictures where bodies were piled on top of each other. The crematorium housed giant, human ovens, where people would be thrown in and burned as if they were pieces of wood.
It hurt my heart knowing how terrible humans treated each other just because of the persuasion of a lunatic. I know that the history of the United States is not perfect, but I do not know how I could handle being attached to history like the Holocaust.
When we returned home, we had a small discussion with Dr. Feick to unpack what we had just watched. I asked him a question about how Germans today deal with such a gruesome history. He told us today that a lot of governmental policies and decisions are still based on their mistakes in WWII, and there is a strong sense of pacifism. But, what I took away from his conversation was that the new generation of Germans recognize the mistakes of their previous history, but it is not fair to blame the German students of today for the mistakes of the ancestors. While the Holocaust might be one of the most egregious acts in human history, German students my age are not those same people. They are a generation that rejects the decisions of Hitler and recognize the mistakes of previous generations. The survivors of Dachau have their own monument that explains their wishes: Dachau should be open to show the world what we should never ever repeat again but is not made to blame the generations of the future for the horrible acts of their ancestors.