Thursday, April 23, 2009

I Will Never Forget

Something I wrote a while back:

IT WAS A TERRIBLY cold day in March and I was getting dressed to go to one of the world’s most dreadful places. Dachau, named after the German city in which it was located, was the Nazi regime's first concentration camp. It lies 20 minutes outside of Munich. It’s true that this camp was never used for complete and utter mass murder like other camps such as Auschwitz, but nevertheless, many people died there from overworking, malnutrition, and disease, being victims of acts of cruelty and despair. Since Dachau was the first concentration camp built, it served as a model for others, as well as a training ground for the people who would inflict terror and death upon millions.

Why did I want to visit such a place? To this day, I don’t know what my reasons were. I don’t know any holocaust survivors, but feel strongly that I want to understand their experience and try to make sense of what happened. Perhaps in some way, I can honor the memory of those that died – by remembering. Therefore, walk with me through Dachau as the prisoners did and attempt to understand what the site conveys to me.

A tour bus took us through the quiet streets. The sky was gray and overcast. Little houses lined the streets, no one was in sight. I wondered why people live here at all, what sort of reaction the Dachau citizens get when people ask where they’re from. Perhaps they say they are from Munich or other parts of Germany. As I listened to our young German tour guide tell us about Dachau, I could hear and feel the guilt in his voice, a sense of shame for what his ancestors did.

As the bus pulled up to the camp site, I saw a billboard that read, “Vilkommen en Dachau!”—which was about the strangest thing I’d ever seen. As we entered the camp on this cold day, I saw a white snowcovered ground, gray concrete buildings, and
barbed wired fences around the guard towers. Standing inside the gates, I felt tension right away.

First, we were to go to the main memorial museum and watch an exhibit. As we walked to the museum, I saw the dreary roll-call area where the prisoners had to report every morning and evening. Standing there is a monument, which later I discovered was created by a Yugoslavian sculptor imprisoned in Nazi labor camps during the World War. This huge bronze sculpture depicts shattered, skeletal body parts caught in a mesh of barbed wire.

We entered the museum, which used to be a former administrative building. I had never felt so cold. The exhibit began with a timeline of the camp's history, factual and unemotional. The voice heard was monotone, nothing like that of our tour guide. The goal of the exhibition was to recreate as much as possible the path the inmates took upon entering the camp. After the exhibition was over, I was speechless. I couldn’t even imagine the horrible pain and suffering these prisoners endured.

In the other gloomy gray rooms in the museum, I saw black and white banners with printed words and images describing parts of Dachau. These gray rooms were originally areas for processing incoming prisoners. The old black and white photos of the prisoners showed faces of hunger and pain. All the prisoners were shaved and dressed identically in striped clothing. I found myself looking at the faces of the prisoners in the photos, wondering who they were. Upon leaving the main memorial, we were told, “If you aren’t sure you want to go outside, you can remain here in the museum.” This statement made me feel like one of the prisoners, fearful of what I would encounter. Was this what they were trying to accomplish all along?

As we walked outside to tour the rest of the camp, we passed the black iron gates with the words, ARBEIT MACHT FREI—“Work will make you free”. This of course was an utter lie; no amount of work would ever free a prisoner. I was surprised by how small the letters were, yet so big to the prisoners. Every time I raised my camera to take a photograph, I found it even harder to press the button.

As I walked through a gas chamber, I was able to see how the system worked. I had heard before that these gas chambers were disguised as shower houses. In the first room the prisoners would enter, they would be briefed on how to use the showers. In the next room, they would be instructed to take off their clothes and enter the third room marked with a sign above the door, "Brausebad" or "shower bath". This third room even had fake shower heads in the ceiling. The fourth room was used as a place to store bodies before they were moved to the crematorium in the fifth room, which contained 3 large ovens. The whole thing felt so cruel and inhumane that I did not want to touch anything; for fear that some kind of compassion might drain from me and be wasted on the walls.

The tears poured down my cheeks. I was ready to leave. I was shivering and it wasn’t from the bitter cold air. As I walked back to the tour bus, I realized every place I stepped was a spot where someone may have died. I stood there and imagined the ground scattered with half-starved bodies. I felt terrified and sick.

As everyone boarded the tour bus to leave, no one would look at each other, much less talk. The silence alone was enough to make anyone shutter. All that could be heard were the sniffles of those who were weeping quietly. None of us who visited Dachau that day felt better for having visited. I, as well as everyone around me, appeared to feel worse. We were emotionally shattered and numbed by fear and pity.

However, as we drove further and further away, the clouds broke apart, and the most
brilliant rays of light came streaming through the clouds. The crying stopped
and we all looked at each other as the warmth of the sun hit our faces. I will
never forget.