WARNING: May contain depressing content. Readers can experience sad emotions, signs of lost appetite, self-reflection, and gained knowledge.
On March 23, 2012, I finally worked up the courage to visit Dachau concentration camp, near Munich. Dachau is significant because of “The Dachau Spirit”, the code to dehumanize Jews. All camp guards were trained here before working in other concentration camps, and many other camps were modeled after Dachau.
Stepping through the gates, “Arbeit macht frei” – Work will set you free – I knew immediately I was in a different place, a place completely outside of worldly understanding.
We arrived right at Appellplatz (Roll Call Ground), where they used to count prisoners twice daily. It was an incredibly vast area holding at one time 52,000 people.
M (as I will call him), our tour guide, told us stories about the camp, and about torture. Something I reflected on the most was the “dark cell”. Prisoners in the camp were locked in total darkness for 4 months, 8 months, over a year… They had nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing to think about, except the one hot meal they receive every four days. It reminded me of the disciplinary cells in Alcatraz (the prison in San Francisco once housing Al Capone). Prisoners there would be kept in complete darkness, but only up to 7 days. You have to know, they were the biggest criminals in America, and they needed discipline in prison because they were violating the behavioral code. In Alcatraz, the dark rooms were considered the worst punishment.
Prisoners in Dachau, they never did anything wrong. They never kidnapped or murdered, they were only faithful to their religion, and yet, they were treated much, much worse.
On the roof of the torture prison, there used to be words written in German: “There is a path to freedom. Its milestones are: Obedience, Honesty, Cleanliness, Sobriety, Hard Work, Discipline, Sacrifice, Truthfulness, Love of thy Fatherland.” This was for all the Jews to see, at least the ones who can read German. M explained, even if they were obedient, honest, clean, sober, hard-working, disciplined, sacrificial, truthful, they could never love the Fatherland, Germany. How could they? Even if they managed to do the impossible and become patriot to Germany, there are no paths to freedom, it’s just a propaganda lie.
Trying to absorb what we just heard, we went inside the barracks where the prisoners used to sleep. Since the original barracks were so poorly built – 4 wooden boards pushed into the mud to form walls – they deteriorated very quickly and did not survive time. The only barrack erected is a demonstration to show the transformation of beds as the years went by. In the beginning (1933), it was one bunk per person, then one bunk for three, and when I reached the end, a 3-story wooden container holding 500 people in 1944. 500 people in one room.
M told us people slept on top of each other. That meant there was no chance they could get out of bed and go to the washroom at night, so they just released themselves right there. Prisoners with higher seniority got the top bunks so shit doesn’t fall on them over night. Younger boys, at the bottom, wake up every morning covered in urine, feces and dead people’s excrement.
With heavier steps, we walked through the ground where the barracks used to be. The memorial site built large rectangles to represent the fallen barracks. It was row after row after row, on both sides. We spent 10 minutes just to walk past all the barracks. And to imagine each room held 500 people, multiplied by how many rooms in each barrack, by how many barracks there were… I could do the math, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to know the sheer amount of people who were sent here for the sole purpose of dehumanization and torture.
Dachau is one of the few camps with a preserved gas chamber. M, who read so many books on the subject and visited camps all over Europe, couldn’t walk in with us. He said one time was enough. So we went in alone. It was a building of five rooms. The first two rooms, prisoners took off their clothes. Shower heads were installed to deliberately fool the Jews into thinking they were taking a shower. The door to the gas chamber is labelled “Brausebad” (showers). That’s the third room.
The fourth and fifth room were to store corpses, ready for cremation. M said one of the mass graves has ashes 2 meters deep, of unknown people never to be identified.
It wasn’t the walking in, but the walking out of the gas chamber that weighted heavy on me. Those who walked through the first two rooms, thinking they were taking a shower, never had the chance to walk through the last two rooms like I did that day. The grave difference between us and them is something hard to bear.
I admire Germany for being one of the most opened and honest country about its darkest past. Their education system encourages young Germans to learn about the Nazi history, so that old mistakes will always be remembered. It is hard to find any other country today that does the same.
After the tour, to continue the learning experience from Dachau, I read The Diary of Anne Frank. Two years ago, I visited Anne Frank’s attic in Amsterdam, and it made her story more vivid. In turn, her story made history more vivid.
I recommend that everyone should go to at least one concentration camp. It is absolutely necessary. It is part of history, it happened, and we have the duty to learn about it.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
If This Is a Man by Primo Levi
Night by Elie Wiesel