When reflecting back on my trip to Germany I encounter a wide range of emotions, which will most likely take me years to fully understand. As I continue to dissect my feelings and relate those feelings and knowledge acquired to populations I work with, I will continue to growth and appreicate my Germany experience. For the purposes of this post I’ll start with the hypothetical question: “What story will you tell?” This question is what haunts me upon my return from Germany.
First and foremost, I want to write about the concentration camp I visited, Dachau. Originally Dachau was used by Nazi Germany to hold political prisoners, and eventually came to imprison thousands of Jewish people. Close to 32,000 deaths occurred in this location; mind you, Dachau was not an extermination camp. Think about that for a moment. Horrible, horrendous acts took place on these grounds, along with countless stories of hope and survival, which is something that must be remembered when reflecting back on the unthinkable acts that were committed.
Under a large archway, wide enough for several trucks or buses to pass through, a tall iron gate barricaded the entrance way. At the top of the gate, the words “Arbeit macht frei“, or “work will make you free,” is written. Suddenly I began to wonder how many eyes saw this gate? How many people truly believed in the message these words portrayed? How many people passed under this gate thinking “I will see my family again,” or “I have hope?” From reading countless novels of survivors, and hearing many testimonies, I’ve come to believe that the only human quality that people had was hope. In fact, I found it interesting that when one entered Dachau their personal belongings were cataloged and stored for retrieval. There are records indicating that many previous Dachau prisoners retrieved their belongings after liberation. I think of the psychology behind the act of retaining your belongings once you’ve successfully survived a concentration camp. What would that look like for an individual?
Obviously, many thoughts were circulating my mind upon entrance to the camp. Once inside, I remember consciously making a decision to protecting myself from the feelings that may arise. Actually, it took me weeks after my return to American to fully allow myself to experience the energies that were present. Directly under the gate is a huge courtyard. I’m unsure of how massive this courtyard is (maybe 2.5 football fields), but it is massive. There were many overwhelming parts of visiting Dachau, but this may have been one of the most overpowering one. Our tour guide told us that each morning the residents would have to stand in the courtyard for hours, waiting for their orders. Imagine the cold, the hunger, the language barrier, the pain. If someone fell over, or didn’t understand a command, that was it. No second chance, gone. So when I began to envision the sight of thousands of people standing, dutifully awaiting instruction every morning I began to cry. The idea that I was standing in the same spot where this happened constantly repeated within my thoughts.
Next we visited what a typical dorm looked like. Four -hundred people per one side of the dormitory… 400… On the other side, another 400. Eight-hundred total, sharing one shower and one bathroom. All of their material possessions fit on the shelf above their bed. Maybe that is why it was so easy for people to hold on to hope. Hope can be easily stored/hidden, despite how hard someone tries to steal it.
The tour guide then spoke of the daily routines of the imprisoned people. Please note, that I am not strictly referring to the people of Dachau as Jews. Yes, most of them were. But people were imprisoned for many reasons. If you were poor, widowed, gay, politically opposed, etc., you were at risk. Once inside the camp, the normal deplorable conditions ensued: hunger, brutal beatings, emotional abuse, human experiments, and I can only imagine the sexual abuse that occurred. For instance, prisoners were submerged in freezing water so the Germany would know what their soldiers could withstand.
After visiting the dormitory our guide walked us down to the crematorium. On the way there, she recounted a story of a survivor who recently came into bad health, but usually makes yearly trips to Dachau to celebrate his freedom. Apparently, the survivor and his brother were both imprisoned at Dachau. When one brother had lost all hope, he decided that it was time for him to commit suicide. When he turned to say goodbye, his brother said “If you die, then I won’t have anything to live for.” The brother decided to live.
Stories like these are the ones that need to be told. Stories of survival, of hope.
So, suicide… There are zero recorded suicides at Dachau. ZERO. Obviously, it was easy to decide that you wanted to die. All one had to do was run, not respond to an order, or step on a small patch of grass that was located on the camp grounds. Obviously, none of it was suicide, it was murder.
Once at the crematorium, I became deeply burdened by the sight of it. In true pragmatic fashion the showers were located close by, which I also toured. Apparently Dachau’s showers were never used which it didn’t really matter, they existed. Imagining crowds of people waiting in a room, exterminated, then shoveled out like waste is simply unfathomable to me. There were pictures of people picnicking in the grass before they were killed. This was done to help reduce the stress, of you know, dying. How thoughtful.
Finally, we viewed the museum. In this phase of the tour I decided to finally allow myself to feel the energies that were present at the camp. I remember getting lost in the large, wall-sized, pictures of the acts that were committed to human beings. While wondering amongst strangers, I decided to open myself up to the people that have perished within these walls. I gave them love and respect. Although, my presence at the camp would never compensate for any of the atrocities that occurred there, but in some small, very small, way I will keep their stories alive. The stories that matter. The stories of love, hope, survival, and the truest examples of human rights.
When I was in the 4th grade I was asked to write a report on an American hero. My mom and I spent days researching the perfect person to research and eventually decided upon Anne Frank. She was the first person outside of my family that I ever connected to. It may have been the developmental stage I was in, or the fact that I truly related to her. Regardless, I read every word of her diary and wrote my ass off, with mom’s help of course. When I got my grade back the teacher wrote, “Great paper. 100% A, not an American.” All this said, to express that I was exactly where I was supposed to be when I was at Dachau. It was no coincidence that I was there, and that experience will forever alter my life and I am eternally thankful.