19 July, 2013

The more I travel, the less I know.... (July 9) Dachau Germany

Today was the first full day that I have been away from my family on this adventure of ours.  It would have been nice to have Melissa with me to share the experience. But since I was spending the day at the Dachau Concentration Camp we decided the kids were still a bit young to grapple with the horrific story that unfolded there and the memories that linger in this exspansive, sad complex.

Entrance Gate - Arbeit macht frei


I clearly had no idea what to expect.  I opted for a small group tour, 7 of us, which really provided an opportunity to hear all that our guide told us and ask questions (alas, after about 20 minutes I really did not feel like talking anymore).  It was an absolutely gorgeous day outside, not a cloud in the sky and the temperature in the 70's.  We entered the camp the same way as those that were sentenced here - through the black gates that said in German "Work makes you free." You see, Dachau was a "work" camp, not an"extermination" camp.  

The definitions are a bit lost on me, but for the sake of some background info, the Nazi's had basically two types of camps - work and extermination camps.  Extermination camps were set up to rid society of those not "clean" enough to be a part of the superior German race.  If you were sent to one of these camps you might live 3-4 months if you did not die first of malnutrition, disease, abuse, crude scientific experiments, or the whim of some officer with a gun.  If you did not fall to your fate that way you were sent to the gas chambers and were promptly cremated. Work camps were set up to help feed the Nazi war machine: build small machines, equipment or anything that the Nazi's needed to further their cause.  Or, you were "offered" up to outside companies like Hugo Boss, Bavarian Motor Works (BMW), Kodak, Chase, IBM and many others as cheap labor.  However, most met the same end as those in the extermination camps.  In the work camps the torture would just be prolonged. 

Jews, political criminals (those that did not support the Nazi's), homosexuals, and basic criminals were the main groups sentenced to camps. Below is an overview of the triangle coding system (not exhaustive):

Yellow - Jewish
Red - Political prisoners 
Green - Criminals
Blue - Emigrants
Purple - Jehovah Witnesses
Pink - Sexual offenders (mostly homosexual)
Black -  Work Shy (homeless), Pacifists, Alcoholics, mentally ill
Brown - Gypsies


Once through the gates we stood in an expansive courtyard where those that arrived were sorted based on age, gender, ability and ethnicity.  This after days of being in a box car (many perished on this journey) while transported from any number of areas from Germany, France, Italy, Holland and other countries that Germany invaded.  Families were separated at this point, most never seeing each other again.  This is also where roll call was done every morning and evening and could last for hours - regardless of weather.  If you were unfortunate to have died between these times and had not been cleared by a Doctor as being dead, your companions were to bring your body to the courtyard to be counted.  Even in death, there was no dignity.

As we walked towards our next stop our guide pointed out the 7 guard towers.  After the camp was liberated and the complex was set up as a memorial, the survivors asked that the towers were to never be used again. In that way no one could ever look down (from high up in the towers) upon anyone - ever again.  A very fitting request and a powerful statement to us all.

We then headed to the baths.  This is where any last shred of dignity was literally stripped away.  You were stripped, all your belongings taken away, washed and given a uniform.  You were lucky if the uniform fit and it really didn't provide any protection from the harsh weather. 

Next we watched a brief video taken when the US troops liberated the camp.  It was probably the most chilling of things I had seen up to this point; the bodies piled up, the few Nazi SS still there, and the few that were living were so emaciated that their lives were on the brink - only a miracle at this point would see them through the next few hours.  Days before the US arrived many were killed, those that were not, were starved and most of the Nazi's abandoned the camp.  It should have been a time for celebration for those imprisoned there, but sadly most were on deaths door.

We then visited the Prison.  A long, dark hallway with small rooms on each side.  There was nothing distinct about it, but it had a deep saddness around it.  As busy as it was, a school group had descended upon it at this point, it still felt very quiet and cold - and the hallway had the illusion for going on forever.  I looked in a few cells and found myself making my way for the exit.  Our tour guide later told us they not only used it to detain a few people (most people were killed for even the most minor infraction, so it was hard to understand the logic of having a prison in the first place), but it was also used to do "experiments" on people or torture them.  After the war it was actually used to house some of the Nazi's themselves.

On our next stop we visited the memorials.  The first one, the International Monument is filled with emotion and despair.  Quite moving.  It really seemed to represent what took place here.  At that point I felt my visit was becoming much darker.  The entire place felt void of life.  I couldn't help but be consumed with a total sense of sadness and despair - in a way I have never felt before.



At first glance, the second memorial was a bit more uplifting and honored those that passed through the gates. It is a sculpture with three links of a chain held together by bars in between signifying the unity among the prisoners.  

However, after a few seconds you notice a few colors are missing: pink, green, and black. Those colors of homosexuals, work shy, and criminals (a Nazi's definition of criminals could have been a Jewish sympathizer or some trumped up charge).  I will withhold my commentary about penal systems in general, but for the sake of the memorial, it is quite telling of the times (1960's) and how society did not honor all that had been persecuted in such a horrendous way.  Didn't this just perpetuate the ignorance that had gone before?  Were they not directly feeding into the same unfounded ideology of the Nazi's?  I have to admit, this only added to my anguish - even in death they were not recognized.  I can't reconcile this in any way.  We did learn that eventually homosexuals were honored many years later with a small plaque somewhere else in the camp.


The 3rd memorial was a lot simpler, but equally has powerful.  It was the words "Never Again" in 5 different languages. Right infront stood a small box containing ashes found when the camp was liberated.  Never again ... sadly there have been numerous "agains.". We are all inexplicatly linked as a race, but have too often turned another eye or not been critical enough to disern what is really taking place.

We then took a brief tour of the bunks, which were recreated.  I tried to understand how triple the "normal" amount of people would get any kind of rest, privacy or reprieve from the non-stop oppression.  The rules were strict: no sleeping on the floor, nothing on the floor, always cleaned - even the smallest infraction could be death.  And to make it worse, the Nazi's would enlist prisoners to monitor and hand out infractions to fellow prisoners - the mind games were unconscionable.

Onto the long walk to the other side of the camp.  This is where there are three religious memorials: Protestant, Cathlolic and Jewish.  We did not have time to tour them, but it seemed like if there was any place to heal and reflect, this would be the place to spend some time.

Our final stop was the Crematorium.  It really was quite overwhelming. I could not even begin to grapple with what took place in this area.  I walked slowly through the gas chamber.  It was painful to think not only about what happened physically in this space, but what people went through in their final seconds emotionally.  It is beyond words.  I quickly went to the next room which housed three massive ovens.  I could only spend a few seconds here.  Sadly, others did not have the luxury I had to be able to leave this place alive.  I took no pictures, actually I decided I would only take a few select pictures my entire time to respect those that had suffered so dearly in this place. 


Sculpture outside the Crematorium. Translate to - Honor the Dead, Reminder for the Living

There is so much more to understand.  How the Treaty of Versailles from WWI impacted the rise of the Nazi's.   Hitler's popularity, how this could go on for so long and millions lose their lives, and what role propaganda played.  How did Germany and its people recover/reconcile after the war.  How did the world treat Germany?  

So much to learn, understand, grapple with - many without a clear answer.  However, this I know; we must constantly educate ourselves, question what we see and hear, be open to learn new ways of seeing things and move away from old ideas that just don't work anymore.