Waking up on Thursday morning, I had a dull bundle of nerves in my stomach. I knew what the day had in store, and I was looking ahead with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety. There have been moments throughout our time in Germany that I would be standing in a museum, reading a plaque or exhibit, and be moved to tears by what I was reading. This experience so far has been full of emotions, highs and lows. In all honesty, I haven’t figured out exactly how to deal with many of those emotions. Knowing this about myself, I was worried about how I would react to standing on the same ground as those who experienced the concentration camps first-hand. With little sleep and the heavy atmosphere I was expecting at Dachau, I worried that a breakdown was coming at some point throughout the day.
Dachau was not at all what I was expecting. The very first thing I noticed as we set out to tour the grounds was how beautiful the birds were singing. There had to have been hundreds of birds whose melodies echoed over the silent grounds. The weather was beautiful, the trees were full and bright green – everything was peaceful. It was wonderful, and yet it felt so wrong. I expected Dachau to feel heavy and somber, as it would have felt eighty years ago. The memory of the Holocaust lives on so deeply in a historical sense; I expected the physical place to carry the memory just the same.
I walked through the gate, which reads “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “work sets you free.” The gate opens into the common area of the camp – a large area of open ground. The common area is where thousands of prisoners would report multiple times a day for roll call, their bald heads and striped uniforms lined up in perfect rows. This is also where punishments were carried out for all to see, and where prisoners would sometimes be made to stand at attention for hours or days on end. This was the first time that I felt the weight of the history I was standing on top of. I imagined the thousands of innocent people that stood hungry, exhausted, and hopeless for years in the exact place I stood. I imagined the blood that was shed, the bodies that collapsed from weakness, and the tears that fell for the deep pain they were feeling.
The museum at Dachau offered a look into the medical scene at the camp. By rule, the SS doctors who were responsible for the health of prisoners did nothing to care for the ill. In addition, prisoners with medical training were prohibited from offering any assistance in treating the ill. An account by Walter Adams states, “When in retrospect I try to find a general principle for how the medical services were conducted in the concentration camps, I can only locate one: the more prisoners die, the better.” As a student pursuing a future career in medicine, these words break my heart. I cannot imagine the hate one must feel to have the knowledge and skills necessary to help someone suffering, and to still refuse them.
Another perspective was presented in contrast to the SS officers. A prisoner at Dachau named Nico Rost wrote a secret diary entry mourning the death of Dr. Krediet, another prisoner known and loved by many. Rost wrote the following: “As soon as the epidemic broke out, he offered his assistance – voluntarily. He was the only doctor here who was familiar with typhus fever and had experience in fighting it. All day and every day he was in the typhus barracks, sat on the sides of the beds, crept between the lowered blankets. He knew that he would be infected himself one day, but he wanted to help as much and as long as he could. He was a true hero! Never thinking at all of himself, sacrificing himself and giving his life to save the lives of others.”
There are many times in life that I wonder how I would react in certain situations. Standing in the museum, I thought about what my actions would reveal about myself if I had been in the position of the SS doctors or the prisoners. Like Dr. Krediet, would I have the strength and courage to be defiant and offer the help I knew I could, even if it meant being punished or losing my own life? Or would I be too attached to my life on Earth that I would let those around me suffer while I sat back and watched? John 15:13 states, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Could I love those around me enough that I would lay down my life to serve them?
I thought of the Hippocratic Oath that the SS physicians had probably recited at one time in their lives. The Hippocratic Oath is one of the oldest binding documents in history, stated by physicians as they begin their practice. The Oath outlines proper behavior and character for physicians to follow. A fragment of the Oath states, “I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures that are required. I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those of sound mind and body as well as the infirm.” That is a powerful promise to make. The SS physicians broke this universal moral contract by refusing care to the sick prisoners – their oath to Hitler outweighed their oath to humanity.
I would hope that these contracts by which I am bound, both those of a worldly sense and those of a spiritual sense, would ring true in my life even in the face of terror. I hope that my drive in life above all else would be to love others as I have been loved, even if that means losing my freedom or my life in the process.
I wrestled with an unexpected emotion throughout my day at Dachau: guilt. I can’t place my finger on exactly why I feel guilty, but I do. I am a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl of a Christian faith and a German descent. Had I been living in Germany in 1940, I probably would have been just fine. Do I have the right to mourn for the victims alongside my friends of Jewish background whose grandparents were imprisoned in the camps? Can I ever understand how it feels from their point of view? Perhaps rather than it being a feeling of shame for the actions of my ancestors, I feel shame for the actions of humanity entirely, and the hard truth that we are all capable, somewhere deep down, of committing unfathomable acts.