There is no easy way to skirt around Concentration Camps. They’re here and also a huge part of our history. I think it is amazing, however, that Germany has been willing to memorialize these places, and make them a destination where people can come to learn about the darker past that is there. From Dachau to Auschwitz to lesser know Sachsenhausen and more, people of our generation can get maybe the slightest idea of what went on in these horrible places for over a decade. I think it is impossible to fully understand the magnitude of the extermination of a population across 30+ countries, but they have certainly tried.
At the beginning of the day, Dr. Pitcock told us to split up as we saw fit and take in the information at our own pace. We began around 11:30, and some of us stayed till the memorial closed at 5. While the grounds aren’t ginormous, there is a ton of information to listen to, and a phenomenal museum built into one of the old buildings. The museum alone could have taken all day or even longer. I mostly read everything in the first half, but after the 20 minute video showing in between, I was just beat. I had been there already for 3 hours, and there was just so much information to take in. I mostly skimmed the second half, and still barely made it out by the time of closing.
From the “bunker” (the place where people were brought to be put in solitary confinement and tortured), to a replica of the old barracks, to the crematorium, there are so many feelings that resonate deep within me. I don’t think there is a way to take everything in, and not feel a little sick to your stomach. Dachau was built originally to fit 6,000 prisoners, but by 1943 held nearly 30,000. In one winter, 4,000 people died of typhus due to living conditions and food scarcity. The prisoners were denied medical care. They were worked down to skin and bones, and when they were no longer capable of work, they were tossed out like trash. While Dachau was never known for mass murder by gas chamber, they still had working chambers and crematoriums, and most likely shipped prisoners to other camps to be exterminated. The horrors that happened are simply unimaginable. Yet, I wasn’t completely phased, and I think that is contributed to for a number of reasons.
On that specific day, I was already exhausted when I got to Dachau. Not just the physical exhaustion that comes with this experience, but the mental aspect. All of us, I believe, have tried so hard to be open and vulnerable this entire trip, allowing us to really bond. We’ve had no secrets, and really left a lot of personal things out on the table. For me, and I’m sure for a lot of us, going to the place where we remember some of these thing may not be a place we want to go, much less everyday, and sometimes more than once a day. Add that emotional exhaustion on top of some things happening at home that were taking an unexpected toll, and it was hard to fully appreciate the depth of what we were seeing.
However, I also believe it is so much more than that. I have been fortunate enough to grow up in an interfaith household. I have practiced both Judaism and Christianity for as long as I can remember and I think that this has given me a very unique world view. Due to growing up in and around synagogues, I learned about the Holocaust from a young age. The number 6 million has been told to me hundreds of times and the stories of survivors included in many services. My father is a also a first generation American. His mom was, in a way, lucky enough to be sent to United States at age 16 to live with a distant uncle because her mom believed it was no longer safe in Europe for her family, but they only had enough money to send one. The rest of her family most likely perished in the war. My father’s father was rounded up in Poland and sent to a labor camp. By the grace of God he was never moved to a concentration camp and made his way to the United States after the war, but never the same. The rest of his family was scattered across camps, and denying statistical odds, most of his siblings survived the war, but moved across the world: some in Israel, Australia, Canada, etc. His parents died.
I have had nearly first-hand interpretations of the situations that Jews across Europe found themselves in. On a deeper level, I wonder if I have become desensitized to the information in a way. I completely understand how devastating and far reaching the affects of WWII were, and how completely awful/terrible/miserable it would have been, but I think I have heard the stories so many times, learned the history, and seen the pictures, that actually walking through Dachau was not a life-changing experience, and didn’t totally phase me. A few of the people I walked through with were learning about the different colored stars for the first time, or the lack of medical care, or simply the daily routine of the prisoners, but I have learned the vast majority of it over and over. It was interesting for me to see what they didn’t know and were intrigued by almost more than it was to learn some of the specifics that maybe I never learned or forgot. I am by no means saying I know everything or even close, but I think the main takeaways that many other people got are ones I’ve already realized in some way or another.
I have seen pictures of my great uncles in striped clothing in the camps. That meant so much more to me than some of the pictures of strangers, even though more horrific things may have been depicted at Dachau. I wish I had a greater or more profound takeaway after visiting Dachau, but I think it just confirms a lot of the big ideas I already knew. I wish I could have felt more for the thousands of lives that were lost under the most horrific experiences, but I just don’t think I had it in me at the time, and perhaps never would. However, I am grateful that these camps still exist and allow us to remember. Remembering what happened might be the most important thing we can do, and I am proud to do that for the great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins I never got to meet because they died at the hands of the Nazis.