What Dachau Can Teach Us About Ourselves

I wasn't going to visit Dachau.

My husband is half-Jewish, so he felt he needed to see it.  I didn’t want him to go alone so I went with him.  It turns out I needed to see it, too.

Munich was a stop on our recent trip overseas that included Rome and Berlin.  The city has a village-like quality even though the population is nearly 1 ½ million.  It sits in the heart of Bavaria, Germany, and its old town features a century-old glockenspiel (large clay figures on a turntable that come out and dance to music when the giant clock above them strikes the hour).  There is something reassuring about this glockenspiel, as if nothing could go wrong in a place where such wholesome folklore is the centerpiece.

Dachau concentration camp is 20 minutes from Munich by train.  We took the suburban line from old town Munich to the small town of Dachau, then caught a bus to the prison site.  It was a bright day under an expanse of blue sky.  But there was no reassurance, nothing wholesome here.

I expected to see photos of detention atrocities that I wouldn’t be able to get out of my mind.  The museum in the Dachau camp had removed a number of the horrific pictures of suffering prisoners years ago.  What remains is the camp itself.  And what you can imagine taking place on its grounds may be worse than photos.

There are bleak and unheated barracks that surround an enormous gravel yard. Prisoners were forced to line up every morning in the yard, in all kinds of weather, for inspection and roll call.  Typhus, pneumonia, and starvation were rampant.  People would drop over from exhaustion during roll call, but prisoners would be punished if they tried to help a fallen inmate.

Dachau opened in 1933, and was liberated in 1945.  It was not considered a death camp.  There were no gas chambers.  Dachau was a “work camp”.   Forty-one thousand, five hundred people died at Dachau in 12 years.  They were worked to death. 

There are a number of memorials across the camp. The Jewish memorial, several stories high, is made of dark, gray stone and shaped like a large cone.  When you go inside, the top of the cone is open to the sky to let in a shaft of sunlight.  It reminded me of a meditation prayer from Kabbalah, the study of Jewish mysticism:  Dlayt atar panui meenay.  Which translates from Hebrew, “There is nowhere where You are not”.  Meaning God.  There is nowhere where God is not.   There is no place, however grim, that can escape the divine, or light, or however you want to describe something greater than you.  

I don’t think evil is some dark, separate entity that descends on people and causes them to do bad things.  I think human beings are capable of evil.  It’s part of the spectrum of human behavior.  Every human has the potential to engage in it.  Just as we are all able to do great good.  We have the option of behaving with good or bad intent, given the circumstances, anywhere and at any time.

The Dachau museum displays propaganda posters from the early Nazi era.  At the time, camps like Dachau were described as “protection” areas where Jews and others were brought for “safekeeping” and where they could be re-educated to be better citizens.  Many Germans believed the propaganda.  Humans can be led to follow mal-intentioned leaders and believe things that aren’t true.  That’s part of human behavior, too.

As we were about to leave, and I took a last look at the gravel yard where so many had suffered, I heard birds singing.  Theirs was a complex trill, long and melodious.  Had the prisoners heard similar bird songs?  On warm spring days like this one with the blue sky above?  Did it make any difference to them?

I’ve lived over 70 years, but I’m still taken aback by brutality.  Yes, we all feel anger or disgust toward people from time to time.  Sometimes we even wish them a bad end.  But to round up, contain, meticulously torture and kill millions of them?  May I be so bold to say that that is a constriction of the soul.   A repudiation of the part of us that links all living things.

We should know by now that answers to big problems aren’t simple. Living with each other on this earth is hard work.  How often do we ask ourselves if we are doing the right thing?  Are we vigilant enough?  Because the world will spin and birds will sing.  The rest is up to us.