One of the places I knew I had to go to while I visited Munich was Dachau concentration camp. It’s not somewhere you necessarily are looking forward to going to visit, but rather, you go to be uncomfortable. I’m going to take several travel post to reflect on my visit to the camp. Today starts at the beginning.
I decided to take the train from Munich to the camp. While I was riding, I heard some people talking in English – native English speakers and it became pretty clear that this was a tour. I asked the guide where I had to go once I got off the train. He was really nice and gave me directions and said that if I wanted to join the group, I could, but no pressure. I decided to join the group, which turned out really great actually.
When we go to the train station, we took the bus to the camp and our guide pointed out several things along the way, a little history about the camp and the early part of the WWII and was always checking in on us. And then we got to the camp.
We walked to the gate.
We learned that this is not the original door. It’s a replica, because the original was stolen just recently.
I can’t even tell you the mix of emotions that ran through me when I heard that. Who in their right mind steals a gate door to a concentration camp? No one in their right mind does, that’s who. The criminals who took it have no sense of what a gate like that means – they only care about how much it could be sold for. Like the Nazis, there is no sense of humanity in people like this. In another sense though, it seems fitting that a door that robbed so many people of their freedom and their lives would be stolen too.
In case you are wonder what the words in the gate mean, it roughly means “freedom through work,” which of course is a complete lie. We were told that the gate served two purposes. First it was propaganda for the prisoners coming in – to give them a false sense of hope. And second, it was propaganda for the outside world to make it seem like prisoners could earn their freedom and be released. It was all based on lies.
After you enter through the gate, you go to the roll call grounds.
The grounds are large. They needed to be in order to hold so many prisoners. Here we were told that it was not uncommon for prisoners to be forced to stand for hours at a time. If they fell, they were either beaten, shot, or taken away. They were not allowed to move, or talk, and forget about using a bathroom. It meant death or beatings. To the Nazis these weren’t people – they had dehumanized them – they were rats and were meant to be eliminated.
It is extremely disturbing to even contemplate how far removed from “normal” this way of thinking is.
Which is why going to Dachau and other camps is important. Humans have a short memory. We need to be made uncomfortable so we learn or remember that humans can be terrible to other humans in ghastly ways.
We need to remember that all too often the road by which we get to places like Dachau starts with one person or a small group of people who desperately want power. It starts with an idea about how to get power. It starts with some words that scapegoat “others.” It starts with an appeal to people’s emotions and fears. The Nazis and Dachau are just one remember of a long string of what humanity is capable to doing to itself.
So let us continue through the camp over the next couple of weeks and let us be uncomfortable. And let us be vigilant and see the world with clear eyes and humble hearts. Let us see and hear others who would take us down similar roads as they speak.