Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Around the World: Dachau

From the time I was old enough to read short novels, I enjoyed reading stories, written in diary format, about girls around my age.  I liked the day to day happenings written with that unique personal honesty that a young girl approaching adolescence is apprehensive about expressing to anyone.  At a local garage sale, I found a very well read copy of "The Diary of Anne Frank".

Until I visited Dachau, I did not truly understand what I held in my hands.

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March 27, 1992

On the way to the train station, I stop to hear the Glockenspiel chime and watch the little figurines dance about before figuring out how to get from here to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial.  The line that will take me there is free with my Eurail pass.

Dachau was the first of Nazi Germany's concentration camps.  From the station, the memorial is a clearly marked 45 minute walk.  There is a monument that greets visitors with the words "Never Again" written in five languages.  Not far from the entrance is a museum of photographs on display that paint a very graphic and detailed description of life in the camp.

There is a long list of authors under the caption "Hitler's undesirable book burning", followed by a quote by Heinrich Heine,  "Where books are burnt, humans will be burnt in the end."

Only two barracks remain.  The room is covered in photographs with survivor's quotes that clearly describe how prisoners were treated and what is was like to exist in the camps.  The words of one survivor explains that even though they were prisoners, they still had privileges that could be taken away.  Food.  Sunshine. Life. In some of the photographs, the number tattoos are visible on the prisoner's arm.  I remember childhood friends whose grandparents had similar tattoos.  They may not have survived this particular camp, but they were still subjected to the suffering inflicted upon them because of their ancestry, their beliefs, or their opinions against Hitler's agenda.  When Dachau was liberated, American soldiers reported that 1600 prisoners were crammed into each of the barracks, originally designed to house a maximum of 250 people.

I walk through the camp, past the concrete foundations where most of the barracks used to stand, toward the crematorium.  The gas chamber here, disguised as a shower room, was never used.  Air-tight doors on opposite walls are designed to seal the room shut.  Standing inside, I resist the selfish urge to cry, out of respect and sympathy for those who were slaughtered in a room like this one elsewhere.  I don't dare make any noise that alters the haunting silence.

The visitors congregate around the crematorium, the barracks, and the museum.  Away from the crowds is a stone monument tucked into the foliage, almost overgrown, near the perimeter wall just outside the crematorium.  It catches my attention, beckoning me to investigate.  The memory of reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" when I was younger reminds me that children were not spared any of the horrors of the Holocaust.

It says, "Think about how we died here."

Otto Frank was separated from his wife, Edith, and daughters, Anne and Margot, upon arrival at Auschwitz in September, 1944.  Children younger than 15 were immediately sent to the gas chamber, a fate Anne was spared by only three months.  Having been found in hiding, the women were sent to the punishment barracks for hard labour.

In October 1944, Anne and Margot were selected for transfer to Bergen Belsen.  Their mother, Edith was left behind and died of starvation shortly after her daughters' departure.  Tents were erected at Bergen Belsen to accommodate the addition of 8,000 prisoners in the already overcrowded camp. In March 1945, a typhus epidemic claimed the life of Margot and a few days later, Anne, just weeks before the camp was liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945.

The last thing I see at Dachau is the large iron gate that prisoners walked through on arrival. When American troops arrived to liberate the camp, they were so horrified by the conditions, several American soldiers shot and killed an estimated 40 camp guards after their surrender. The words "Arbeit Macht Frei" are laid into the iron bars on the gate.  Translated it means Labour Means Liberty, or literally work (will) make (you) free.

I am truly ashamed to know the hatred that humans are capable of inflicting upon one another.  The anger wells up inside me and I cannot hold back the tears.  I can imagine the sickening disgust those soldiers must have felt after reading those words and finding the camp overcrowded with emaciated, typhus infected prisoners.  Although a court-martial investigation was initiated, all charges against the soldiers were eventually dropped.

The stone monument I passed on the way in holds a great deal more meaning for me on the way out.  I thought I knew what the Holocaust meant.  I knew about the concentration camps that systematically killed some six million Jews and mass murdered another eleven million Gentiles for being homosexual, disabled, communist, political opponents, religious non-conformists and otherwise "non-Aryan".  Seventeen million people.  Murdered.  All in the name of hate.  Prejudice must never decide the fate of any group, or any individual again. 

Not ever.

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All photos are courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons

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