This is my first published feature that originally appeared in Sonderer’s Magazine Winter 2017 issue. It was a very hard feature to write, not only due to the content but I had to reach back into old memories and feelings. The diversity lesson is still relevant today, and we should embrace and cherish our differences and not target and punish any ethnic group because of them.
In late May 2000, I was on an eight-country tour of Europe to celebrate my upcoming college graduation. I traveled with a tour company that specialized in tours for post-college youth and young adults, ages eighteen through thirty-five. We traveled throughout Europe on an intense seven-day tour and I was especially excited to visit Germany given my German heritage. When we arrived in Germany, we stayed in a small hotel in the beautiful village of Sankt Goar on the Rhine River. The landscape of Germany is breathtaking, with high mountain peaks and lush forests surrounding quaint little villages. After one night in Sankt Goar, we piled onto our bus and headed south on the autobahn to Munich. We spent the day sightseeing, explored the Marienplatz, and observed the intricate architecture and storytelling of the Rathaus-Glockenspiel. The street performer dressed as a medieval knight entertained me.
The next morning, many of us boarded the bus hungover, but content. When we were on the road, our tour director, Graham, announced we had some extra time in our schedule and he had a ‘special surprise’ for us. I had hoped we were going to visit Neuschwanstein Castle, located in the vicinity. Many of us eagerly awaited the reveal of this special surprise… A visit to Dachau, a forced labor concentration camp. I must admit it wasn’t the delightful surprise that Graham had insinuated. However, this unplanned excursion changed my life forever. I felt overwhelmed to be in such a ghastly place; I had never been in a place where war crimes and mass murder were committed.
In school I learned about the Holocaust and I have seen numerous films on the subject, including Schindler’s List and The Pianist. Literature and film try to expose what it would have been like to live in those conditions: overcrowded barracks with unsanitary facilities, medical experiments, being worked to death, and prisoners witnessing tyrannical murders of fellow inmates in the main courtyard. Many died from typhus, malnutrition, deadly evacuation marches, and suicide, among other causes. But the only way to understand what the Holocaust would have been like is to visit a concentration camp – seeing the remnants of the atrocities committed by one group of humans toward another group of humans.
Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, opened in 1933 near the medieval town of Dachau, located in Bavaria, about ten miles northwest of Munich. An estimated 188,000 inmates were interred there and a reported 31,951 people were killed between 1933-1945. During its years in operation, Jews, politicians, criminals, and clergy from mainly Poland, Germany, Russia, and the Czech Republic were imprisoned at Dachau. The United States liberated the camp in April 1945.
I have visited many historical sites during my travels, including Pearl Harbor and the ancient city of Pompeii, both places where thousands died, but none affected me as emotionally nor as profoundly as my visit to Dachau. Perhaps because the Pompeii eruption was a natural occurrence and Pearl Harbor was bombed from above. To me, however, Dachau felt more heinous because prisoners were explicitly targeted, subjected to torture and death because of their ethnicity, religion, mental and physical disabilities, among other factors.
When I passed through those gates, where thousands had passed through before me, I couldn’t help but imagine the hopelessness, fear, and pessimism the prisoners must have felt at that same moment decades ago. A psychic awareness came over me while I walked around the grounds. We explored the prisoner barracks, the gas chamber, and the crematorium; all still standing in their exact same places as years before. There were shrines for different faiths throughout the grounds: The Jewish Memorial, Catholic Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel, and The Protestant Church of Reconciliation. People reflected quietly to themselves, paid their respects to the victims, and others weeped.
Why are there memorials for World War II around the world? How do we remember and recognize the millions of victims that perished during the Holocaust? The prisoners at Dachau and the victims of Holocaust were inhumed because of hatred and intolerance. I learned that most German civilians at that time were completely unaware of the atrocities being committed. And those who were aware, felt powerless because they feared their own families’ lives. I learned that ethnic profiling and genocide were not and will never be feasible ways to gain political or financial advantage.