One of the only aspects of World War II that managed to curb my youthful eagerness and drop a queasy weight into my stomach was the Holocaust. I remember feeling physically sick after finding a picture during a sixth grade research project of skeletal prisoners stacked like firewood with hollow stares and gaping mouths. I struggled to grasp how anyone could bear to inflict such pain on others. I couldn’t arrive at a good answer.
Years later, the Holocaust is still one of the areas of history that simultaneously fascinates and horrifies me. The methodical approach to mass slaughter taken by the Nazi regime serves both as a stark reminder of what even the “civilized” nations of the world are capable of and warns of the need for our vigilance in the future. It happened once. It could happen again. That scares me, and I think that’s a good thing.
One of the first stops on our European road trip was Munich and Patrick, my brother-in-law who shares an interest in history, arranged a visit to Dachau, a famous concentration camp a few kilometers north of the city. We dropped of our spouses and the children at LEGOLAND (because, you know, concentration camps are probably not a great place to bring toddlers) and set our course on the GPS for the Dachau Memorial Concentration Camp Site.
Shall I provide some historical context before delving into my experience there? Okay!
Dachau is now one of the more famous concentration camps largely because its liberation was so widely publicized by journalists and photographers at the time. It is also prominently featured pop-culture via the TV show Band of Brothers, the popular novel The Book Thief and multiple films, including Shutter Island which stars the oh-so-dreamy DiCaprio.
I had no idea what I’d find in Dachau as we hurled northwards on the autobahn towards the camp. I hadn’t done any prior research and was clueless. As usual.
We passed through one of the infamous black “Arbeit Macht Frei” gates and into the camp itself. I was impressed with how large it was; although most of the former buildings were razed, the foundations of the barracks stretched on for what seemed like over a kilometer. The rows of long, linear foundations were so perfectly straight, so perfectly aligned that it underscored just how premeditated and methodical the Holocaust really was. It required detailed planning and preparation. It wasn’t a passionate, violent loss of control. It was chillingly thorough and detailed. Engineers, bookkeepers, concrete-manufacturers, chemists, accountants, railway technicians and architects, all seemingly average, plain (or vanilla-tapioca as I like to call them) people, were willing to dedicate their time and expertise to the oppression and slaughter of millions. Wow. Instills a faith in the goodness of humanity huh?