As a child, I was infatuated with the Second World War. I devoured every encyclopedia article I could find in our 1988 World Book set. I flipped through history books, watched documentaries and scoured the Internet in search of war-knowledge. I could rattle off casualty statistics and share obscure facts with confidence. If I could travel into my past and test my 12 year-old-self about any battle in the war, from Tobruk to Midway, Arnhem to Okinawa, Kursk to Montevideo, I have no doubt I would amaze myself with the minutiae I once knew. I was one of those kids. You know, the boys who nerd out in their (possibly unhealthy) enthusiasm for historical bloodshed; the ones who everyone just barely manages to tolerate!
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 was the first concentration camp set up by the Nazis. It was founded on March 22 in 1933, just weeks after Hitler’s meteoric rise to power culminated in his appointment to Chancellor. Dachau was originally designed to house and “re-educate” political opponents of the Nazi regime through labour and slightly more…active efforts. After Hitler solidified his political position and plunged the globe into the Second World War, Dachau’s role morphed into a transit centre and hard labour camp for thousands of Jews, Roma, POW’s and other groups targeted by Hitler and his band of A-holes. It was not an extermination camp. The primary goal of Dachau was to use prisoners as free labour for the war effort, but many prisoners who became too weak to work were transferred to the infamous death camps in Poland. As it was the first concentration camp, Dachau became the prototype and model for the entire system constructed by the Nazis. By the end of the war, approximately 200,000 prisoners had passed through Dachau and around 40,000 had died there. Some of the dead were worked to death, others were killed in grotesque medical experiments, others were simply shot or beaten to death by sadistic SS guards.
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.
As we parked and walked the footpaths to the gate, the first thing that struck me was just how close the camp was to the town. For some reason, I had always envisioned concentration camps as being cloistered away from the prying eyes of civilians in an effort to hide the atrocities perpetrated there. Well, Dachau Concentration Camp was aptly named because it is pretty much inside the town of Dachau! Maybe that shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I now understand and empathize with the impulsive decision by American soldiers to force local civilians to tour the camp at gunpoint after it was liberated.
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?
We roamed the site for a few hours before arriving at the unmistakable chimney of the crematorium. This site was the smallest part of the concentration camp but it packed an emotional punch to the throat! As we slowly walked from room to room, it was sobering to recognize the site of the famous pictures from liberation. We passed the storage rooms where emaciated corpses were piled, stepped into the dim gas-chambers disguised as showers and paused by ovens that had burned tens of thousands of people to ash. Describing the cocktail of emotion that I felt while gazing into those crude brick holes is best saved for professional writers. I can’t even pinpoint it myself! It was one of those experiences that I’ll be mulling over in my mind for a long time, just trying to gauge what I actually felt at the time and sort through what I may have learned.
Visiting the Dachau Memorial Concentration Camp Site was a highlight of my trip to Europe not because it was enjoyable or entertaining, but because it was important for us to visit. I guess my final thoughts are owed to Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and literary hero of mine who, coincidentally, passed away the day before Pat and I visited. He claimed that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Dachau is one part of my trip to Europe that I will never forget.