Uncomfortable Remembrance

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The sign on the gates translates as “Work makes free,” as the pretense was that Dachau was a labour camp, not a place of extermination.

Somehow it doesn’t seem right to be a tourist in a place of unspeakable evil. But remembrance is important, so I visited the Dachau ‎concentration camp, the place where the Nazis refined their “final solution” for the Jewish people.

These days it is in a Munich suburb. I would think it was more isolated 75 years ago, that they would not have wanted people to know just what was taking place inside the walls. I hope people didn’t know, that they accepted the propaganda, that they just didn’t do nothing. Some must have though – we know there are few limits to human evil – Dachau is a reminder of that.IMG_1788

I have read enough literature and seen enough films that the visit did not upset me as much as it might have. I had emotionally steeled myself to what I would see. People died here, not as a punishment for crime, but because of their race and religion. Anti-Semitism at its most virulent.

There are questions of history, philosophy and theology to be considered, but we won’t go deeply into those today. Why the Jews? Why were the Nazis allowed by the people to perpetrate such atrocities? Why have we not learned from the lessons of the Holocaust? You would think that the death of the six million would have been a wakeup call for all of humanity, but many millions more have died in genocides since the death of Adolph Hitler.

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Only one of the dozens of bunkhouses has been preserved.

Dachau does not look at all today like it did in 1940. It is peaceful, almost parklike, which I imagine lessens the impact. I can’t imagine the smell that would have ensued from the burning of all those bodies. The neighbours must have known.

Except, how can you believe the unbelievable? Those who worked in the camp were husbands, sons and brothers, ordinary people. If you knew them you couldn’t in your wildest dreams imagine them to be capable of what actually happened behind those walls.IMG_1785

That’s the subtlety of evil. It isn’t the obviously monstrous that seduces us. Most people can recognize that wrongness and reject it. The real problem is when it starts small and expands, slowly, incrementally, until you become a monster, but can’t see it in the mirror.

The message of Dachau for me is that we humans are capable of sinking lower than any of us would ever think was possible.

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The Jewish prisoners were herded into the room, the doors were locked and lethal gas released through these vents.

Maybe that is why I can feel sympathy, or maybe that should be empathy, for Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president. He didn’t start out to become a mass murderer. He wanted to be an ophthalmologist and then his circumstances changed. These days the would-be doctor is generally regarded as the epitome of evil. You have to wonder how someone a medical professional dedicating his life to doing good for others, changes so drastically. Could the same change happen to you or to me? Are we stronger, better rooted in our beliefs?

Someday there may be a museum in Syria like Dachau, remembering the victims of the Assad regime with the hope that through remembering we will not repeat the mistakes of history. Just the thought of the need for such a remembrance is saddening.

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The dead bodies, too many for burial, were burned in these ovens.

Dachau is a solemn place, even on a sunny July afternoon. People died here, though given that it was the smallest of the concentration camps not in the millions who perished at places like Auschwitz and Treblinka. The numbers are such that the mind really can’t absorb them anyway. And that is one of the problems with evil – we just aren’t built to comprehend it.

I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I do know it I important that we remember. That is why I went to Dachau.

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2 comments

  1. Having been to Dachau I don’t know if I could bring myself to visit Auschwitz. But if I am ever in Poland, how could I not go? There is so much evil in the world, we need to remind ourselves of that and each do our part to resist it.

  2. Lovely article, well written on a really difficult subject. We too visited Dachau a while back and found it uncomfortable but felt that everyone should probably visit and learn more about what went on. Didn’t like the tourists posing for selfies or acting as though it was Disney. Very annoying. Interesting but upsetting place though.

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