Arbeit Macht Frei (Part 2 of 3)
As I promised, tonight I am going to revisit Germany. I’ll be picking up in Munich, where we left off yesterday. If you wish to start at the beginning click here.
For those familiar with the title of this post I don’t need to explain to you why a shiver runs down my spine whenever I see the phrase…and for those of you that aren’t familiar, please allow me to enlighten you.
Just a short hop on the metro and Gillian and I were off to Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp to open in Germany and less than 10 miles from the Munich city limits. The gates opened less than two full months after Hitler gained power and Dachau would be the camp that all other concentration camps would be modelled after. Knowing that much of this camp had been destroyed after liberation, Gillian and I weren’t sure what to expect.
We picked up audio guides out front, just before heading in. The audio guides came with a corresponding map. You’d simply punch the number in from the map and you’d immediately start getting a history lesson through the head phone. I found this a fantastic way to visit the camp. It allows you to see things in the order you’d like and most importantly the freedom to move at your own pace. Entering through the gates, as so many had before us, I remember being overwhelmed with emotion. Arbeit Macht Frei was written on the top portion of the gate. Directly translating to “Work Shall Set You Free”.
The property is lined with an electric fence, a barbed wire fence, a “blood ditch” and 7 guard towers. We spent 8 hours there that day, trying to learn as much as we could, trying to understand it all…in some way. It is incomprehensible what it was like, it’s impossible to try to relate and if anyone tells you different, I simply believe they are wrong.
Dachau had been built for a capacity of 5000 inmates. Yet, it was overflowing with 20,000 people. The death toll peaked at 200 people per day leading up to liberation. Yet, there is no definite number for the lives lost at Dachau in the 12 years it was open. Just graves remembering thousands unknown lay adjacent to the massive crematoriums. The gas chamber was next door to a giant empty room, that upon inquiry I learned to be simply a holding room for dead bodies.
A 22 minute short film played on the hour every hour in the main prison building. It was in a small dark room that held about 50-60 people if I had to guess. The film was in black and white and composed mainly of footage shot by the SS, inside the camp, during the war. I learned in that small dark room, what it was like to be a part of 60 people sitting in the dark, completely silent, forgetting to breathe. You could’ve heard a feather drop to the floor it was so quiet. No one had the strength to utter a single word. Your chest tightened and your eyes brimmed with tears as you watched. Breathing in and out while watching “reality” for so many people was all anyone could manage. I’m sure you know the story. The torture, the complete and utter horror. Watching people ripped from their families, experimented on. Watching the bodies tossed around and piled one upon another upon one hundred more still. You know the story.
The majority of the main building had been turned into a museum of sorts. Timelines, propaganda and stories were scattered across the walls so you could meander around, trying to make sense of it all.
The bunkers had been destroyed years earlier upon liberation, but two were rebuilt as part of the memorial. The rest of the area, empty and vacant with only outlines of the many bunkers that were there previously. The grounds were so quiet. Everyone had their audio books glued to their heads, wandering around solemnly taking in their surroundings – imagining the horror that took place there before them.
After liberation, many were weakened beyond recovery and continued to die. The details are unknown of exactly what happened in the immediate days following, but allegedly SS officers were murdered at the hands of the US forces after surrender in what is known today as the Dachau Massacre. Eye witness accounts even mention the officers being shot in the legs and left to be beaten to death by the avenging prisoners. No one was ever charged despite the direct violation of the Geneva Convention. It is still a controversial topic today as people debate the morality of both sides.
As the Dachau Concentration Camp was transformed into a historic site, memorials were erected to serve as a constant reminder of where we were as a world. I believe the idea is that if people know where we’ve been, we can avoid heading down that path again. It’s certainly a nice thought, one that I like to believe in myself. But apparently the whole idea of a planet without genocide is just too much to ask for now, maybe forever.
Visiting a concentration camp is an experience unlike any other. It was an emotionally draining day and one that I wouldn’t give back if you paid me. You don’t have to be a history buff and you don’t have to be fascinated by war to take something away from a visit to Dachau, you simply need to be human.
I hope you join me tomorrow as we wrap up my trip in Germany with Hitler’s Eagles Nest and a not to be missed tour of Berlin.
Thanks for reading,