Bearing Witness

We left Rothenburg this morning and drove to Dachau concentration camp near Munich, which was the first concentration camp, later used as a model for all future camps. Dachau was a work camp for political prisoners, also serving as a school of violence for the SS men. In the twelve years it existed before the liberation, this camp imprisoned over 200,000 people from all over Europe, the majority of which were Jewish, and the rest were a mix of people that were deemed non-compliant to the regime, including physically and mentally disabled, those of opposing political or social mindset, as well as homosexuals, and an estimated 41,500 died here, but the real numbers are impossible to know, just like the death toll of other such atrocities. Per the printed guide, “The Memorial Site on the grounds of the former concentration camp was established in 1965 on the initiative of and in accordance with the plans of the surviving prisoners who had joined together to form the Comite International de Dachau.”

While I knew that this would be difficult, I’m not sure that anything can prepare you to visit such a site. I have always wanted to visit one of the camps; not for curiosity sake, but for the greater humanitarian essence of bearing witness to what happened there. To stand on such hallowed ground, my single visit among the millions that have visited this same place, was perhaps insignificant in the greater context, yet it was an experience I will never forget. The original barracks have since been torn down, with two reconstructed as part of the memorial, and while I didn’t go into them, it was striking to see the rows of structure-less foundation walls where the original barracks stood. Our guide talked about the barracks, designed for 200 prisoners, eventually holding 2000 each, and everything that came with that type of over-crowding; the barbed wire and electric fence and the guard towers along the fence-line; the daily roll-calls, and how prisoners were identified by number and colored triangle patches to indicate their “offenses” (criminals, political views, homosexual, etc.), or the star of David for the Jewish prisoners.

We walked outside the fence-line to a separate area, away from the barracks in an attempt to keep it secret, but of course that was a complete fallacy — the crematorium. Walking into the building, where the deceased prisoners were cremated, and seeing the brick ovens, as well as the gas chamber to the side — it broke me. Nothing prepares you to walk into such a place, stand before those metal oven doors and see inside, and take in what happened there. Nothing.

I couldn’t photograph this visit. Many people do so. I made the personal choice that somehow doing so takes away from the experience. The sight of the place, the imagined sounds and smells, and feel of it — it is all permanently etched in the photographs of my mind.


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