Work Makes You Free

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via Flickr – Milivoj Sherrington

Today I experienced Dachau Concentration camp and it was as absolutely as emotionally draining as you can imagine. Actually, our tour guide pointed out to us that during her training they said to avoid the word “imagine” during any description, because there is no possible way that someone could fully understand the absolute horror of the concentration camps.

Today was our warmest so far in Germany, but the chills were continuous as we read, heard, and saw the deeper workings of the concentration camp.

Entering Dachau there is a gate that reads “Arbeit macht frei” translating to work will make you free.  The meaning of this is great and varying depending on the background of the reader. The people of the town, when touring the concentration camp during the war, saw this as a positive and constructive statement…that if the members of the camp worked hard enough they would be rehabilitated back into society for their wrongs they committed. For the prisoners of the camp, who did no wrong, it meant working themselves to death so their soul had a possibility of escaping the camp. The morbid and disturbing irony is not lost on present day visitors to the memorial.

The energy the camp emanates is impossible to put into words.

After walking through the main gates my eyes scanned the barren and desolate gravel square where roll call was taken day and night.  It was haunting and eerie, but I’m sure all of the spirits of the victims have long since moved onwards as they acquired the freedom they rightfully deserved.

The goal of the camps was to dehumanize and break the spirit of any person who entered the gates. The victims were referred to by a number and the psychological torture they endured was endless. Their heads were shaved, their possessions taken, and any comforts humans experienced were removed. In the Nazis book they were below animals, and honestly, more worthless than the ground those animals walked on. The prisoners were given identical uniforms; the pants had pockets that were unable to be used. If a prisoner was caught with their hands in their pockets they were subject to extreme punishment that had the possibility of resulting in death. The first set of barracks had shelves above the beds to remind the incoming that they were possession less and unworthy. The mind games, cruelty, and inhumanity of the Nazis is indescribable.

The entire time I was walking through the camp I felt ill, the Nazis were humans and the victims were humans. How can this kind of inhumanity exist in such a recent past? The ranking of humans based on political affiliation, skin color, religion, and nationality being used as a base for worthiness of life is once again inconceivable.  But as Miep Gies (one of the individuals who hid Anne Frank’s family) said “I certainly think that another Holocaust can happen again. It did already occur; think of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia”. It is not so much the recent past, but the living present.

I found myself again, near tears as we walked through the crematorium and gas chambers. The door was labeled “showers” so that the guards would not be met with resistance as they filed the unclothed masses into the chamber. One “shower head” remains in the gas chamber of Dachau, and seeing it and trying to understand the deception that was experienced before someone took their last breaths was unbearable. The following room was the crematory where 3 bodies would be put into the oven at a time. Towards the end of the war the supply of coal was cut off and the ground was too cold to dig holes so the piles of skeleton-like bodies began to stack up higher and higher around the camp. These are the photos that are often seen when you look up information about how the camps were found at the time of liberation.

During the time in the camp I found myself upset that there wasn’t an age minimum for entrance, seeing children the age of 5 running around laughing and enjoying the sun is one of the most ironically disgusting things I’ve ever experienced. I saw the kids dragging each other across the grass, and playing as children play. The same grass that a prisoner of the camp, needed to only set one toe on in order to be shot multiple times with a machine gun that was aimed to kill. Stepping on the grass was suicidal for the victims of Dachau, and I don’t think it was right that it was trampled by wide eyed and naive children who don’t understand the value of treading on that area of land and being able to live to see another day.

I want so terribly to be able to fluently write and be able to portray what I experienced today by walking through the same doors and hallways as the victims of Dachau, but I find myself at a loss of words as my stomach turns and my head begins to spin just as it did as I stood in the camp. I can’t organize my thoughts, and I surely can’t organize this post. All of the history books and movies in the world could not suffice for walking on the ground of the unlucky people who were forced into this fight for survival.

I want to move on to the memorials that are now present within the camp. There are buildings dedicated to Catholics, Protestants, Russian-orthodox, and Jews. I’m going to describe the two that resonated with me the most:

The Jewish memorial was a set of stairs leading down to a prayer alter roughly six feet below the ground resulting in pitch darkness. Above the prayer table there is an opening in the ceiling that allows the light of day into the room symbolizing that even in the darkest of times, hope is present.

The Protestant Church of Reconciliation. This building is broken and irregular and void of any sort of right angle or sense of order. This is to counteract the lifestyle the Nazis inflicted on the victims of both the tight and precise right corners of the swastika as well as the right-angled barracks and straight lines that needed to be present in order to escape punishment.

via Flickr - ho visto nina volare
via Flickr – ho visto nina volare

And finally, the most striking memorial, in my opinion, was outside of the crematorium and gas chamber their stands a statue that at first glance looks like a prisoner, but upon further inspection is a free man. The tell tale signs of a prisoner are a straight backed stance, hands out of pockets, eyes facing down, and face in line with the rest of their body. This man had a causal stance with his hands in his pockets as his eyes looked off to the left into the distance. Below the statue there was a message that translates “To honor the dead and to warn the living”.

This memorial will forever instill in me the horror that humanity is capable of. It is also important to remember that in these times of darkness the victims of the camp managed to shine a light on each other, by giving a hand to their fellow prisoners, by showing the incoming people the ways of the camp, or by carrying their fellow man to roll call so they wouldn’t suffer the consequences of being counted missing.

Humanity is never completely lost. TC mark

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