by Rita Forbes and Valerie German
A “culture of remembrance” is said to exist in Germany. Remembering the events of the Third Reich is a fundamental task and is accomplished in a variety of ways. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers tell stories to children. Holocaust survivors share their personal experiences with classes of schoolchildren. New books are published. Television shows, movies and documentaries are filmed. Monuments are still being built and restored. And the sites of mass murder are maintained today as places of remembrance and honor to the victims.
Dachau was the first concentration camp established under Hitler. Although it was considered a work camp rather than an extermination camp, more than 43,000 people died here. Nearly a quarter of the 200,000 who came through the gate never left.
|Visitors to Dachau walk through the same
gate as the prisoners who died there from
its opening in 1933 to its liberation by
American forces in 1945. It is now a memorial.
Today, tourists go in and out of that same gate freely. Instead of being brutalized by guards, visitors are courteously greeted by solemn tour guides. They reflect on the atrocities that once took place there. Now called a memorial site, there is no entrance fee to explore the grounds, the extensive museum, the reconstructed barracks, the crematorium and gas chamber, or to watch the 30-minute film documenting the horrors that occurred there. The German government holds that this information, these memories, should be available to everyone.
It seemed only fitting that it rained steadily the day we visited Dachau. It would feel wrong to experience comfort there. Perhaps for this same reason, there is nothing available to eat or drink. There are no benches, no chairs, scarcely any form of accommodation. This is not a tourist attraction. It is a place where we are to be confronted with evil.
The bus to the memorial site was filled with people from across the globe, speaking in many different languages. It reminded us of the impact the Nazis’ acts had on the entire world. Everyone, regardless of nationality, seemed to share an unspoken discomfort. An awkward air filled the bus. Perhaps we were all thinking the same thing: Is it right to visit such a place? Am I coming with the right motives or as a tourist, a voyeur? Why do I want to go here?
The somber mood grew more intense when we actually arrived at the camp. We were all silent.
Exiting the bus, we shuffled into queues organized by language. Josef Heimann, a soft-spoken young German in his final year of college, greeted our English-speaking group. His welcome was brief, just a simple introduction. The “tour” began immediately.
In the museum, Heimann described how the Nazis systematically engaged in “rape of personality,” worked their prisoners far beyond the limits of human endurance, performed grossly inhumane medical experiments and sadistically tortured and killed. The photographs – taken by the Nazis themselves – were so graphic, so horrible, that we found ourselves looking down at our feet as we walked through the exhibits. We heard the same horror stories and accounts commonly reported on Holocaust documentaries. However, this was so much different. We were there, standing on the same cold, wet, concrete floor. The same floor on which Hitler’s victims were degraded, tortured and murdered.
On the outside grounds of Dachau the mood of our group remained the same: silent, disgusted, shocked. As we stood in the cold rain, we imagined ourselves there 60 years ago. Heimann took us to the square where roll was called twice each day. What was it like to stand there, waiting to answer to your number, the only identity you were allowed? We entered the reconstructed barracks, imagined sharing one of those crowded, narrow beds. Forced to live like animals, with disease, lice and feces ever-present.
Most disturbing of all, we visited the gas chamber. What had the appearance of a locker room shower, with tile floors, walls and ceiling, also had a steel door and hoses instead of shower heads. In the adjacent room we forced ourselves to look at the ovens which burned thousands of bodies.
When the tour was over, we weren’t asked to visit the gift shop or reminded to pick up our photos at the exit. It was just over. Heimann said goodbye and our group dispersed.
No one smiled that day. There was not a laugh, never a moment of relief from the feeling of revulsion. Faces reflected constant feelings of nausea and confusion. Having this encounter changed our entire comprehension of what happened during the Holocaust. What had previously been unimaginable was suddenly more real than we could ever have thought possible.
On the day we visited Dachau, we weren’t tourists or voyeurs. We were mourners. We became a part of the culture of remembrance; we will carry those memories the rest of our lives and we too will pass them on.