Well, today provided a very somber experience. I guess one cannot really visit Germany without experiencing one of the concentration camps from the Nazi era. This is what we had on our agenda today. Dachau. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, Barry visited Germany last year and, as a high school teacher, is well read on these issues.
As for myself, I’ve obviously read about the concentration camps, but Barry filled in many of the blanks. Dachau was the first of the concentration camps and was not originally intended as a death center. Originally, it was for “processing” people for ultimate transit to other concentration camps where they would be tortured, gassed, shot or murdered in some other heinous fashion.
Walking through the gates of Dachau was a surreal experience. As one enters, the words “Work will set you free” in German greet you. I’ve heard of this “greeting” and seen it on TV many times. But witnessing it with my own two eyes was very troubling.
Upon entering the camp, one sees acres and acres of gravel. This was where the jews and other “prisoners” would be forced to stand, sometimes for hours. If it was hot, they were forced to wear overcoats. If it was cold, they were forced to wear only undergarments. If someone collapsed from the elements, they would be gleefully beaten, sometimes to death, by bloodthirsty guards. I was kind of sickened by the people who wanted their photos taken in front of this gate. Why would you want that??
There are actual barracks where people were kept. Actual bunks were still intact. With German precision, the bunks were all a uniform size and built. In this way, the guards could monitor whether or not a prisoner had altered the bunk in order to accommodate a different sized frame. If a prisoner did so, he was savagely beaten. Dachau was built for only a relative handful of prisoners, but was expanded to hold thousands more as the German killing machine entered full force. As the war lurched towards its conclusion and it became obvious that the Germans were losing, the camp, built to hold 10,000 people, was teeming with 63,000 prisoners until the Allied forces liberated them in the summer of 1945.
One of the buildings housed the history not just of Dachau, but the Nazi holocaust. It was in the reading of this history that I received a clearer picture of the unfettered depravity of this regime. I use strong words because the horror of that place (and the other murder camps) is greater than what we normally here on television or read in books. I believe the reason for this is because the story is so extensive with so many millions of victims, some of which survived, that the entirety of its revulsion cannot be adequately discussed with sound bites. Too, there is something chilling about standing in a building where people were gassed and beaten that is beyond mere words. Reading the history became overwhelming for me and Barry. As with the majesty of the cathedrals in Italy, our minds couldn’t accommodate what we were experiencing, only this was on a gargantuan scale of brutality and wickedness, the opposite of the peace and grandeur of a religious bastion.
I think what gripped me the most was the (dare I say it?) brilliance, efficiency or psychological efficacy the Germans employed towards destroying the human psyche. Women were kept away from the men and this decision was consternation for some men, one of who wrote a poem of how he missed the warmth and love of a woman’s touch or a mother’s word. Tortures were invented to annihilate people’s sense of self worth and dignity. This was what I found most chilling–the attempts to convince a person that he is subhuman and will be treated as such.
Yet, what I found to be liberating was the invincibility of the human spirit. Despite the tortures executed upon them, many people found it within themselves to create art, poetry and music in their suffering. They seemed to be insistent that the wretchedness of their situation and the behavior of their captors would not destroy who and what they were inside. I found that to be refreshing and encouraging and a beacon of hope. If these people could find or create beauty in a place so despicable, can’t we in our relative affluence and comfort?
I was also struck by the depravity of the human mind. Who thinks up this shit? What sick freak sits in his office and conjures up different ways to torture human beings? What madman spends his time contemplating psychological torture in order to destroy a person’s mind? And why don’t these lunatics figure out that, over the course of human history, no one has ever been able to permanently erase human dignity? I don’t mean to pontificate here. I just felt like expressing this profound experience. And I’m not arrogant enough to think that any trite little words I write haven’t already been uttered a million times over. Let this be a million and one.
I did almost get into another shouting match in the historical center. For those of you who know me, you’re not surprised and you will understand.
I had read an excerpt stating the reputation of Dachau was that of a fearful and terrifying place outside its walls. This caused me to think…did the general population of Germany know what was going on and, by knowing, tacitly approve? Why else would the reputation of Dachau be terrifying outside of its walls?
So I approached a handsome young man with an English accent. He was a tour guide so I figured he would be knowledgeable and able to help me with my question. I asked, “If Dachau was known outside its walls as a place of horror, wouldn’t that mean that the German people knew and, hence, approved of Nazi torture”? Before he could answer a young German guy (probably around twenty-five) interrupted and said, “What about Guantanamo”?
I said, “Excuse me? Guantanamo? I’m not supporting whatever happened at Guantanamo. At least Americans know what happened there because we have a free press. I’m asking about Dachau.” Before things got ugly, the English gentleman began explaining to me that the German media machine had hoodwinked the general public about the atrocities being committed in the name of ethnic purity and xenophobia.
But for the rest of the day I twisted in my shorts that I didn’t take down that stupid punk for uttering in the same breath the breadth of human suffering (six million Jews dead, eleven million dead total, responsibility for starting a world war where tens of millions more died, babies tortured, force abortions, medical experiments, entire communities murdered) with Guantanamo. While I deplore any type of human torture, this fool really needed some sense of proportion. Eventually, I wrote it off to his own humiliation and embarrassment.
What most people don’t know is that Jews were not the only victims of Nazi murder machine. Roma (gypsies), homosexuals, Poles, Jehovah’s Witnesses, were all murdered because they didn’t “conform” to the general view of ethnic purity. I was heartened when I read about the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were murdered. Because they refused to do the Nazi salute or recognize Hitler as Fuehrer, they were arrested and tortured. Despite their treatment, they managed to maintain their dignity and their faith, oftentimes helping other prisoners and even sharing what meager food they had.
Remember my comments about the indomitable human spirit? Humans 1, Nazis 0.
OK, I think I need to move on. After Dachau, we were in, understandably, a somber mood. So we walked and just let our feet take us wherever they led. We saw yet more churches and parks. I was impressed with the number of cathedrals in Munich. I guess I just normally assume only places like Rome are full of cathedrals. But that is obviously not the case. Munich’s are deliriously gorgeous.
I’ve noticed that each nation seems to have its own approach to Christian cathedrals. The architecture reflects the nation and society in which it is located and they are all breathtaking in their unique way. Unfortunately, it was impossible for me to even scratch the surface of touring these magnificent edifices.
I am also very impressed with the order of German society. With typical German precision, everything is organized and clean. Yes, there is graffiti, but the subways are immaculate. The trains are immaculate. The streets are immaculate. Restaurants and stores are orderly and clean. No wonder Germany is an icon of economic strength; I think it goes hand in hand with a sense of precision which is reflected in what they produce.
After walking around, I was getting hungry. It was my desire to go back to Hofbrauhaus for another barrel of beer with a dinner chaser and we did so. Afterwards, we went back to our hotel room to crash.
We have a slight change of itinerary. Originally we had planned to go to Kiev but we found it too expensive to travel there. Also, travel times were not terribly appealing and we didn’t want to waste so much time. As a result, we are now flying to Warsaw for two and a half days and then catching a flight out of Warsaw for Moscow. Saturday we leave for Bratislava.