To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
– William Wordsworth, Lines Written in Early Spring
The gates of Dachau
What man has made of man
In high school, like every self-respecting teenage girl who would go on to be an English major, I went through a phase of adoring the romantic poets.
In “Lines Written in Early Spring”, Wordsworth meant the disconnect between the natural world and the civilized world, but I’m no believer in the intrinsic good of man, and the line “what man has made of man” stuck with me more as a comment on our capacity to choose darkness over light.
I don’t know why or how – The Diary of Anne Frank was too feel-good for me? – but it was also in high school that I discovered Elie Wiesel and read his autobiographical novels Night, Dawn, and Day, a trilogy about his experiences during and after the Holocaust. It’s also when I saw the documentary Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, who interviewed survivors, witnesses, SS officers.
In case I sound like an overly serious teenager here, I also read Judy Blume and crushed on Corey Hart. But from the taste of history we got in school, I didn’t understand what man had made of man. I thought that by learning more it would be understandable, beyond simply a glimpse of what evils man is capable of perpetrating.
When I found out this year that I was being sent to Munich for work in June, my colleagues who travel there regularly had two sightseeing suggestions for me: beer gardens, and Dachau. They knew nothing of my historical interest — or my distaste for beer — only that it was a powerful experience of a part of our history we should never forget.
I’m not German or Jewish, but the “our” is important.
The remnants of a guard house at Dachau
I arrived in Munich, a pretty, orderly city, to find it more modern than I expected, apart from the historic centre. But history is hard to ignore. As my Fodor’s guidebook says, “Munich will always be associated with Adolf Hitler. Indeed, he once remarked ‘Munich is the city closest to my heart. Here as a young man, as a soldier and as a politician I made my start.'”
Wandering around the city streets, surrounded by smiling and friendly Bavarians, walking through the cemetery by our hotel, those words stuck with me too. I know the story of World War II through my grandfather’s eyes, a man who helped liberate a Dutch town from the Nazis, but those German gravestones with years that spanned the war – what had the people beneath them thought, felt, done?
I reject the idea that there’s something in the German character that made the Holocaust possible — as do the results of experiments such as Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority figures. There is something in us that made the Holocaust possible, and it combined with a socio-economic climate and political force that centred it in Germany. The hatred and fear behind it went beyond those borders, and go beyond those borders today. Could it happen today? It does, on a smaller scale, in African countries we choose to ignore. And it could closer to home, given the right conditions.
The Jewish memorial, with a prayer room underground
On the plane to Munich I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a novel about African-American maids in 1960s Mississippi. Before I left I’d nearly finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, the true story of a black woman whose cells — unknown to her or her family — led to some of the greatest medical advancements, and whose family today can’t afford medical insurance.
Skloot dives into medical ethics, particularly the American medical community’s use of black patients for experimentation without consent. The infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment occurred at the same institute where Lacks’ cells were mass produced … and occurred after the Nuremberg Code, which came out of the Doctors’ Trial against prominent Nazi physicians.
However, the Nuremberg Code wasn’t law in either Germany or the United States. It outlined principles for human experimentation, including the need for informed consent and avoidance of unnecessary physical and mental suffering. Many American doctors in the Tuskegee and Henrietta Lacks era weren’t fully aware of the guidelines, or thought of it as a Nazi code meant for those monsters, not for them.
But what if we’re all monsters, at least a small, dark part of us?
A disturbing thought I had after reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was that at least part of what separates the Tuskegee and Nazi doctors from today’s scientists is regulation. A disturbing thought I had after visiting Dachau was that we try to separate ourselves from what we think of as inhuman acts, instead of examining what humanity is.
Behind the crematorium and gas chamber buildings
“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” – Elie Wiesel
The Dachau Memorial Site was established in 1965, through the efforts of survivors who didn’t want to allow history to be forgotten or relegated to a textbook.
Because I was in Munich for work, my options for visiting the site were on my first day in Germany or my last. I left it until last.
By that time, my coworkers had departed. I set off on my own to the lovely little town of Dachau, intending to join the guided group tour of the site. The train line was out of service that day so I arrived by bus to the terminal and chose to walk the half hour there.
The route from the station to the camp is the path prisoners took, lined with informational signs on the conditions in the camp and life in the town at the time – including how visible the prisoners were to townspeople.
Walking their path, trying to reconcile the beauty of my surroundings with the horrors of the past, recalling the words of Wiesel and Shoah, I found myself again feeling helpless to understand – not just the why of it, but the how of those lives who walked that path. My mind tried to put it in a familiar context. What if it were people I loved? If I had lived then and there, what choices would I have made? It’s unimaginable. I don’t want to imagine it.
By the time I got to the camp, through village parks, past the gorgeous former SS houses, I knew I couldn’t speak or be with others, especially strangers, so I decided to forgo the tour and wander on my own.
A sculpture based on the triangular patches used to identify the type of prisoner – Jewish, homosexual, Gypsy, etc.
You enter the Dachau Memorial Site through metal gates inscribed with the ironic Arbeit macht frei – work will set you free. Though it wasn’t one of the main death camps, Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp in Germany and the model for those to come.
Museum exhibits give detailed information about the history of the camp and the treatment of prisoners – initially political prisoners, but soon Jews, Gypsies, Sinti, homosexuals, clergy, and other undesirables.
The museum, housed in the former administration buildings, isn’t terribly sophisticated. The displays consist mostly of text and images, with a few personal effects from former prisoners. Yet hours passed as I passed in front of one panel after another, hand pressed to mouth as if keeping the words in, though there were no words.
A sculpure depicting the death marches, when prisoners were evacuated on foot from the camp prior to liberation
We all know the broad details from history lessons: the lack of nutrition and medical care, brutal beatings and torture, medical experimentation, overcrowding, the complete dehumanization that occurred within the camps and without, a dehumanization that allowed people to fear and hate the prisoners and turn a blind eye to what was happening in their town’s back yard.
Then, finally, liberation. US troops, horrified by what they saw, were accused of killing guards after they’d surrendered, though charges were dismissed before witnesses were called. They also brought townspeople in to help clean up the camp, to force them to witness the conditions in the camp first-hand, including the bodies stacked like cordwood in rooms next to the crematorium.
Still, once you get past the panels about liberation, the horror isn’t over. Survivors lived there for years after the war was over, with no homes to go back to and no countries who wanted them. Some Jews returned to their homes to find themselves still the target of virulent anti-Semitism. The war was over; the prejudice wasn’t.
A memorial sculpture outside the administration building
Outside the museum is the huge, empty roll call area where prisoners were made to stand motionless for hours. The area is flanked by barracks with reconstructed bunks — which toward the end of the war crammed several prisoners into each bed — and memorial sculptures.
Though Dachau wasn’t primarily an extermination camp, over 25,000 died there. There were crematoriums to dispose of the dead, primarily from disease and malnutrition resulting from overcrowding and mistreatment, and gas chambers.
Those numbers don’t represent the real death toll, however, since prisoners were often transported to other camps to be executed.
Behind the buildings that house the crematorium and gas chambers are wooded paths that were home to shooting ranges and mass graves, more juxtaposition of natural beauty and man-made horror to absorb.
The path behind the crematorium and gas chamber, lined with shooting ranges and mass graves
“To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.” – Elie Wiesel
On the grounds of Dachau there is a Jewish memorial, a Catholic memorial, the Protestant Church of Reconciliation, a Russian Orthodox chapel, and a Carmelite convent. If it’s difficult to reconcile nature with these atrocities, it’s even more difficult to reconcile religious belief with them.
In Night, Wiesel talks about the loss of faith: “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
But there has to be some hope out of such horror. I find hope in remembering the past, realizing that it’s part of us today, and understanding that we have the power to choose light over dark, day over night.