Stages of Guilt

I have six weekends left before I leave, two of which were already planned and one of which is Christmas weekend. To try to fit in as much as I could, my original thought for this weekend was to go to northern Germany, but I was pretty badly sleep deprived this week and ended up not planning enough to make me feel comfortable with such a longer trip. I decided to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp and the Unimog Museum instead. This is going to be a deeper post than most I’ve written, and there are no pictures of mountains or cathedrals. If you’ve come looking for “Week Six in the Alps,” you should turn away now. ;-)

I wasn’t planning to spend much time talking about Dachau. I felt that the existence of the memorial should be enough; I reasoned that I could just flash a picture or two of various places in the Memorial and people would understand the undertones. I tried to use the fog present through the whole day to my advantage in portraying the Memorial, but it wasn’t until I started going through the pictures that I figured out what it was that didn’t sit quite right with me when I was actually there: I had felt detached.

It looks terrible written, but let me explain what I mean. It wasn’t that it didn’t feel real or that I wondered if the concept of concentration camps was a big deal; I’ve been to similar memorials — in particular, the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall — and know very intimately that this happened and that I’m affected by such memorials every time I go. The reason I used the word “detached” is that my experience, while surreal and immediately humbling, started off purely on free will. I drove my own car at a time that I chose to go to the facility, and then I parked the car and took my time getting from the parking lot to the entrance. I thought the film highlighting what happened at Dachau would be a good way to get an overview of the grounds, so I then ate lunch to help pass the time until the film started. How many of these luxuries did the prisoners have when they arrived at Dachau?

After the film, I went outside and crossed the roll-call area to the reconstructed barracks. There, they showed the quarters of the inmates, and with relatively new wood and only visitors present, the place seemed almost embarrassingly habitable. Time to check perspectives: living conditions weren’t nearly as nice as these clean, organized examples showed. 2000 people were routinely crushed into a room meant to sleep 200, and a lack of hygiene that would already have made living with “just” 199 others unbearable would just be another checkmark toward the goal of complete denial of self worth.

With the exception of the two reconstructed ones, the remaining barracks had been torn down, but their foundations were left intact — perhaps as a quiet reminder of what had once stood upon them. Dachau has enough demons to make any visitor naturally contemplative. The dense fog made the entire grounds seem even more foreboding.

     

Seven guard towers surround Dachau. Guards were instructed to shoot anyone who attempted to leave; some left in order to escape the misery.

At the far end of what is today the memorial grounds (the actual site was even bigger) sits the crematorium. By this point in going through the photos, I felt sick to my stomach. The presence of other visitors and the biting cold kept me from thoroughly evaluating the weight of what I was seeing — bouts of denial, you might even call it — but again, consider the aspect of the choice I referenced earlier. I walked into this building voluntarily, knowing what it contained seventy years ago. At that time, prisoners were brought here because they had succumbed to illness, malnutrition, or unspeakable physical abuse. To the best of historians’ knowledge, they were dead when they arrived, and they died for incomprehensible reasons. Can the disparity get any larger?

Let me be absolutely clear that I didn’t saunter into this memorial and think that nothing bad had happened here. I did go in quiet reverence, pausing to consider what had been done and wondering what really lay beneath my feet, but I didn’t expect the photos I took to make me consider the situation even more afterwards. Normally, when writing blog posts I reflect on what I did. This time, I’m reflecting again on the twelve year span to which the memorial pays homage.

The Memorial’s entrance and information desk is simple. The building is white and brightly lit, both from natural light and from plenty of lighting fixtures. It seems to be a quiet, simple reminder of the atrocity that created on these grounds nearly eighty years ago.

May we, as humans who are capable of higher thought, never allow anything so terrible to happen again and never let the innocuous feeling of denial settle before expunging it with all we have.

Stages of Guilt

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