Thursday, June 21, 2012


On a recent trip to Germany, I met my future in-laws and discovered the rustic beauty of Bavaria.  The rolling hills.  The stunning lakes.  Countless Beer Gardens.  And, the glorious, wonderful people.  It's a magical place, complete with castles and plump, jolly characters, straight out of the storybooks.  But, hidden just miles from these beautiful sites, is a place that holds a much darker story -- a history that many people would like to forget.

This is Dachau...The first Nazi Concentration Camp.  And, a place both of my grandparents barely escaped with their lives.  This is not another lesson in the horrors of the Holocaust.  There are plenty of those.  This is just my personal story...The story of a descendent of Jewish survivors...The story of my first experience visiting the site where they were robbed of their childhoods.

As we walked, arm and arm, down the long winding path to the camp, my fiance and I were very nervous.  She had been here many times in the past.  But this time was different.  There is a sense of guilt felt by many Germans that anyone else simply cannot understand.  Her family had no involvement with the Nazi party.  And, even though her parents were babies when my grandparents were here, they still apologized to me.  My soon-to-be father-in-law told me he was embarrassed to be a German.

I didn't know how to feel.  The experience had been rather unremarkable so far -- people walking and smiling, the soft sounds of children's laughter in the distance, and a simple sign marking the direction of the memorial site.  Yet I also felt something in the pit of my stomach.  What was I going to see?  Would I be able to handle it?  Would my fiance understand the sadness that might come over me?

Once we entered the camp, it was like sensory overload.  I was just trying to decode everything I saw.   There were no emotions.  Just information gathering.  I tried to fit everything nicely into the puzzle in my head.  "Oh, there's a barrick!, and there's a guard tower" I nudged my fiance.  "This is the big open square where they marched everybody out to sounds of classical music."  She nodded.  I got upset.  "No, no.  Don't you understand how important this is?  My grandparents stood here.  This is where people were lined up, and murdered." 

I felt myself trying to convince her of the gravity of it all.  We entered a barrick and overheard an English tour.  "After the war, the rest of the barricks were burned down to kill the rampant disease.  This is the only one that still stands.  It was a model unit used by the SS to give visitors a false impression that inmates were treated humanely."

"The real units had no toilets.  Inmates would urinate and defecate on the ground."  "Did you hear that,"  I elbowed my fiance.  "Yes," she looked at me somewhat annoyed

We walked outside and I suggested we go look at some of the memorials.  There are plenty there.  Dachau was a camp that held not just Jews, but political prisoners, German resisters, and people of many faiths.  We walked up to a rather strange structure.  It looked like a jumble of metal with no real purpose.  We both commented on how ugly it was.  Then we overheard some passersby discussing the site.

It had actually been created by an artist to depict a common occurrence at the camp.  Prisoners who had given up on survival, starved and depressed, would simply walk into the electrified fence.  If the voltage didn't kill them, shots from the the guard tower would.

Suddenly I felt weak-kneed. And, a flood of emotions came over me.  Until this point, I had tried to convince myself of what I should be feeling.  But, now for the first time, I actually imagined my grandparents standing here.  The despair of their situation.  The hopelessness.  My grandmother often told me the only reason she survived was because she thought she might see her family again.  In reality, they had all been killed.

I looked at my fiance and she was teary-eyed.  Neither of us said anything.  She just took my arm and we walked on.

Before today, it had been been bright, sunny and scorching hot.  I can't explain why it was overcast the one day we chose to visit Dachau.  Cloudy and cool, a soft breeze and gentle mist in the air.  I don't believe in ghosts, or fate.  So, it must have been a coincidence.

We walked around the camp for a while.  My fiance reminded me to take some pictures.  And, I did.  Then we came to the spot I had been dreading.  The showers.  I had heard the stories before.  In college, I took a Holocaust history class, where everything was explained in graphic detail.  Prisoners were told to take off their clothes and enter the showers to clean themselves off.

Once they got inside, the doors were slammed shut, and a gas bomb was slid though a sliding door.  When people realized what was going on, they would claw and fight there way to the top, gasping for air.  Eventually, they would lose control of their bowels, before they would finally succumb.

We stood inside the gas chamber and I felt sick.  I thought I was going to throw up.  I didn't think about what happened there.  I couldn't.  I just felt the raw emotions.

Looking at the way the building was set up, you could see how systematic and well organized everything was.  There were two separate entrances.  The prisoners would enter a waiting room with instructions and benches to hold their clothes.

On the other side of the "shower" room was the crematorium, with a separate entrance for the SS.  The bodies were literally taken out of the gas chamber and shoveled right into the ovens to be cremated.

I don't think there is any way I could have known what I was going to experience at Dachau.  Even now I'm not sure how to explain it.  It's a part of the past that is so far removed from what Germany is today.  The people, the culture, the beautiful landscape.  These are the things that helped shape the wonderful person that I love.  But, Dachau does exist.  A piece of living, breathing history that is real.

Many would like to forget, not because they deny The Holocaust, but because it's easier not remember.  I see things differently.  This is not a sore spot in German history.  This is a sore spot in human-kind.  And, the greatest legacy we can offer, is never to forget.