The next day we arrived in Munich, which as I said I had been dreading. We had to promise one thing to go on the trip. When we stopped in Munich for 2 days, 1 of those days had to be spent in Dachau. That morning, we woke up and all shuffled to the lobby for a trip that would change the rest of my life.
While most people have heard of Auschwitz and the 1.3 million people murdered or starved to death there, most are not familiar with Dachau. Auschwitz's Concentration Camp, to give you a brief understanding, was not even constructed until after September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. The first victims were the inhabitants of the small town of Oświęcim, the real name for the town that the Germans already called Auschwitz. It was completely destroyed to make room for what would become the largest concentration camp in the Third Reich. It consisted of 3 compounds. Auschwitz I served as the base camp. According to Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, Auschwitz II was "the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe" and the first large scale death camp designed solely for that purpose. Auschwitz III served as a labor camp. Because the surrounding town had been completely demolished, there were no "neighbors", no people to help. Just those who worked at the compound and their families would have been "outside witnesses".
Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany and took office on January 30, 1933. Dachau, in comparison with Auschwitz, was much smaller and one of the first 4 camps built for political prisoners and opened on March 23, 1933. Those initial political prisoners were murdered in 1934 and replaced by Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and emigrants. A new, larger camp was constructed in 1937 with a capacity of 6,000 and more political prisoners arrived along with the first Jewish prisoners, 11,000 of them from Germany and Austria in November of 1938. In 1939, the Sinti and Roma came to "reside" there as well and in 1940 13,000 Polish came to the camp. Mass shootings of 4,000 Soviet Union Prisoners of War in 1941, 2,500 "invalid transports" were killed by gas in 1942, and 10,000 Jewish prisoners were killed "though work" in 1944. There were also medical experiments conducted on prisoners for 3 years before the camp was liberated on April 29, 1945 by the US Army.
When you entered the camp there was something in the air that just froze you in place. It was as if you could feel the horrors emanating from the ground and the very air around you. Walking the lines of the barracks, seeing the roll call area, and looking at the displays of enlarged photographs was sobering but there was nothing to explain, there are no words for what it felt like as you walked past the rows of barracks knowing you were heading toward the crematorium.
On the way to the back, there are buildings I was not expecting to see. After going to the crematorium and attempting to mentally process what I was seeing and hearing I went to these small buildings. I am still humbled at seeing, right next to that crematorium and the barracks 5 religious facilities erected after the liberation. The first, the Catholic Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel (1960), followed by a Carmelite Convent (1964), Protestant Church of Reconciliation (1967), Jewish Memorial (1967), and the newly built Russian Orthodox Chapel (1995). I remember going into the Catholic Chapel and sitting in the pew trying to wrap my brain around what I was witnessing and the horrors that had occurred in that spot.
As I walked back up past the barracks to the main building where the memorial is now housed in the former SS Officers building I remember looking beyond the fence and it dawning on me.
There were houses there. Houses that would have been there prior to 1940. Homes that people lived in, where children played. People that were RIGHT THERE and did nothing. An elected official took that land from those people and killed tens of thousands of human beings in someone's backyard.
You may have noticed the date of this post. Today is July 4, 2013, Independence Day for the United States of America. A day when we celebrate throwing off tyranny and clothing ourselves with liberty, truth, and justice. In 1932, those same families were free to say no. In 1933, they were powerless. It happened in the blink of an eye.