Sunday, July 3, 2016

Arbeit Macht Frei

In memory of Elie Wiesel. He said that he was a witness and that everyone who heard was a witness. These are my impressions of the Dachau concentration camp. I am a witness.

Three words. Arbeit macht frei. Work sets you free. These words hung over the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. This came to represent the horror of the Nazi concentrate camps. But now I was at the first and longest running camp in the Nazi's ultimate people disposal system. Repurposed from a WW1 munitions factory and upgraded by slave labor, Dachau, outside Munich, became the poster child for how it should be done. Other camps received Dachau trained officers as teachers.

I came to Munich from Nuremberg today. It was a short trip by train, which at times clocked 248kph. About 160mph. I was here early enough to check my backpack and venture out to explore.

I kept being drawn to Dachau.

Just as in Berlin, Germany could have just plowed under and paved over the concentration camp's concentration camp. But they didn't. They made it a monument. Many buildings are gone. Some were repurposed by the allies after the fighting stopped. Some are reconstructions.

It's hard to describe what I felt there. The buildings and grounds all seemed sanitized or sterilized, even. I expected to smell bleach from the ground. It was raining and there were few living things. The gravel on the paths held no straggling weeds. Nowhere were there bee’s nests or signs of opportunistic birds, though the harsh cawing of crows overhead was gnawing. At one point I crossed a bridge right outside the multiple defenses of the gate and spotted a swan on the water. I was compelled to take its picture. Here was life, there a vacuum.

The camp humiliated people on every level. From the strip delousing on arrival to being forced to keep their bunks and utensils immaculate. A sheet out of place or a water mark on a gruel bowl could earn you hours standing up in a chamber no bigger than you are or being hung by the wrists from a pole. Or so the posters in the barracks said. I don't doubt them, but the place felt deserted. It's as if the ghosts can't even stand to be there.

The prisoners, at first political prisoners but later all undesirables, eventually became slaves working in the munitions factories as the war turned against Germany. So they worked until they were exhausted then sent to the extermination camps with the rest of the unfit.

The main administration building was where things came alive. In cold narrative illustrated with letters and artifacts, room after room of displays brought you through the history of Dachau. From the early days when it was for Communists and other enemies of the state, to the time when prosecutors investigated what was taking place there. Murders had to be covered up as suicides. The German legal system was legitimately investigating the camps. Next prosecutions were dropped and judges were imprisoned in the same system they were investigating. Anyone could be an enemy of the state by then. Don’t look too closely. The abyss looks back.

Hitler ordered the camps closed in 1943. It almost happened, but then in 1944 they desperately needed the slave labor. Commandants were ordered to treat the prisoners better so they could work. The shining example of Dachau had to change. Now they were rewarded for the amount of work they got out of each prisoner instead of the number dead.

And there was so much more. The medical experiments to see which organs shut down first in ice water. That helped in treating downed pilots in the North Sea. The operations performed by unskilled SS guards. The prisoners who were doctors themselves who volunteered to treat the others until they succumbed. Diseases like typhoid that pressed the ovens to their limits, never mind the gas chambers. And little acts of defiance, or if not defiance, then simple camaraderie. People doing what they always do: come together in times of adversity.

Some people ran for the gates so they would be gunned down. Some shut down inside. And most died.

Now be a witness.

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