This unassuming grate sits over a hole in the wall open to the outside, in a very special building twenty kilometers outside Munich. It was cold the day in early January that we visited, and so it was cold inside the building as well. As we struggled to stay warm in our layers and hats and gloves, I realized this was the perfect time of year to get a tiny glimpse of the misery of this place.
Dachau was a small, early prototype of what would become the Nazi’s “final solution”. Over 200,000 prisoners were housed there over its dozen year existence; at least 40,000 didn’t survive.
We walked the prison block first, a sobering place to begin. Conditions for these special prisoners were particularly bad, with harsh and cruel punishments reserved for political opponents of the Nazi regime. Next were more typical museum exhibits in the vast maintenance building. I spent over an hour reading numbing history and facts and individual prisoner stories when I finally realized that I was less than halfway through the exhibit. Overwhelmed, we exited into the bitter January sun, its angle low enough in the sky to give the courtyard where daily roll call was held an eerie reflection.
Next was a walk through a reconstructed barrack. Each long, low building housed 104 prisoners with one toilet and two sinks. A prisoner’s quote posted there stays with me still: “By midnight, the cold had chased away all chance of sleep.” Within the walled compound were 49 more concrete outlines where exact duplicates once stood, each housing their own 104 poor souls.
We walked past the three religious memorials erected on the site–Jewish, Catholic and Protestant–and then exited through a gate over a pretty little bridge and bubbling creek into an idyllic forest. Here, in this peaceful place, is where genocide happened.
“Think about how we died here.”
The crematorium was a low, rectangular building with five side-by-side rooms. Prisoners entered into a door on one end of the building. This first room was an entryway of sorts. It opened into the second room, the disrobing room. Here the prisoners removed their clothing and jewelry in preparation for a “shower”. The “shower room” was next. A windowless room, except for that grate to the outside and its twin, it was a grim place. Dark and surprisingly small and bare, it felt like evil had happened here. The door leading to the fourth room, below, was the only way out for the prisoners.
The fifth and final room was a mystery, as it served no obvious purpose: there were no more prisoners by this end of the building. With no sign explaining its purpose, and stripped of all but the shadows of the past, it was perhaps the most haunting of all.
We talked very little during our tour and took no photos of ourselves: it didn’t seem right. If I ever hear anyone question what happened here, I will tell them I’ve seen it. I read the stories of those who were murdered. I heard the statistics. I saw a tangible monument to man’s potential for cruelty and inhumanity. It’s sobering to realize that those who participated in this atrocity were little different than us and our neighbors. In today’s climate of sowing division and hatred, we have an obligation to take a stand against evil, and to forcefully and unanimously declare “Never Again”.
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” –Elie Wiesel
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” –Anne Frank