I visited Dachau concentration camp memorial site today. I knew it wouldn’t be an enjoyable ‘ tourist’ destination. I was apprehensive about the visit and could happily not have gone. It is though, I believe, important to visit such places to remember, to never forget the past and confront the capacity and capability of each of us to impact the lives of others.
People who know me well know I’m sensitive to energy. Certain places have strong energy: some good, some not so. Having stood on battlefields at Pozieres, Culloden and Normandy and visited jails such as Port Arthur and the Old Melbourne Jail, where my emotions ran over unexpectedly, I knew to expect emotions to rise today as they had in these places. So I prepared myself for what I might encounter when I arrived at Dachau.
Nothing could have prepared me for the deep swelling emotion that arose in that place today.
I at once embraced the reverence and respect with which the memorial site is kept, as well as the fortitude and foresight of the survivors to demand a memorial, yet also shrank at the horror knowing people are capable of treating each other so very badly. I know atrocities still occur in the world today but my mind cannot fathom, understand nor comprehend how anyone can act with such callous disregard for another human being.
While only two of the thirty two barracks remain, the concrete bases of the other thirty create a chilling reminder of the atrocities that occurred here that perhaps the original buildings could not. Walking the great stretch of road where these barracks had been forced me to contemplate, to pay my respects, to pray and consider how I live my life.
The various chapels and memorials built by different religious denominations provided yet another sober reminder of the immeasurable suffering that occurred here as well as the strength of human spirit. The Protestant Church of Reconciliation stood in stark contrast to the regular right angled uniformity and organised structure of the camp. This church has broken and irregular walls. You step down into a courtyard that leads to the chapel itself that is a spiral with a lovely round space at its heart. I lit a candle and spent several silent moments in prayer and regained some sense of equilibrium that was soon to dissipate.
The tears rolled unbidden as I stepped into the rooms of the crematorium. Walking through the holding bays, shower rooms built as gas chambers and the oven room was greatly distressing and made worse by the photograph on the information board, showing large piles of human bodies stacked, like bales of wheat, outside these very rooms. My brain could not register the thinking and impetus behind the act that led to the horror depicted in this photograph, the horror I sensed in those rooms.
By the time I’d wandered through the museum and read the stories of individuals who died, the horrors endured by those who clung to life and the accounts of those soldiers who finally liberated the survivors, I was bodily numbed. My head thumped in pain and my heart was truly heavy in my chest. I felt as though I had been through a real ordeal. This heaviness and the distress I felt lasted for many hours. Only after a long walk in the crisp wind along a canal bordered by massive trees did my head and heart clear.
Why did I subject myself to this? As disturbing as these experiences are I believe, as many others do, that we must never forget. As a history teacher I was aware of the history of this place and others like it but being on site impacts in ways simple knowledge does not. It is sobering. It is important to ‘forgive but never forget’. It is also a reminder that intolerance in many forms is still alive and well today.
My visit to Dachau today was not enjoyable but I value the strong reminder that my words, actions or inaction can either cause harm to others or not. My visit today has raised my awareness and made me conscious of the importance of always respecting those I meet and interact with in this life. My visit today is a prompt that while there may be differences between us there are so many more ways in which we are similar and that love and compassion are necessities in this world. My visit today bought the words of the Dalai Lama to mind.
It is necessary to help others, not only in our prayers but in our daily lives. If we find we cannot help others the least we can do is to desist from harming them.
Our philosophy should always be kindness!