Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Holocaust survivor Yehuda Bauer wrote: “The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”
The picture that you see above is the memorial to the Unknown Prisoner at Dachau. The words: “Den Toten zur Ehr, den Lebenden zur Mahnung” [To Honor the Dead, to Warn the Living] are engraved at its base.
Yesterday, Munich time, I took short excursion to Dachau in order to visit the Concentration Camp. I have been to Dachau a number of times beginning back in 1996. For me as a historian of the period the trip is both for learning and for meditation, for beyond its historical significance this is a holy place, a place made holy by the blood of tens of thousands of victims of one of the most evil regimes in history. The crimes committed by the staff of Totenkopfverbande SS guards from it’s inception were intended to terrorize and dehumanize the inmates who included political prisoners, religious objectors, Jews, and homosexuals. They were not there because they were convicted of any crimes, in fact many had actually been exonerated by courts, or had served what ever sentence they had been convicted of, but upon release were picked up by the SS and taken to Dachau.
Prisoners were told on arrival:
Here you are, and you’re not in a sanatorium! You’ll have got that already. Anyone who hasn’t grasped that will soon be made to. You can rely on that . . . You’re not prison inmates here, serving a sentence imposed by the courts, you’re just ‘prisoners’ pure and simple, and if you don’t know what that means, you’ll soon find out. You’re dishonourable and defenceless! You’re without rights! Your fate is a slave’s fate! Amen.
In the Camp they were subject to punishment for even the most minor or perceived infractions, beatings, whippings, and other punishments were meted out by guards who themselves were punished if they showed any mercy or human kindness to a prisoner. “While an offender sentenced to a term in prison knew when he was going to get out, release for the concentration camp inmate was determined by the whim of a quarterly review board, and could be delayed by the malice of any of the SS guards.”
Theodore Eicke, the commandant who systematized the Concentration Camp system created a world that his subordinate, and the later Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess described:
“It was Eicke’s intention that his SS-men, by means of continuous instruction and suitable orders concerning the dangerous criminality of the inmates, should be made basically ill-disposed towards the prisoners. They were to ‘treat them rough’, and to root out once and for all any sympathy they might feel for them. By such means, he succeeded in engendering in simple-natured men a hatred and antipathy for the prisoners which an outsider will find hard to imagine.”
Even a brutal man like Hoess found the brutality hard to watch, he recalled the “malicious evil-minded, basically bad, brutal, inferior, common creatures’ amongst the guards, who compensated for their sense of inferiority by venting their anger on the prisoners. The atmosphere of hatred was total.”
In the twelve years of its existence the staff of Dachau, through mistreatment, execution by bullet, gallows, through being used as subjects in grotesque medical experiments, by “execution by work,” or untreated illness and disease, murdered 41,566 prisoners. The point to be remembered is that despite this incredible number of murders that Dachau was not an extermination camp.
I took the S-Bahn from Munich-East to Dachau, a trip of about 30 minutes. While there I read the chapter in Richard Evans book Third Reich in Power that described the establishment and operations of Dachau and the other early Concentration Camps, from which all of the quotes above this are from. When I got off the train I had a choice of taking a bus to the camp or walking to it via the path known as the Weg des Erinnerns or Path of Remembrance. I chose the walk which was about two miles. Along it there were markers with parts of the history of Dachau and what the prisoners experienced from getting off a train to getting to the camp. The path winds through the town along the street now named Friedenstrasse, (Peace Street) and through John F. Kennedy Platz.
As I neared the camp the signs pointed out the SS Training School and housing for the SS guards. Then it left the paved road and went onto a trail which was uncovered in 2004. This trail is named Strasse der KZ – Opfer, or the Street of the Concentration Camp Victims, or perhaps better translated, “Sacrificial Victims” which was the path that the prisoners took from the SS barracks to the camp itself. It ended at the Hauptwache, the main guardhouse which also functioned as the entrance to the camp.
I went through the wrought iron gate with the cynical words Arbeit Mach Frei, work makes you free in the center of it. On entering to the right is the camp’s administration and headquarters building which now serves as a museum. Since I spent a lot of time at the museum last year I went left which took me down the western perimeter of the camp with its barbed wire fences and guard tower with the foundations of the camps prisoner barracks to my right.
Eventually I reached the location of the execution grounds and the crematorium. I had been there in 1996 but the weather was so cold and damp that I didn’t stay long and I have never found the pictures that I took then. Today I spent more time there, for it is truly the holy place in the camp. Even though there were a good number of people there, including a tour group, it was very quiet. I heard very few words as I walked the area. The first thing I did was to walk the execution grounds around the crematorium. In front of the building the former location of the camp gallows was marked. Behind the building was a memorial with a Star of David crowned with a Menorah and a marker to the thousands of unknown victims. Walking to the right of it down a gravel path that winds through a small grove of trees along the camp wall there were other markers to where the ashes of those murdered were unceremoniously deposited between 1933 and 1945.
But perhaps the most chilling marker was at the place where SS guards executed prisoners up close and personal with a pistol shot to the nape of the neck. The wall behind where they knelt still stands a long with the blood ditch. After that I walked to the crematorium. At the south end there is the delousing station. The camp was designed with a gas chamber for which there is no credible information of it ever being used. Instead, prisoners who were no longer fit for work were either given lethal injections in the infirmary, sent to extermination camps, or the former T4 Euthanasia site in Hardheim.
Had it been used the the procedure would have been much like the other camps where the unknowing prisoners walked in their camp uniforms which were then removed so they could go into a waiting area before they entered the “shower” or as it is marked over the entrance, the Brausbad. At Dachau this cynically named room was the a gas chamber that was designed to hold up to 150 prisoners. Once they were in the chamber the specially constructed doors which would make the chamber airtight were shut. Then SS men on the roof would release canisters of Zyklon-B gas into it. Within minutes the prisoners were dead, their bodies showing their final agony as many tried to escape the chamber. This was common at other camps as well as in the extermination camps.
Once the executioners had determined that the prisoners were dead and the gas was evacuated from the chamber, other prisoners would enter to remove the bodies to another waiting room, in which the bodies were staged before they were taken to the four chamber crematorium for cremation. Their ashes were then deposited in the areas nearby. At the end of the building another waiting room contained bodies of other prisoners who had been executed by pistol, or died of beatings, whippings, or disease.
The walk through those areas of the camp as well as the walk up the Path of Remembrance brought me close to tears at many points as I imagined what it must have been like. I was in a somber mood when I left that area and walked past the Russian Orthodox, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious shines along the north edge of the camp. I think that the Jewish one was the most poignant to me. Across it were the words of Psalm 9:21 in German, and as one walks down into it a hole at the top off the monument’s roof allows light to stream into the darkness.
Finishing that I walked down the eastern wall and fence, once again noticing the guard towers, but about halfway down I turned right and walked over to the center street between the rows of prisoner barracks, the street known as Appelallee where the prisoners were assembled multiple times per day for head count and inspection purposes. As I walked down that street which is now lined with trees and markers denoting which prisoner block was at each spot I could almost see the images of the emaciated prisoners falling out for inspection and their brutal guards.
Finally I arrived back at the area in front of the headquarters building which due to a recent commemoration was decorated with wreaths from the German government, the State of Bavaria, Israel, Romania, and other nations. The words Never Again were prominently displayed. As I walked out of the camp I saw a dedication in English, German, French, and Russian which said:
May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted Naziism – help to unite the living for the defense of peace, and freedom and in respect for their fellow man.
I left the camp and decided to take the bus back to the train station where twenty minutes later I was back on a S-Bahn train to Munich.
You may wonder why I took the time to go into such detail about this walk. The answer is the same that I choose to walk civil war battlefields, it is to being to try to understand what the people there were seeing and experiencing. Of course there were the prisoners who were so savagely treated by their jailers. Then there were the bystanders, the citizens of Dachau and other German cities who watched as Jews, political enemies, and others were marched to the camp, which was not a secret installation. Finally, there were the perpetrators, very few of whom were punished for their actions.
But another reason is that the survivors, be they victims, perpetrators, or bystanders are rapidly passing away. Soon none will be left. When that happens it is up to us the living to ensure that this is not forgotten and that those murdered at Dachau, the other Concentration Camps, the extermination camps, and those killed by the murder squads that went from one end of Europe to the other in a systematic attempt to wipe every Jew that they could find off of the face of the earth. Yes, there were other victims, but the Nazi crusade against the Jews knew no boundaries, physical or time included. Unlike every other genocide it extended beyond national borders, or time; it was an eschatological crusade that by the will of Hitler was limited by only one factor, the complete military defeat that was inflicted on Nazi Germany by those who she attacked.
Finally, the story must be told because there are those who either claim it didn’t happen, or are tired of talking about it. In Germany those include leaders of the new-Nazi AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party. In the United States, Britain, and other nations there are members of many new-Nazi and Alt-Right groups who desire very much the same thing, but if decent people decide not to speak out, if we remain silent, there is nothing anywhere that will keep these ideological descendants of Hitler from beginning it again, if not to the Jews, to other despised racial, religious, ethnic, or ideological groups. We live in a world where demagogues take advantage of people’s legitimate anxieties and deeply ingrained prejudices to stir up ungodly anger and hatred in order to both gain new followers and to incite those followers to a campaign of violence.
Doctor Timothy Snyder wrote:
“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”
Today among other things I will visit sites associated with Sophie Scholl. She was a young Christian college student who led the opposition group the White Rose, which during 1941-1943 attempted to tell the truth about what the Nazis were doing. They were found out, and most after trial were beheaded in Munich. There is a small marker to her and the group just about a block from the hotel on the wall of a building. Her grave is in a cemetery less than a mile from the hotel.
The one thing about Germany as opposed to other nations, including Japan in China, Korea, and much of Asia, Russia and the mass exterminations of Stalin’s time, Belgium in the Congo, Britain in many of its colonies, much of Eastern Europe, Turkey, and yes, even the United States has faced its responsibility to remember the victims of their most evil and lawless government. If only other nations would take such deliberate steps to acknowledge their crimes. It may have taken over a generation for that to become a part of Germany’s being and part of their moral voice today. In Germany the monuments stand not to the perpetrators, but to the victims. An they are not just monuments, dedicated to memory, but the German words Denkmal and gedenkstatte contain the German word for think, meaning that they are not just there for people to remember a mythological past, but rather to be a part of the now living the history of those days for the living to ponder and to serve as a warning that it can happen again.
In a world where nothing is guaranteed and where those who deny or minimize the Holocaust attempt to find legitimacy and to silence good people I have to speak up. I cannot allow myself to become a bystander and let it all happen again, not to the Jews or anyone else.
So until tomorrow,