Visiting Dachau Concentration Camp proved to be one of the most emotionally-wrenching experiences I have ever encountered.
I made it a point on my Germany trip to visit Dachau, one of the most notorious of all Nazi concentration camps. I knew I would encounter evidence of injustice. The gas chamber and ovens were expected, even though that was not the primary purpose of Dachau.
But I wasn’t prepared for seeing the order and efficiency of it all, like a well-oiled Mercedes Benz. And the fact that as World War II drew to an end, Germans tried to destroy the evidence.
This trip report has been paused for several days as I thought about how to address this place. It occurred to me that today is Memorial Day in the USA, a day in which we remember those who lost their lives defending the nation. It was the American Army that liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945 and many men died enroute to that moment of jubilation and horror.
Enroute to Dachau, 30 railroad cars full of human bodies were found. Three days earlier, sensing imminent defeat, Germans rounded up 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, and began marching them south toward Tegernsee. Those who became exhausted were shot by their Nazi captors. Others died of starvation or cold. It was not until later in May 1945 that Americans liberated the surviving prisoners from that death march.
Why march them away? Why not run when it was clear the war was over and Germany had lost?
Guilt. The repressed but resilient human conscience.
The Germans created a ruthlessly-efficient killing machine and kept well-documented records of everything. As the end of the war drew near, German forces sought to cover up their crimes. They sought to destroy what they had branded as just and pure throughout the war. For deep down, they knew what they were doing was wrong.
Real men cry. Jesus cried. I cried. I could not help it. Dachau, in ways so visible and so jarring, marks the pinnacle of human depravity. My four-year-old son Augustine was there and Heidi and I wondered what his reaction would be. Would it all just go over his head?
No. He got it. We stopped to explain, sometimes in graphic detail, what had occurred in this camp. And the sorts of probing questions he asked validated that he understood what had occurred. The lessons for a four-year-old are not always the same lessons for adults, but here it was quite clear: humans lie. Humans hurt. Humans murder. There is evil in this world. Isaiah 59 is such a harrowing chapter of the Hebrew Bible that captures this.
That’s not the whole story. In my Christian faith, the ultimate answer to sin is the promise of Jesus. Yet sin and the problem of evil is something that cannot be ignored or whitewashed. We must confront it head on, even with great pain.
During the War, on top of the main camp building was the following inscription:
There is a path to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, diligence, honesty, orderliness, cleanliness, sobriety, truthfulness, readiness to make sacrifices and love of the fatherland.
It was all a lie. May we not close our eyes to the truth around us.
This is part of my summer in Germany trip report.
If you thought Dachau was emotionally wrenching, I suggest you plan a visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau (easily accessed from nearby Krakow, Poland). Makes Dachau pale by comparison.
Everyone should visit these places.
Yes indeed. And I did visit Auschwitz – Birkenau. Will offer my reflections on that at a later point.
Did you have someone take your B&W photo there too?
You should visit Auschwitz and DACHAU will seem like a supermini version. The railway track on Auschwitz and standing at the exact drop-off point where millions came and were murdered. I will never forget that feeling.
I’ve been there – I went more recently and haven’t written that trip report yet. I will. Indeed, it was so incredibly sobering.
Not sure if taking 4 yo to KZ is the best idea. IF he get it he might get some trauma for later in life. Probably the best would be if he does not get it. The pictures on exhibition are definitely not for 4 y old. It is like robbing the kid of childhood innocence or nativity. Not sure if i express myself properly. There will be plenty of time to explain horrors of war later. Just my opinion.
That’s a fair point – and certainly one we considered. In other ways, we shelter Augustine greatly: no TV, no movies, no internet…we won’t block him from that forever, but he doesn’t get that at home. But Augustine has learned about all sorts of horror as told in the Bible and we felt he was ready for a firsthand look at human depravity, especially because he is a German citizen. Our parenting approach in some ways is laissez faire…we give him an immense amount of freedom in our home to go outside and explore as he sees fit. But with that freedom comes responsibility and we drilled into him not just to “look both ways before crossing” but demonstrated visually by running over a watermelon with our car to show him what would happen if he runs around without looking and gets hit. Some may say that is robbing him of his innocence, but we believe it is helping him to grasp the importance of his decisions even at an early age. He’s five now and was more than halfway to five when the trip took place. We’ve witnessed a huge leap in maturity between age 4.5 and 5.5. Still, we try to balance helping him to develop into a responsible citizen and sheltering him from what he does not need to deal with at this young point in his life.
I went to Sachsenhausen this year – one thing that I really felt happy with was seeing German schoolkids visit the camp as part of their education. Only way to prevent this from happening is to show youth what happened.
Thank you Matthew for writing about this. I appreciate your insight on what went on and hope that your article makes some people give thought to what was lost and take steps to prevent the hate and lies that allowed this to happen. Unfortunately, we see the blatant lies being pushed by those wanting to commit genocide again and we witness those who prefer to play along and work again on a Final Solution. They should know that they will never succeed and G-D takes account of every deed and every thought.
Matthew – Thank you for wearing your heart on your sleeve in this article (and in the comments), you’re a good dad and a good human being – and an outstanding writer. I feel the same way as you – felt similar when I visited Dachau when studying abroad as a 20-year old, but now as a 44yr old father of 2 young ones, seeing the skin and bones picture of the innocent children….I can’t finish this sentence—just a blur of rage and tears (and shame, for writing this while my kids are safe). Pls do more of this…don’t hold back
“running over a watermelon with our car”, love it. Good for you. Sticking with fruit analogies, maybe it’s time to show him what happens when you drop a cantaloupe off the roof of your house onto pavement.
Any visits to the Aktion Reinhard camps, where the absolute worst of the worst occurred (Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor)?
Those may be harder to take your kids to though, as those camps were destroyed either during the revolts or to cover up the crime. Would be harder to understand the context
Millions of people today are tortured in the U.S. jail and prison system because of drug laws, tax laws, or other arbitrary rules the public doesn’t agree to. Consent of the governed was discussed in the Declaration of Independence and it is ignored. 100 million people were murdered by the soviet communists over a 70 year period that the Germans heroically fought in WWII. Don’t fall for the propaganda that generates billions in profit every year from Hollywood movies to books. Throughout history, many groups were subject to abuses like the Armenians, the Christians in western Anatolia by the ottoman Turks, and the Vietnamese by U.S. militarization. Several million communists were arrested by the Germans during a time of war. The U.S. government did the same thing to the Japanese who were thought to pose a threat, although when the war is 4000 miles away instead of 500 miles away it is much easier to provider better accommodations.
Whoa, where to start?
+1. A graduate level course in what about-ism. This isn’t some weird competition.
“I’ll take ‘All About Off-Topic’ for 500, Alex.”…
I was with the 45th Division at the Dachau liberation and slept in the SS officers quarters that night. Give me an email address and I’ll send you my recollections and research. Thank you.\
Dan P. Dougherty
I’ve sent you an email.
See here: https://www.austindailyherald.com/2020/04/liberation-of-the-dachau-concentration-camp/
Thank you for this report on your trip to Dachau. I was so pleasantly surprised to hear you speak of our beloved Lord Jesus and your perspective as a fellow Christian on this most unpleasant place.
Thanks for the sobering but relevant review. This reminds me of The Killing Fields in Cambodia. It’s just so tough to comprehend that degree of evil.
And still, we have some who insist that these horrors never happened!
Worse, we have, at least here in the States, those who literally worship and aspire to imitate the perps! 🙁
I guess it was only “somber” when you visited part of the biggest holocaust in human history (transatlantic slave trade), the “door of no return”. Sounds about white!
Try reading beyond the title, but thanks for the mention—
So easy to find depravity on display, isn’t it?
And today we have the zionists treating the Palestinians in the extract same manner!
I totally agree, the irony of that is never lost on me.
I’ve been to a few of these places, each moving in a different way but all horrific.
Belsen was the first one, a mate was with the British Army on the Rhine and stationed near there, a building on the site had been the Belsen SS Officers Mess, a very chilling place to go even if it was then a grocery store. There’s no building there now, just great big mounds with the numbers buried in stone on the sides.
Dachau came next. What got me there were the graphic accounts of arrivals, strip, shaved, showered, searched then beaten, the whip on your arse was the norm and then prison garb and work.
Sachenhausen, a huge sense of hopelessness, the executions, the bleakness, the graphic accounts of those imprisoned there.
and finally Auschwitz. The vastness of it, the sight of the railway arch for the first time. The walk from the train stop to the gas chamber and the scale of the gas chambers and crematoriums, I didn’t sleep for quite a few nights after being there lying awake in horror at the efficiency of the killing machine.
And if you’ve never been, there’s a house on the shore of Wannsee in south west Berlin, it’s a nice suburb, easily reached on the S-Bahn and then either a walk or bus ride that takes you to the villa where the final solution was discussed and you can sit in the room where the decisions were made. It’s perfectly in tact and chills you to the bone.