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.