One month ago today, on a cloudy, overcast Sunday afternoon, I stepped through a cast iron gate proclaiming the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
Work sets you free — that’s what it means in English — but if we’ve learned anything from history, library books, museum displays and yes, even the internet, we know the people imprisoned behind those cast iron gates could never do enough to gain their freedom.
For three hours on that Sunday, I walked through buildings, across the open space of the graveled yard, along the barbed wire fencing and into the back corner of the property where, surrounded by trees, stood the brick crematoriums. There are two of them: the original building that proved far inadequate, and the larger facility used to incinerate thousands upon thousands of people from 1933 to April 29, 1945.
This is the Dachau Concentration Camp.
It’s unknown just how many people died here — people singled out by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis) and its leader, Adolf Hitler — but varying reports put the totals in a range of just under 32,000 to more than 238,000.
Why would I ever want to see such a place?
It’s a question I was asked when I first visited Crailsheim, Germany three years ago, and to a lesser extent on my recent visit.
Why? It’s history. It’s about seeking understanding — even when there is no understanding to gain. How, in this world, can there be such disregard for human life?
My Crailsheim friends, Elfriede and Wolfgang Kohr, have taken guests to the concentration camp at Dachau four or five times.
“It should be seen,” said Elfriede. Inside the camp, that sentiment was expressed on one of the monuments. The people who died there should not die in vain.
History should be remembered so it isn’t repeated.
I left Dachau with a heavy heart. I don’t regret visiting, not for a minute, but I won’t need to return.
Of all the information, images and audio recordings bombarding me inside the camp, an image has settled in my mind of a Jewish man in black-and-white-striped attire. He appears in three side-by-side images. In the first, his eyes are wide open and there’s a hint of a smile. I wonder, was he ordered to smile for the camera? His eyes bore into mine. I imagine the sadness, the pain. In the second image, his eyes are nearly closed, his mouth is starting to droop. By the third image, he seems lifeless. Is he dead? Is he unconscious? I don’t know, but I know that I hate what happened to him. I hate what happened at Dachau.
And back here at home, as my television screen recently flashed images of hate in Charlottesville, Va. — of young white nationalists chanting “Jews will not replace us”; of one waving a Nazi flag — someone says to me, “You aren’t born with hate, you learn it.”
Indeed, we all learn hatred.
Can it be unlearned? Can we learn something from history?