Visiting Dachau was deeply challenging.
If you have followed my blog or know me personally, you know that I spent the summer in Palestine and Israel several years ago. So much of the conflict, the existing trauma for both Israelis and Palestinians, is the festering remnant of a tragedy that unfolded hundreds of miles away–a tragedy that has forever scarred European history with its cold brutality and calculated violence.
A tragedy that perfected new methods of torture and control in the small town of Dachau, Germany.
Goosebumps crept up my arms and legs as we walked towards Dachau’s entrance. The wind pushed us fiercely in unmethodical waves. Though we visited in the dead of winter, it was an unusually warm day of 55 F and we weren’t facing any of January’s usual snow.
Yet, as I shivered in my warm jacket and boots, I could only imagine the biting chill of a true German winter. Captives lined up in paper thin uniforms, methodically crunching the snow-blanketed ground in ill-fitting wooden shoes.
Dachau began as a prison camp for Hitler’s political opponents with a capacity of holding up to 6,000. It evolved into an infamous model for the rest of the Nazi death camps.
It swelled well beyond its capacity, imprisoning tens of thousands of at once. Though Communists were the targeted group when it opened, Dachau soon held Jewish men from across Europe, resistance fighters, unyielding clergymen, Roma, gay men, and many others deemed unworthy of life by the Nazi regime.
Two crematoriums were built to keep up with the numbers of fathers, sons, brothers, and friends who lost their lives. Over 32,000 documented lives were ended at Dachau due to torture, neglect, sickness, and execution. It is unknown how many undocumented deaths occurred.
Death leaves a memory that can’t quite be put into words. The anguish of the human spirit and body contained within the walls of this wretched compound was tangible.
I’ve tried to recount what I felt, and I was left searching for an explanation. It’s like the shock that pummels your core after you’ve plunged into icy water; or of frozen fingers burning after being hastily thrust into warmth. It felt intrusive, uncomfortable, inescapable.
But there was also beauty. The silent protest of Hitler’s favored uniformity in the recently built memorials. The irony of life in the tall trees and gentle creek. The beauty of being allowed to remember, to mourn, and to recognize the tragedy of not only what occurred under the reign of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, but also the untold number of holocausts, mass killings, and imprisonment of the “other” across the world.
What follows is a series of photos I took on my iPhone and poems I wrote while on our train ride to Berlin the afternoon we left Dachau.
If there is one thing I can leave with you, it is what Dachau left with me: never forget. As humans, our capacity for horror is sobering and fearful. But God’s capacity for redemption is much richer and lasting than humanity’s fleeting tenures of terror.
With warm rays reaching down eagerly
To a land once filled with so much
Swallowing up the cold shadows
History has cast.
Long and lean,
Reflections of the men who stood
With shrunken limbs,
Covered in skin stretched thin
From deprivation, abuse.
Today, fresh and sweet.
But then overtaken by the
Smoke of lives
Extinguished and disposed.
A neat, sterile veneer.
A woeful contradiction
To the chaos and unfurling horrors
Each careful boundary.
Gilded by the birdsong and gentle brook.
But once marred by
The screams of the ruling Reich
And the (silent, bellowing, hopeful)
Cries of those despised.
Silent, unhurried, and still.
With branches reaching upwards,
Pointing away from the tragedies
Man commits against fellow man
Towards the everlasting source of life.
Of victims who should have never been,
Of losses never meant to be.
Stolen lives indignified by hatred,
(Beautiful lives, each & every one.)