Saturday, January 6, 2007

Dachau: the original German concentration camp

Originally posted 12-20-06

I flew into Germany yesterday to spend time with my family over the Holidays. My father had been sick and had been put in the hospital for a large kidney blockage, so he wasn't able to come to the airport, and because my mother had to go get him from the hospital, she needed us to go do something to pass some time until she could get back home.

About 10 years ago, in between my sophomore and junior year of high school, my family took a trip to Dachau. At the time, I was very interested in Jewish history and especially the horrors of World War II. In saying that, I wasn't interested in finding entertainment, but to remind myself of those horrors. We couldn't get enough time away to go all the way to Auschwitz, so we went to Dachau, which is another famous concentration camp in Germany.

Yesterday, we needed something to do, so we decided that Dachau was on the way, and my wife had never seen anything like that and she really wanted to see it, so we headed to Dachau.

Dachau was the original German concentration camp. It was with Dachau that the Third Reich found their model for what other concentration camps would be. Originally, when the camp opened in 1933, it was simply for political prisoners: people who took an active, vocal stand against Hitler were herded up and put in this camp. And it wasn't pretty. Then, when the Third Reich began what they called their Final Solution (i.e., let's kill all the people who don't look like us), the concentration camps that had been for political prisoners now housed - and killed - everyone.

As we walked into the camp again yesterday, I was struck, again, with a feeling of oppression. As I looked across this open lot with gravel grounding - these wide open spaces where I can only assume men were shot and killed for simply being different - I told my wife that it just seems evil. The whole place seemed evil.

We walked into the main building that had once housed the headquarters for the Nazi the building holds the memories of so many men who died in that place. We walked in and followed the story from the beginning. The story is told in English and German on giant easels that hold the prose and pictures. The prose and pictures all communicate one thing: men were killed for believing and looking differently than their German counterparts.

The story started in 1933 when the chief of police in Munich thought of the idea of a camp that would house political prisoners. Several hundred were originally placed in the camp and actually finished building the camp as they went along. Nutrition was horrible, conditions were bad (no heat, very little clothing, etc.) and over the first year several were killed and several died from lack of food and sickness.

Things continued the same until the late 1930's, when Hitler introduced the Final Solution, which was basically an attempt to rid the world of Jews, mentally handicapped, the cripples and the old - basically everyone he saw as useless. Men and women were shipped off to camps across the Third Reich and treated horribly, killed and then had their bodies incenerated to keep the Germans from having to bury millions of bodies.

When the Jews became a major part of Dachau, the conditions got even worse. Guards would take target practice using human targets for fun. Men would be thrown into "no-man's land" - a small section between the open area and the fence that lead to freedom - and would then be shot for "attempting to escape". Men would simply be shot while standing in line for role call because some German soldier felt a little pissy that day. Yes, all the horrible things you have seen in movies like Schindler's List and The Pianist were real.

Then things even more horrifying began to take place. In 1942, the director of the camp came up with the bright idea to use human research to attempt to help the Germans win the war. So, they would put Jews through horrible experiments to see how the human body could hold up. One of the experiments involved pressurizing a room as if the person were 500 feet under water, then quickly de-pressurizing the room to see how fast the human body could recover. If the person in the room died, then they would burn the body and try again with another subject until they found the timing that didn't kill the person in the room. Another experiment would put a Jewish man in an army parachute get-up and then place the man in varying degree of freezing water to see how long a person could last in freezing water before they died. The doctors experimented with different aspects of cutting out pieces of men's brains while they were still alive. Horrible, horrible things.

And as I walked around this exhibit, then as I viewed the gas chambers and the rooms where dead bodies were piled up before being burned in the ovens in the next room, I wondered how a human could possibly do this to another human. How could one person with a beating heart and fully-functioning brain possibly do these horrible things to another human with a beating heart and a fully-functional brain? How could German soldiers line men up, weaponless, against a wall and walk down the row, putting a bullet in each man's brain. For simply being Jewish.

These men must have somehow believed what their leaders told them. Maybe they bought into the rhetoric and bullshit (I apologize for the use of language here, but my anger over-runs and I can find no better word). Maybe they bought into the propaganda. Maybe they simply killed to survive themselves. I don't know.We live in a cynical, cynical world. We live in a world where the media constantly questions everything our leaders tell us. We live in a world that never simply takes anything a government says for granted. We live in a country that is at war.

But I would rather live in a cynical world that questions the morality of the Iraqi War than to live in a place and time where atrocities like the Holocaust can happen without questions.


Aaron Palmer said...

Good article. This is so weird. I emailed your dad tonight about something and then I was googling him and found this. I remember those good old field trips in Germany. Man, tell your dad to get better and we're praying for him. Drop me a line sometime...

Aaron Palmer

Jeff Gray said...

Interesting post... you mentioned wondering how people could just swallow the horrible things they heard and stoop to such inhumane treatment of other human beings... a good book I've been reading is The Nuremberg Interviews which gives the verbatim testimonies of prison guards and SS officials as told to a psychologist at the Nuremburg Trials. It's very interesting reading because almost everyone was very normal... family men with kids and regular jobs before the war. Almost all said they were innocent: just following orders. "I knew that others were crueller than I, so I did my level of cruelty so that they wouldn't replace me with someone crueller." A lot of self delusion... but very, very human.

ChrisSligh said...

Jeff, actually, I just saw a tv program last night that was basically proving that people, when given instruction by their authorities will, most of the time, follow through if it is a matter of losing their job or not. In this example, people were applying electric shock up to 150 volts to a person who answered a questions incorrectly. The show's point wasn't the Holocaust but my mind kept returning to this: if a person will do this in the interest of keeping a job, will not the will to survive cause us to do horrible things if it means keeping our lives or the lives of loved ones?

Anonymous said...

Sure hope you dad is better. My father just got out of the hospital after a kidney blockage. He is very sick but feels better after having a drain implanted.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

I found your various sites and blogs after seeing you on idol. Didn't expect to see an essay on the Holocaust. My thougts: Torturers/Nazis don't think of their victims as human, as "people with hearts and brains." That's how this happens, and continues to happen all over the world (the Sudan is a good example these days).

But do keep in mind that even in hellish places and times, there were truly good and riteous people who risked, and at time lost, their lives, the lives of their families - everything - to hide and sustain Jews and other vicitms at great risk and expense.

There are people who can withstand evil propaganda, and whose moral guidelines are unwaivering. If we take anything from the incomprehensable evil of the Holocaust, it is that there is always a chance for humanity and good - even in the darkest of times. When I talk to my family about their experiences during the war, I am amazaed by the bravery and will to survive (we are Jewish), the ingenuity in times of unbearable hardship, and the beauty and kindness of those who chose against all odds to dare to do the right thing. Goodness is always possible.

ANNNYWAY - rock on. We're rooting for you on AI.


Ash Greyson said...

I saw a special recently on Sundance or IFC. It was on human behavior and even went in to the Iraq prisoner situation. Very eye-opening. The basic premise is that, most people will fall in line, even when it is diametrically opposed to their moral beliefs, when it comes to what their leadership instructs.

If it is the holocaust or torture in Iraq, I believe it is the leaders, the coaches if you will, that bare the most responsibility. The special went on to say that it is very rare for someone to not fall in line. We all like to believe we are heroes, but who knows.

I agree that cynicism is a necessary "evil" that many people dont understand. The optimist sees the cup half full, the pessimist sees it half empty but the cynic see the cup is made of ozone depleting chloro-fluorocarbons and is going to kill us all.

Anonymous said...

Read all about the CC at Dachau carefully here:
- espc. "Dachau-FAQ" and "Dachau for Tourists".