Day 5:
This was the day I’d been nervously anticipating. Munich is only a 30 minute train ride away from Dachau and, even though I knew it would be very emotional experience, I was more certain I would regret not going. So I woke up Thursday morning, put on my brave pants (actually, my brave black leggings) and headed off to Dachau. And, unlike my previous entries, I actually have a lot to share with you about the history and details of what I saw there.
Dachau was the first concentration camp opened in Germany. It was located at an abandoned munitions factory and opened in 1933. Officially, Dachau was an internment camp for political prisoners. Later, it would be known as a work camp, distinguishing it from the extermination camps set up later during the war (Auschwitz, Treblinka, etc.). It is estimated between 200,000 and 500,000 prisoners died at Dachau, although you’ll hear different numbers from different sources. The camp was established as a memorial site in the 60s and was reworked in 2003.
The Holocaust has always been a tricky subject for me. I first learned about the Holocaust when I was 7. I was reading a Judy Blume book called “Starring Sally J. Freedman, as Herself,” a book about a little Jewish girl in America. The book was set at the end of WWII and opened with a parade celebrating the end of the war. Still, the little girls in the book couldn’t forget the stories they had heard and played games like “Concentration Camp”, where one of them would be given fake soap and sent to the showers, which they knew were actually gas chambers. That book scared the hell out of me. I want to say I was too young to understand or process that kind of information, but I’m nearly 30 now and I still don’t know how to process the things I’ve learned about the Holocaust.
When you arrive at Dachau, you follow the same path the prisoners took into the camp. I chose to skip the guided tour and purchased an audio guide so I could go at my own pace. For a long time, I just walked the camp grounds, trying to imagine the people who had walked where I was walking, who died where I was standing. I visited the rebuilt barracks and tried to imagine daily life in such close quarters. I spent hours in the museum, reading and re-reading the panels of information, the history and the stories about individual prisoners. I walked to the crematorium but could not force myself to go inside. I wasn’t brave enough and I regret being such a wimp.
I spent hours at Dachau and then I sat by the entrance and tried to process what I’d seen. I couldn’t. I still can’t.
When Slim and I were together and I was studying Judaism, he eventually had to ask me to skip the parts in the books that covered the Holocaust, because I would get so sad, have horrible dreams, and the books would end up in the freezer. I didn’t listen to him though. I can’t pretend I don’t know what happened, or that it never happened. And that’s ultimately why I visited Dachau. I didn’t want to avoid it because it is so extremely horrifying; I felt obligated to honor those who died by seeing it with my own eyes, by being able to say the words, “I walked where you walked. I opened my eyes and looked.”
After my visit, I turned on my iPod and listened to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” It’s my favorite album by any band of all time, the one album I would choose to have on a deserted island. It also was inspired by a dream about Anne Frank and has many references to WWII and the Holocaust. It is both a supreme comfort and heartbreaking and I always told myself I would listen to it after visiting a concentration camp, something that had been on my bucket list for many years.
I wish I had better words to explain how it felt and what I saw. I wish I could honor those who died. I can’t. All I can do is say that I saw it. I was there and it was real and I saw it.
I think that’s enough for now; next time I’ll continue with Day 5. I just want to let these words stand on their own for now.
(If you’d like to see pictures or learn more, here’s the Wiki entry: