Earned "Runner Up" in Radio City Awards
Rather than provide a fictional tale from the 1940s, I have decided to share a personal story.
I stepped off the tour bus and looked around at the next site we were scheduled to visit that day. It was a beautiful spring day in Munich, Germany. The sun was shining brightly; the birds were singing cheerfully; there was bright green grass growing through the dull grey gravel in the road.
The beautiful weather felt wrong, almost obscene for this particular tour. It was one that I had been anticipating and dreading at the same time. It should be raining; storm clouds should be offering their symphony of loud thunderclaps and crashes of lightning to the horror that we were walking into.
I had done a bit of cursory research on the bus to better understand this place.
Dachau was the first of the concentration camps set up by the Nazis. It was also the longest-running concentration camp of WW2. I knew of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto and the subsequent horrors of Auschwitz, but at the time of this tour, I knew very little of the atrocities that happened here at Dachau.
I pushed up the sleeves of my sweatshirt and followed my tour group through a tunnel to the gate of the camp. The gate that held the first of many ironies this camp presented to its prisoners: Arbeit Macht Frei “Work Sets You Free” Hundreds of thousands entered through these gates, but few survived to be rescued after the fall of Nazi Germany.
Our tour guide led us through the gate to a wide-open area where we stopped for a moment. As I looked around me, the weight of what I was seeing pressed heavily on my chest. Our usually boisterous group was quiet and somber. Everyone understood the gravity of where we were standing.
We were standing on the vast “Roll Call Grounds” where prisoners were brought for a daily head-count, and also to witness the punishments of other prisoners for arbitrary offenses that were completely disproportionate to their supposed crimes. A prisoner would be beaten or shot just for stealing moldy bread from the garbage because they were quite literally starving to death.
Off to our right, the long low, L-shaped building that served as command headquarters was still standing. Directly in front of it was a disturbing and eerie monument dedicated to the many thousands of lives that were lost here only half a century ago. The monument depicted a towering mass of skeletal bodies piled on top of each other, blocking the entrance to the building; razor wire still stood on either side of it.
Behind us, with a perfect view of their oppressors, was the barracks. Rows and rows and rows of barracks. Most had been knocked down and burned in the Nazi’s final attempt to hide the atrocities they had inflicted on their fellow man. Huge stone rectangles of block rose six inches out of the gravel to memorialize the places where the destroyed barracks once stood. We walked through them on our way to the barracks that were rebuilt for the public to see the living conditions the men, women, and children were forced to live in every day. Each room housed rows of bunks stacked three high, with no mattresses and only threadbare blankets if they were lucky. Originally designed to house only fifteen prisoners, under Nazi rule, more than fifty were stuffed into each of these rooms.
When we came back out into the bright sunlight, our tour guide allowed us a moment’s respite before the next part of our tour.
“Take deep breaths,” she informed us. “Hold a friend’s hand if you need to. We’re heading to the crematorium and gas chambers.”
I found it impossible to take deep breaths when the knot in my throat was threatening to choke me.
We entered a long brick building with a tall smokestack jutting high into the sky. Its innocuous appearance was yet another of the bitter ironies of this place. The inside of this building was indescribable. Pictures would never do justice to the overwhelming sorrow that would forever haunt this building. Staring into the black holes of the ovens where thousands of prisoners were reduced to ash overwhelmed every one of my senses. These weren’t recreations. These weren’t built to show what it may have looked like during the war. These were the same ovens; scorch marks still stained the walls behind them.
Beyond the ovens lay an empty room with small drains in the floor and vents in the ceiling. The gas chamber. Over the door was the word Brausebad “shower.” Yet another depiction of the evil ironies of this camp. Dachau never used its gas chambers to execute prisoners en masse, instead, the chamber was used to store piles of the dead waiting to be reduced to nothing in the ovens.
I could almost hear the screams of the dead crying out for justice while I stood in this room.
Finally, we were escorted away from the hated building toward something equally horrifying. At first, I was confused by the picturesque scene that we were being led through. The trees were full, the grass was green and luscious. The flowers were blooming bright, swaying happily in the spring breeze.
“This is the rifle range,” our guide said solemnly. “Prisoners were lined up in front of this ditch and shot. The ditch kept their blood from overly saturating the ground. And here is the pistol range, also used for executions.”
Feeling sick, we continued down the beautiful and haunting path toward a cross that lay on the ground. In front of it was a rectangular marker made of stone. In it was carved “Grave of Many Thousands Unknown.” A little further down, another “Grave of Thousands Unknown.” And another. And another. 31,951 souls rested here.
We left the path in silence, feeling the monstrousness of what we had just walked through. Our guide led us to the final two stops on our tour. The first was a huge slab of granite that stood erect, shining brightly in the sun. The words written on it were in Yiddish, German, French, English, and Russian.
May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow man.
And the last monument; a simple slab of stone with a single white rose resting on top of it, the final sight we would see before leaving this haunting place: