I wrote this piece a while back about an experience I had back in the mid 70's while serving in Europe. The memory of that day has stuck with me ever sense. It served to quell any doubts I had about why we serve. I hope you go away with something to think about. Arbeit macht frei; work makes you free.
Arbeit Macht Frei...
I remember it was cold that day, given the recent warm weather. I parked the car and paid my money to the caretaker. I looked down the pristine wire seeing it tightly stretched and shiny as if trying to keep the secrets inside its prison. But word of what happened here had already reached the ears of the world. I stepped inside.
A strange silence and peace surrounded me as I looked around. Only one solitary barracks remained and I walked towards it across the now grassy field. The closer I got, the more I heard it. The drone of voices long since passed. The squeal of the children in their innocence. My eyes clouded as I entered the building.
How could people survive in such standards? Yet they did, simply because they had no choice. My mind heard the moans of ancestors past, the cries of sick children. I caught the movement of something from the corner of my eye. A ghost? A spirit? I will never know. But it was there as sure as I write this chronicle.
Closing my eyes I could hear the bark of dogs and shouts of a strange and fearful people. Their eyes hollow and angry with a hate I could not understand. I shook where I stood in silent terror with the ghosts of yesterday. One small pot-bellied stove stood as witness. When I could stand it no more I broke for the door.
As I stepped into the former courtyard, my mind was filled with the vision of row after row of barracks such as I had just entertained. Misery magnified a hundredfold. I meandered until I found myself at the ovens.
No one ever died in the gas-chamber there or turned to ashes in those ovens. That they stood with their intention was enough for me. Had the world turned one more day without intervention they probably would have been used. The ability and willingness had already been demonstrated at Auschwitz and Treblinka. Even so it had a rancor. The sick-sweet smell of human flesh burning reeked in the mind’s nose at their very existence. The smell of a nation gone bad.
I found myself in the small museum on the grounds. Why anyone would document their crimes is beyond me, but there they were. The sunken, starved bodies of a people gloated over by a fat-faced lord of terror. I found it kind of odd that the faces of the Nazis had been scratched out. I am not sure that that was done by survivors through anger or perpetrators through shame. Just as well I suppose, no one wants to know them either way.
I left out the front gate to the disgusted look of the caretaker. The people of Dachau do not like this to be their claim to fame and I understand that. But I also understand, “The sins of the father are visited on the children.”
I only saw my father's eyes tear up twice in my life. Once when his mother died and again when he told the tale of liberating one of these camps in Czechoslovakia.
Authors Note: Dachau was Germany's first concentration camp, started March 21, 1933 because the prisons were overflowing with people the government didn't like. They didn't have enough money to just build more prisons the way we do in our War on Drugs, so the Nazis built work camps like Dachau. Dachau is distinctive because it was here that SS personnel (Eichmann, Hess) trained for work in newer camps such as Auschwitz.
Pastor Martin Niemöller, who initially supported the Nazis, ended up here in 1938, whereupon he famously noted that:
Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Kommunist.
Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.
Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.
Als sie die Juden holten, habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Jude.
Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte.
Der Weg ins Freie, Martin Niemöller (F.M. Hellbach, Stuttgart, 1946)
When the Nazis arrested the Communists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the Social Democrats, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Social Democrat.
When they arrested the trade unionists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a trade unionist.
When they arrested the Jews, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Jew.
When they arrested me, there was no longer anyone who could protest.
Copyright © 2007 Mike Lawson