I have now seen evil.
I have read about it all my life and thought I understood. I thought I was prepared for what I would see, hear and experience when I stepped through the gate of Dachau, the horrific Nazi concentration camp near Munich, Germany, Sunday.
Somehow it was strangely appropriate that we were there on the Lord’s Day. The grounds outside the camp were deceivingly beautiful. It was a warm day. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. The skies were a beautiful shade of blue.
I can’t explain it, but once we stepped inside the gate, which bore the lie “Arbeit Macht Frei” — work will set you free — there was a distinct chill in the air and before we had taken very many steps, our surroundings had taken on a grayish hue. It felt like we were in a black-and-white movie, like Dorothy before the tornado whirled her away to Oz.
But we were not exploring a movie set. We were in a real place, a bone-chilling place where we were introduced first hand to the very worst humanity has to offer. We saw the barracks where as many as 30,000 living human skeletons at a time struggled to exist on a daily basis — crammed into a space created for 16,000. We saw photographs and film clips and interviews with some of those who managed to survive that living hell.
We saw the parade ground where the unfortunate souls who fell prey to the SS troops that ran the prison forced them to stand for hours at a time — barefoot and barely clothed in heat and cold and snow and icy weather — just because they had the power to make them do so.
We saw the rudimentary possessions the prisoners struggled to maintain — a cup, a spoon a bowl. Primarily they struggled to maintain a semblance of human dignity, which was what their tormentors really coveted. We saw it all.
And yes, we saw the crematoriums — the ovens — where thousands upon thousands of bodies were burned to cinders. We saw the original ovens and we saw the larger, more efficient ones that were required to be built when the original crematorium was no longer efficient enough to keep up with the death rate at Dachau.
We saw, and heard, about the experiments that were done at Dachau — experiments designed to see just how much the human body can withstand. We saw a series of photographs of one man whose brain was injected with an air embolism, just to see if he could survive. He couldn’t.
His crime? Choosing to be born to Jewish parents.
We saw records of people who were forced to drink seawater until they died or were exposed to hypothermia until death was preferred over life at the hands of their evil captors.
Our dark day didn’t end at Dachau. We continued to Nuremburg and visited a museum — the Reichsparteitagsfield — that vividly told the entire story of the rise to power of Adolph Hitler, who mesmerized an entire nation and bid them do his evil will, and we learned about atrocities at the death camps, like Auschwitz, where the horror was even worse than the horror of Dachau.
Then we visited Courtroom 600 at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice and saw where the victorious Allies attempted to provide justice to the 6 million victims of the Holocaust and the incalculable victims of World War II. In the upstairs museum each bit of testimony was more horrible than the last. Witnesses spoke, through film, of unspeakable atrocities. I felt filthy by the time we had finished our day, and not just from the grime of traveling on a warm day. I couldn’t wait to get to our hotel and take a bath.
The last exhibit I saw at Nuremberg hit me pretty hard. It showed scenes of modern examples of crimes against humanity. Things that are going on right this very minute. We saw pictures of Muslim girls who had been mutilated. Their crime? Having their face exposed to a man not their husband or father. We saw a 16-year-old boy drawing pictures in an attempt to explain how he was forced to serve in a foreign army during an African tribal war.
We saw photographs of entire populations on the move, being forcibly displaced from their homelands, and we saw evidence of genocide and human slavery. I am not sure if the massage parlor sign was along I-75 in Georgia, but it could have been.
We who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Did I see anything I liked in Dachau? Yes. A photograph of 30,000 prisoners, tears in their eyes, welcoming the GIs who had come to set them free — and the American flag they were carrying.