National Archives Records of the Office of War Information
The main gates at the Dachau concentration camp shortly after it was liberated by the U.S. Army in World War II.
It’s not the kind of tourist attraction that anyone looks forward to visiting. There are no smiling people lining up to take pictures in front of mountain vistas, flower strewn meadows, or famous monuments. No one is laughing, joking, or dancing around. Everyone is quiet, serious, engaged. Tears are close to the surface. Visitors almost feel compelled to enter into this painful journey. After viewing a 15 minute introductory movie, I hear one teenager say somberly to a friend, “Depressing film. I don’t ever want to be happy again. It would be rude.”
Above the main gate to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany are three cruel and cynical words, “Arbeit macht frei,” “Work makes free.” Dachau was the first concentration camp of the Nazi Third Reich, operating from 1933-1945 and serving as a model for all other concentration camps. It was also a training ground for the SS and was called the “School of Violence.” For 12 grisly years 200,000 prisoners of the state were brutalized, humiliated, tortured, used for medical experiments, and treated as slaves for the armaments industry.
Of course, work did not contribute in any way shape, or form to freedom. Concentration camps were designed to stabilize the Nazi regime, maintain domination, destroy any vestige of human dignity, and stifle organized resistance through extreme military order. How could the world have not known the full scope of this evil? Why didn’t those who knew speak up? Even local residents were horrified after the liberation to discover what was going on in their own backyard for 12 years.
The Nazis called concentration camps “protective custody camps” or “work and re-education camps.” Those interred were not just Jews, although Jews were given the hardest and dirtiest work. They came from all walks of life and included religious objectors, homosexuals, political opponents, clergy, members of the Jehovah’s Witness, gypsies, antisocial elements, and people with mental and physical disabilities.
Any person entering Dachau was forced to give up all property, human rights, and dignity. Prisoners worked 12-14 hours a day, lived in overcrowded conditions, and often received only a thin plate of soup for food. By April 1, 1945, the day Dachau was liberated by Allied forces, a camp built for 6,000 housed 30,000 people. We walk through barracks that were designed for 50 people but had been crammed with 400 prisoners.
Thousands died over those 12 years – 31,000 officially – but thousands more deaths went unrecorded. I walk by a monument dedicated to the memory of the unknown prisoners who died and read the words, “Vergiss nicht,” “Do not forget.” I can’t imagine families never receiving word about the death of their loved one, but it happened tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of times.
Hunger and diseases such as typhus and dysentery took countless lives. Many prisoners were literally worked to death and when not working were forced to stand motionless for an hour in the morning and evening. Those caught praying or doing anything deemed offensive to the state were severely punished.
Resisters were shot daily as they attempted to escape or simply said the wrong thing or moved the wrong way. The only way anyone survived was because the prisoners formed community and helped each other. As the only concentration camp operating for the entire Nazi regime, Dachau had long tentacles. During those 12 years, 336 subsidiary camps across the country provided a steady flow of prisoners to replace those who had died. Prisoners who became very ill were often transferred to other camps since Dachau had built a gas chamber but for some reason never used it. There was also a crematorium where bodies were burned.
I am especially moved by various memorials around the site. In 1968 a Yugoslavian Holocaust survivor Nandor Glid created a powerful sculpture depicting the stages of imprisonment and suffering at Dachau. Nearby are the words, “Never again.”
There are separate Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Carmelite, and Russian Orthodox memorials. I am especially moved by the Lutheran Church of Reconciliation. At first glance it seems to be cold and dark, yet the design of the building invites reflection. An intentional absence of right angles in the construction is in direct contrast to the right-angled terror of the National Socialist murder system, which the German novelist Heinrich Mann described as “the exactness within the loathsome.”
The church is constructed as a path that leads one further into the depths. A brochure describing the church says, “Depth is a symbol for suffering and death, but also of contradiction and resistance. Furthermore, it is a symbol of shame, as if you wished the ground would swallow you up. Depth can be something that frightens and threatens but also something that shelters and protects you.”
I sit in the depths of the memorial, aware of the pain that has pierced my heart. In what ways have I neglected to speak up? A few days before our trip to Dachau Gary and I spent time with a German friend, who helped me understand what it means to be a young adult in Germany today. She said, “Your Fourth of July holiday is coming up, and you wave flags, wear patriotic clothing, and watch fireworks. But in Germany we are still filled with shame. As children we are taught over and over about World War 2 and are acutely aware of the horror we inflicted on the rest of the world. We are not proud of our country in the way you are of yours.”
Fourth of July is just a few days away, and I am pondering my friend’s words. I can’t fathom how fortunate I am to have been born in the United States, which was founded on the democratic principles of liberty and justice for all. Yet even in our country we have to be ever vigilant of evil, injustice, and oppression and be on guard to protect the rights of others.
I think about the conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of child sex abuse and realize that even a huge university like Penn State can protect its own, ignore whistle blowing, and turn a blind eye to the exploitation of the sacredness of all human beings, especially children.
I think about the 2,700 priests who were imprisoned at Dachau for speaking out against the state and know that despite the freedom espoused in our country, those who challenge abusive systems are also mistreated, discounted, and silenced at times.
I think about the infamous German SS, for whom tolerance was a sign of weakness. The Third Reich flourished precisely because of the disdain and hatred it promulgated toward minorities. If the truth be told, how well do we score on tolerance in our country and in our churches?
- Are we willing to name and speak out against racism, which is still alive and well?
- Will we avoid stereotyping undocumented persons by calling them illegal aliens?
- Will we intentionally include homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered people in the life of our congregations in the name of a Jesus who always looked at the heart?
- Will we graciously but directly call out those who delight in exercising power by stifling dissent?
- After the nail-biter decision of the Supreme Court last week affirming health care reform, will we give thanks, regardless of our own position, for a democratic system that ensures due process and provides checks and balances?
- During this election year, will we pledge to avoid political rhetoric that divides?
- Will we continue to remember the cost of freedom around the world and live so that the countless lives that were sacrificed for our sake will not have been in vain?
Martin Niemöller was a German Lutheran pastor who survived 8 years in concentration camps in World War 2, including Dachau. In January of 1946 Niemöller preached to 1,200 students in Erlangen and spoke about meeting a German Jew who had lost everything in the war, including his parents and siblings. He said, “I could not help myself. I had to tell him, ‘Dear brother, fellow man, Jew, before you say anything, I say to you: I acknowledge my guilt and beg you to forgive me and my people for this sin.’”
Some students shouted and heckled Niemöller, yet he insisted, “We must openly declare that we are not innocent of the Nazi murders, of the murder of German communists, Poles, Jews, and the people in German-occupied countries. No doubt others made mistakes too, but the wave of crime started here and here it reached its highest peak. The guilt exists, there is no doubt about that – even if there were no other guilt than that of the six million clay urns containing the ashes of incinerated Jews from all over Europe. And this guilt lies heavily upon the German people and the German name, even upon Christendom. For in our world and in our name have these things been done.” Martin Niemöller is most famous for this saying,
In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . .
And by that time there was no one left to speak up.
May God give us the courage and grace to never forget and always speak up.