National Archives Records of the Office of War Information
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.