Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
There are those who would argue that the Holocaust never happened, that it’s a figment of imagination or propaganda. They would profess supposed facts and documents supporting their theories. They would try to convince you that the worst atrocity in human history never happened.
I’m not one of those people. I can never live so blindly, nor would I want to.
As a student of history with a particular fondness for the 30s and 40s, I’ve studied WWII and am always fascinated to learn new tidbits about that time. But even my years of studying couldn’t prepare me for my visit to Dachau Concentration Camp.
It was in September of 1995 and I was very pregnant with my daughter. My husband and I were stationed in Germany and it was our first trip to the Munich Germany area. We planned a short holiday with a stop to tour the concentration camp before heading down to Neuschwanstein Castle (better known as Cinderella’s Castle).
The day was absolutely gorgeous. A perfect blue sky overhead. Not too hot nor cold. I could not have planned a more beautiful day.
And then we arrived in Dachau. I’m not sure what happened with the weather, but as we neared the site of the concentration camp, an eerie cloud fall over us like a wet blanket. There was a chill in the air and the sunny afternoon evaporated before our eyes.
I have never visited a more haunted place. Sorrow and death draped over the entrance and from the moment I stepped foot through the gates I felt a heaviness unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since. It was one of complete and utter despair.
The camp itself was smaller than I imagined. It was also much closer to town than I envisioned. In my mind, I always pictured this large complex well away from the center of everything. This place butted right up to the city. Granted things had changed in the 50 years since WWII, but the closeness of the town angered me greatly. How could anyone say they didn’t know? How could anyone deny the atrocities?
Outside the visitors center, there’s a sculpture. At first, I couldn’t make out the shapes but as I turned to a different angle, I could clearly see it was a sculpture of people caught in bobbed wire fencing. It was overpowering to say the least.
Most of the living quarters, if you can truly call the huts that, have been removed. Only a few still remain. Inside, they briefly reminded me of some of the cabins I’d stayed in during my youth group camping trips to various locations. There was a bathroom and shower in the center with two large open rooms on either side.
That’s where the similarities stopped. The cots remained in place. I remember those cots being so small. Guessing back, I’d say each one was no bigger than a standard sheet of plywood (about 4′ x 8′ if that big) which would have been uncomfortable for one person to sleep on. When Dachau was at maximum capacity, three prisoners were assigned to each cot. There were three cots to a rack of bunks.
And the room was filled with racks.
I also noted that there were only three toilets, sinks, and showers per hut. Provided all the facilities were working, it would have been virtually impossible for each prisoner to utilize the facilities every day. There were just too many people crammed into the space without adequate accommodations.
Then we visited the ovens.
As I said, we visited in September of 1995, some 50 years after the end of WWII. The smell of burned flesh was still there. There was no mistaking what had occurred in that place.
I can remember as clear as day, my husband and I were talking quietly about what we were seeing and the horrors that were honestly too awful to truly comprehend when an older gentleman who had been standing a few yards away walked over and gave us a weak smile.
He quickly learned that we were Americans and began chatting with us in broken English. I remember he looked at us and asked if we believed this happened. I thought he was missing something in translation so I asked him to repeat himself. When he again asked the same question, both my husband and I answered without a shadow of doubt that what had happened there was beyond terrible.
He kept going with his line of questioning, again in broken English.
We began to think that perhaps he was one of those doubters, one of the ones who wanted others to question the reality of the holocaust. We were ready to defend our position as only Americans can do, when we finally realized that he was a Jewish man from Israel. He was visiting Dachau because he’d lost loved ones there and he had spent many years defending history from the ignorant. He wanted to make sure that we understood the past.
He was a nice guy. Very kind and polite but passionate in his stance. We chatted with him for quite awhile that day. As we parted ways, I remember the utter sadness in his eyes. I can only imagine the pain that visit caused him.
Ironically, the feeling of despair and hopelessness seemed to evaporate the further we ventured from the camp that day. It was as though the sorrow only hung around that place. As if the souls of long ago were crying out.
I didn’t get the opportunity to visit other concentration camps while I lived in Europe. But I’m not sure I needed to see any others. I will never forget that day not because it was a good memory but because it provided a tactile example of the extremes of evil we can inflict on one another. I had learned about those extremes in school. Visiting Dachau drove those lessons home.
For those who say the holocaust never happened, I say you’re a fool. Hide behind your ignorance if you want to, but I will never be one of your sheeple.
And for those who have endured the horrors of the holocaust, for the families affected by the darkest period of history, I pray that God has granted you peace and happiness throughout the rest of your lives. God bless you!
All the best,
(Jennifer B. Duffey is the author of two novels and a collection of short stories. To download a free copy of her latest novel, The Face in the Mirror, click here.)