Reflections on Visiting Dachau

As Holocaust Remembrance Week comes to a close, one Tiger remembers.

Nine and a half years ago, my family went on a trip to Germany with one of our stops at the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. While my eleven-year-old self did not completely comprehend the history behind the concentration camp, it gave me the opportunity today–almost a decade later–to reflect on the experience.

I do not remember seeing much. Most of the buildings, except for the foundations, were gone; only the administration block and a large sculpture dedicated to the victims were points of interest. The crematorium and a part of the barracks were still up, almost frozen in time. Other than that, you would not be able to tell that one of history’s biggest atrocities unfolded on that ground. The surrounding area was developed, in a sense moved on, but the camp was a window into an awful past, a past that needs to stay remembered.

I think what I took away from that experience was not something tangible, like a collection of photos I can show to others, but the idea that people just like ourselves can run a brutally monstrous operation. I remember briefly talking with a postgraduate student at Trinity about the Holocaust, and she wondered aloud how anyone could be capable of such despicable evil. I knew the answer: people who wanted to gain power did so by stoking and inflaming ordinary people’s prejudices. They sold the public on the idea that their problems came from the presence of a group of people and that only when that group is gone will everything be fine.

We would be foolish to think that Dachau is simply an artifact for the public to walk around on, stare at, and take pictures of. We would be missing the whole point of why Dachau and the other Nazi concentration camps are preserved to this day. To me, Dachau stands as a testament to what happens when people refuse to see or hear evil, while others exploited people’s fears and anxieties to carry out unspeakable atrocities. Judging from what was uncovered when the U.S. Army liberated Dachau, ordinary people are clearly capable of truly terrible things. 

It is easy to look at history as something that someone else did, that under the same circumstances, we would never do the same thing. We are mortified at the idea that the Nazis were capable of such evil, when, in fact, a lot of their most brutal tactics were adopted from other countries. But fundamentally, the blame game can only be played for so long until we realize that other people are just people. They behave like us, they act like us, make decisions similar to ours. The Holocaust is a story about what it means to be human, both for those who were prisoners and those who were executioners. It’s a story about ourselves, a story of hatred, and a story of survival.

I am not trying to build sympathy for the camp staff. My only point is that if we cannot see ourselves as capable of doing evil things, we are simply shoving demons into a closet. The Holocaust is not the only instance in history where national compassion toward a particular group of people evaporated. We have to recognize that actual people perpetrated this hatred and not disconnect ourselves from this uncomfortable fact. What we can do is learn from others, learn from history, and make sure that something like the Holocaust never happens again and continue to fight the injustices of our time.

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