An Empty Shelf

I was the only American among 24 tour-goers, when we went around and introduced ourselves at the memorial site. Our guide, a young woman from New Zealand, asked us to say our name and why we’ve come to Dachau. I didn’t know how to say it, so I just said I wanted to pay my respect. I’m not sure what I wanted to get out of it, but I came away “full” more than empty. Maybe it’s perspective, and wanting to have more of an active role in what happened here.

We saw just a small portion of the concentration camp – that intended for prisoners. Even this area was vast, so you could imagine the scale of what was occurring in the other areas, which were dedicated to training the SS officers.

It was a perfect Indian summer day, and an occasional breeze kicked up leaves around us as our group cut across the area for roll call, to the bunkers. Parts of the camp have been restored to simulate what it was like, and other places are roped off – our guide called these places “sites of terror,” where it was deemed disrespectful to tour, such as the watchtowers.

Cruelty was rewarded during this time, for those in control. What was disgusting and fascinating to me was the degree of psychological torment, in subtle and obvious ways. Public torture is an example of the obvious psychological terror, but a subtle and almost more disturbing example for me was in the bunkers.

This is where the prisoners slept; it resembles a crude barn with rows of empty wooden platforms. They used straw as bedding, with blankets patterned in white and blue, that had to be lined up perfectly every morning. Along the beds was an empty shelf: it was there to remind the prisoners that they had no possessions to put there.

No rights, no dignity, no possessions

No rights, no dignity, no possessions

Our guide touched on a variety of stories. One was about a prisoner who escaped – the only one in 12 years – and fled to the Czech Republic. He wrote a pamphlet in 1933 about the atrocities there, which was published in German, Russian and English, but the report was dismissed as Communist propaganda.

As the only American there, I was proud of the fact that our country liberated the camp in 1945. There’s a photo with an American soldier in a bunker, among stacks of emaciated men, on liberation day. I was not proud of the correlation that came to mind about Guantanamo Bay, when our tour defined “concentration camp” as a place of imprisonment without legal process. And then of course, torture.

It’s a place to be seen, and not reduced to pithy comments in a blog.


Categories: travel, Travelogue 2009

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