The Distance From Dachau to Darfur

Speaker's Corner: Peter Delevett recently visited the Nazi-era concentration camp in Germany. Afterward, he wondered: Why wasn't he doing more to stop the genocide occurring right now in Sudan?

05.29.07 | 6:22 PM ET

Dachau fenceIt was Christmastime in Germany, oom-pah music and the scent of bratwurst wafting through the air.

And my wife wanted to go to Dachau.

To me, visiting the Munich suburb where some 40,000 people died in Nazi Germany’s first and longest-running concentration camp didn’t sound like a very cheery Christmas outing.

I know how that sounds. Look, I wanted to go to Dachau, someday. I’ve been to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and the former Hanoi Hilton, struggling each time to get my mind around what had happened there. Such places are a horrible part of our shared human history, and I know how important it is to stand in the shadow of atrocity and grapple with its meaning.

But it just seemed too jarring, too weird, to juxtapose all that against little old ladies selling gingerbread and lace.

My wife, to her credit, was quietly appalled by my attitude. My evening TV program of choice is SportsCenter; hers is Headline News. I tried to buck her up by showing her an article that said Neuschwanstein Castle, where I wanted to go instead with some friends, had just made the list of finalists in a contest to name the new Seven Wonders of the World. It would be a great capper to our Christmas trip.

But the night before, I started having second thoughts, not wanting to disappoint her. And when we queued up at the Munich rail station to book our tickets, the agent told us the tracks to the castle were partly out. We were looking at eight hours each way via trains and buses, with quick connections and the chance of getting stuck somewhere near the Austrian border. I began to feel someone was trying to tell me something.

So the next cold morning, we took a quick hop to one of the world’s most horrific patches of real estate.

Dachau lies 20 minutes outside of Munich, a city that sells itself as the Oktoberfest home of good cheer but that also was a stronghold of Hitler’s fledgling Nazi movement. As we stepped off the commuter train, a McDonald’s billboard read, “Vilkommen en Dachau!”—which was about the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen.

A bus took us through silent streets lined with tidy bungalows, not a local in sight. “It’s always dead,” said Andy, a friend who’d been here many times. I wondered why people live here at all, what sort of reaction Dachau folk get abroad when people ask where they’re from. Perhaps they say suburban Munich.

But as the bus pulled up to the camp site, we could see walls and guard-towers, all ringed with barbed wire and a moat. I was aghast to see row houses lined up to the very walls of the camp, with a full view of the torture bunkers. From a balcony one resident had hung a German flag; I couldn’t help but wonder if it was an editorial comment, a statement of stubborn national pride.

In its heyday, the camp was ringed by a sprawling complex of SS barracks and forced labor sites. A red brick road, only recently uncovered, led from the railroad tracks through the SS compound and to the Jourhaus, the main guardhouse that’s been reconstructed from old film footage. It’s here the prisoners would come, as the visitor does today, to the black iron gates with their terrible lie, ARBEIT MACHT FREI—“Work will make you free.” I was surprised by how small it seemed; in my imagination the words had loomed high over the prisoners in foot-tall letters, but I almost had to duck my head as I squeezed through the gates.

In front of us sprawled the roll-call grounds where prisoners were made to muster every day, no matter how sick, no matter the weather. I stood there and imagined the ground littered with wasted bodies, realized that almost every square foot was a spot where someone may have died. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned here during the camp’s 12 years in operation, and they died by the thousands from disease or malnourishment, beatings or summary execution. The camp’s first crematorium, built in 1940, was overworked within a year, so the SS built a larger version with four furnaces. Even then, the Nazis eventually burned so many corpses here that they ran out of coal.

Most of the camp today stands as vast open space. Poplar trees planted by the prisoners were barren in the December cold. It would feel wrong, I decided, to be here on a summer day, with those trees in full green.

The Nazis started locking people up here, on the site of a former munitions plant, as early as 1933—a few weeks after Hitler was named chancellor of Germany and a full six years before the war officially began. The first inmates were German Communists and other political prisoners, and local officials were happy to have the jobs that had been lost when the arms factory shut down.

Glass cases in the museum that occupies the camp’s former kitchen building show off Nazi propaganda arguing that the prisoners were the worst of society but were treated well nevertheless. Some English-language reporters seem to have bought the line, their glowing reports of swimming pools and “relaxations” damningly displayed; there’s even a letter from Red Cross bigwigs extolling conditions in the camp.

But the secret of what was happening at Dachau was revealed long before the Allied liberation. Although prisoners in the early days were forced to write cheery cards to relatives, smuggled letters told of the atrocities and beatings. An escapee named Hans Beimler fled Germany and published a booklet—“In the Dachau Murder Camps”—in 1933.

The deeper into the old kitchen building I moved, the more plentiful and seemingly less orderly the displays become, until they almost reached information overload. So many photographs and binders of laminated documents, so much to read, I found it nearly overwhelming—and I wondered if the curators were consciously going for that effect. Each subsequent room crowded with more and more banners with stories and statistics about the prisoners: Jews and Gypsies and Soviets and Poles and a seemingly unending supply of other nationalities.

imageSome 30,000 stubborn, weakened souls were still alive when Allied troops arrived on April 29, 1945. Those who were left were shattered and hollow. In their horror and rage, some GIs summarily executed a handful of guards. The Allies later brought citizens from the nearby town of Dachau to the camp, forced them to see the twisted bodies stacked like cordwood in front of the crematorium.

Former Stanford president Gerhardt Casper once told me in an interview how painful it had been growing up in postwar Germany, “a country of which I could not be proud.” My own grandfather was half-German, and I knew how much joy he took in his sauerkraut and kartoffelsalad. But I wonder whether he kept quiet about those roots during and after both world wars.

Coming finally out of the museum building into the cold flat air, I wandered the memorials clustered outside. A huge wrought-iron sculpture, reminiscent of Picasso’s “Guernica,” recalled the emaciated and misshapen bodies heaped around the camp when it was liberated.

Nearby, someone had placed a soft pink rose on a kind of altar where the words “Never Again” were inscribed in Hebrew and German and French and English. It was a noble thought, but it suddenly rang hollow to me. Fifteen years ago, not very far from Dachau, concentration camps were operating in the Balkans. Ten years ago, it was Rwanda. And the morning after we left Dachau, a full-page ad in the International Herald Tribune reminded me, “SLAUGHTER IS HAPPENING IN DARFUR ... 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed.”

What were the enlightened governments of the word doing about that? What was I doing about it?

I realized that the same shallowness, the same American aloofness that kept me from wanting to go to Dachau in the first place, is the same characteristic that has kept me from really paying much attention to Darfur. I know what’s happening there—I don’t need some modern-day Hans Beimler to open my eyes—and I believe my government should work to stop it.

But I’ve never written my Congresswoman to express that sentiment. I’ve never gone to a Save Darfur rally, or donated money to any of the groups working to raise awareness or funnel aid to the victims of the genocide.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” Edmund Burke is supposed to have said. It was true in 1933, when Hitler’s SS opened Dachau. And, I realized standing there, it’s just as true today.

Leaving the memorials, I walked across the barracks yard to the crematorium, which is both horrific and incongruously peaceful. There’s a small church nearby, and an Orthodox chapel; a convent and a Jewish shrine. My wife and I are Christians, but after witnessing the horror of a place like Dachau, I wondered, how can we humans maintain a faith in God? Is it merely how we try to make sense of this?

We took a late train back to Frankfurt, where we met up with our friends who had hiked the many miles to Neuschwanstein. They were exhausted—it had taken them 15 hours round-trip for a 30-minute tour of King Ludwig’s folly—but happy. Even crammed with Japanese tour groups, it had been the perfect Christmas postcard.

Yet I did not envy them. I sat there quietly sipping my beer, thinking of my grandfather, of German boys and girls and men and women. I thought of the film footage I’d seen at the museum, of Hitler and Goebbels ranting and screaming, and asked myself how any reasonable person could have seen something in them to admire and believe in.

I wondered what I would have done if I’d been born in another generation, in another place. Would I have spoken up when they came for the Communists? When they came for the Jews? At what point would I have stopped believing, stopped shrugging, stopped telling myself there was nothing I could do about it?

At what point will I do that about Darfur?

It’s been almost six months since my wife and I came home from Germany. The souvenir cups are in the cabinet. Snapshots are stuck to the fridge.

And my checkbook sits here next to my bed. I write the bills. I balance the ledger. And every so often, I think of people in death camps—the ones that exist right now, not 60 years ago.

What amount would make any difference? What amount might save a life? I weigh the checkbook in my hands. It balances on my fingertips. So light I can barely feel it.

There’s a pen in the drawer there. Right next to the TV remote.

With barely an effort, I could reach either one.

Photos by Peter Delevett.

Peter Delevett is an editor and occasional travel writer at the San Jose Mercury News. His writing has appeared in the Miami Herald, New Orleans Times Picayune and the Honolulu Advertiser, and he has won awards from the North American Society of Travel Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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2 Comments for The Distance From Dachau to Darfur

Start Loving 05.30.07 | 12:55 AM ET

You are now a witness.  What kind of evidence will your ACTIONS be to those who know and experience you?  Will you be a witness for the truth?  Will you be a witness for denial?  I am not sure that the connection to this quote will be clear, but it occurs to me to share it with you:  Gandhi said, “Freedom is never dear at any price. It is the breath of life. What would a man not pay for living ?”  Freedom for whom, you may ask?  For yourself.  For those who know you.  For your posterity.  And yes, for those still surviving in Darfur.  Your brother,  Start Loving, Day 90, 24/7 Vigil at the Sudan Embassy in Washington, DC.  Join me.

Nan Collie 08.04.08 | 4:22 PM ET

I too visited Dachau, this summer on my first trip to Europe.  I am reeling still as I seek answers for the hideous part of human nature that either perpetuates such a travesty, or the part that knows and does nothing. 

The denial aspect of the horror that was Dachau is not as difficult to comprehend, most of us practice it regularly in large or small ways.  Some of us fudge on our taxes, some of us never blink when the clerk give us back too much change, some of us are cut-throat climbers who care little for those who stand in the way of our professional/financial “success.”  And yes, we close our eyes or change the channel when the suffering in Darfur shows up on our TV screens and in our newspapers.  We seek comfort, and it is not comfortable to see such pain and trauma.  Changing the channel is easier than looking into those deep, hollow eyes and wonder what each of us might do to ease the nightmare.

After my visit to Dachau, I am still wondering what is in each of us, that we might justify the taking of another life, the permission to torture and brutalize so many while showing so little compassion for another human soul.  Could any of us imagine ourselves as so righteously superior that we can justify treating another person, let alone millions of people, as insignificant and dispensable?  It is simply hard to comprehend.  They are questions, they are prayers.

I ask the internal questions;  Would I be willing to kill someone if a loved one was threatened?  Could I be angry and raging enough at some perceived injustice that I could harm another, intentionally inflicting pain?  What part of the Nazi is in each of us?  Can we overcome these impulses as individuals, as a country, as a planet, and find peaceful ways to resolve conflicts?  Isn’t the searing sadness of Dachau, and so many other atrocious examples of human hatred and indifference, enough to help us find other ways to resolve differences, to accept the wonderful diversity that makes this wold spin round.

I ask the same questions on genocide anywhere;  Where are we as a nation as hundreds of thousands are slaughtered and raped in Darfur?  Do we listen to the stories of the lost boys of Sudan?  How do we keep electing officials who value corporate profits and a willingness to be U.S. trade partners over the human rights abuse records of so many of our “allies.”  How can we be surprised when eventually the common people in these countries rise up and depose the despots who have destroyed their countries?  How can we be surprised when they despise America for supporting thieves and tyrants who tyranize their own people?

I send in my checks.  I will not close my eyes to the horrors of the past or present day, and I resolve to be kind.  It is a small contribution, to speak to the checkout clerk as a human being, to pick up litter in the park, to stop at crosswalks for the woman in the wheelchair, the old man carrying a bag of groceries.  I resolve to teach children of love and compassion whenever possible, I sing and pray for the trees and animal habitat, and I pray for us all.

Yes, we must never forget.  We must live our lives aware and awake in remembrance of the murderous, senseless tragedies throughout history.  We must honor the courage of those who died and the barely breathing skeletons that greeted the liberating troops at Dachau.  We must speak out at injustice, wherever it occurs in the world, and we must live our lives in hope of changing that inhumane part in each of us.  Let us vow to learn from the sadness of the past.  “I have a dream” is still true for so many of us.

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