The sky is heavy with rain-clouds as we step off the train at Dachau, just outside of Munich, one Sunday afternoon. At first glance, Dachau is a quiet little town with neat houses and manicured lawns, much like a typical European suburb. However, as the bus drops us off right in front of the former concentration camp of Dachau, we become aware of a sense of foreboding in the air, the result of years of intense suffering and the decimation of those who dared to go against the skewed ideals of the Nazi regime.
Autumn has just begun, but in this oppressive atmosphere, we are not thinking of tawny leaves or leisurely walks. Grey sky meets colourless buildings and flat earth on the horizon. The paths are slick with rain as a stream of visitors straggles to the entrance of the concentration camp, pushing open a gate that bears the cold words that struck fear in the hearts of millions over decades and still have the power to petrify: “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Work sets you free, the Nazis said. (Unfortunately, this sign is a replica of the original that was stolen in 2014 and hasn’t been recovered yet.)
We walk into a large courtyard lined by buildings that once housed prisons and barracks. As we stand in the drizzle, warm in our coats, we remember that this courtyard once teemed with prisoners and SS guards; we think of the hostility and the hatred that led to the execution of so many men where we stand. Memorials here commemorate the mindless genocide that defined the last century. “Never again,” says a sign in five different languages, the first being Hebrew.
At school in India, we studied the Holocaust like we did other chapters in History. We were horrified and curious, but lessons on Indian independence always took precedence over the World Wars; we didn’t even care much about the Indian troops who fought in Europe. My first proper introduction to the Holocaust came through The Diary of a Young Girl when I was around thirteen and borrowed a copy which a friend had received as a present. It was duly circulated among all of us and we discussed Anne’s life for days afterwards. I was inspired enough to begin a diary of my own, calling it Anne, seeing her smiling face framed by her short, dark hair every time I started a new entry. I wanted to tell Anne everything and I did, talking to my diary about my adolescent dreams and problems, subconsciously making a friend who was as much a girl as any of us through her trials.
Earlier this year, when I was fending off the long nights of the North American winter with graphic novels, I picked up Maus at the Arlington library. It wasn’t the most responsible choice to make when trying to fight the blues, but there are books that ask to be read at a particular time in your life, and this was one. I didn’t know then that six months later, I’d find myself visiting the site of the first Nazi concentration camp. I didn’t know it when I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum at DC in July, and was reduced to tears by some of the exhibits: letters requesting money to pay for a family’s passage to America, a yellowing armband with the Star of David on it, a little girl’s frock, scraps of Anne Frank’s writing. I like bright meadows and rippling brooks and possess Siddhartha’s horror of sorrow – and this almost kept me from visiting the Holocaust Museum and Dachau, but I am glad that I changed my mind.
We have only an hour for our visit and begin our exploration of the Dachau camp with the long, low building that houses the tiny prison cells. (Bear in mind that this was the first Nazi concentration camp and started off as a place in which to hold political prisoners, eventually serving as a model for camps like Auschwitz which played a key role in the implementation of the Final Solution – the extermination of European Jews.) Dank and musty, the cells in the bunker were veritable torture chambers where prisoners were incarcerated and subjected to inhuman treatment. Across the courtyard are reconstructed barracks displaying replicas of the narrow, uncomfortable beds where prisoners must have lain on interminable nights, awakening at first light to crowd around the washstands. It is clean and presentable now, but pictures on the walls give us an indication of the crowded conditions in which several prisoners once spent endless days, emerging perhaps only to toil at hard jobs they were forced to do. From the barracks, we trudge down the path that had once been used by people walking to their daily roll call, empty fields spreading out on both sides where long lines of barracks stood. At the other end of the path are memorials dedicated to different faiths and built over the last few decades in memory of Jews and prisoners-of-war of different Christian denominations.
Umbrellas mushroom as the rain falls faster; with about a quarter of an hour for the camp to close, we hurry past the Russian Orthodox chapel, across a little bridge spanning a narrow creek, to the crematorium. A chill runs down my spine even now as I think of the ovens that charred the corpses of so many hapless prisoners, at one point insufficient for the number of bodies that were pouring in. Two other rooms precede the ovens – a kind of “waiting room”, where prisoners stripped in preparation for what they were told was a round of disinfection, followed by the gas chambers where the actual activity took place. A notice states that these gas chambers were never used to poison inmates, but were equipped with vents through which Zyklon-B could be dispensed if required. (A little probing on why the gas chambers were never used brings up links that mention that the chambers were in fact used to delouse clothes and not to poison people, as at Auschwitz; this conclusion comes from a study of the design of the chambers and the amounts of Zyklon-B they dispensed, photographs, and various documents. However, as I haven’t been able to find a reliable source, I will not share any links here and request you to let me know in the Comments section if you have any recommendations for further reading.)
As we exit the crematorium, I stop briefly at the door of the Russian Orthodox chapel for a moment of calm. My mind has been in a whirl throughout this visit. I have seen the stark black and white cat-and-mouse chase from Maus leap into life in these forlorn surroundings. The Jews gave away all that was precious to them in exchange for a chance to escape the Nazis’ tyranny; they killed themselves and their children so that they wouldn’t end up on loaded trains to concentration camps. They hid in tiny alcoves and waited on street corners to trade their possessions for food. They suffered through bitter winters and fell to illness stemming from cramped surroundings and malnutrition. They encountered neighbours who gave them shelter and others who turned them out of their own homes. The Holocaust survivors’ resilience in the face of such humiliation and their return to normal life are miracles that I struggle to understand. Mental strength always astounds me more than physical ability, and there are few better examples than the recovery of the Jews.
Over the years, I have spoken to German friends about Nazism, and they have all acknowledged the unfortunate history of their country without hesitation and stressed on how important it is to learn from it. In Munich, symbols of German identity are conspicuous from their absence: very few black-red-gold flags are visible, in stark contrast to the effusive patriotism that are hard to avoid in the US or the unctuous loyalty demanded in India of even those with the most tenuous links to the country. The reasons for Germany’s penitence are obvious, but it is rather rare for countries to acknowledge their past sincerely and work towards correcting it. This should be the purpose of studying History as a subject: to learn from the past and to know enough not to repeat the mistakes that ruined millions of lives. At present, this sounds a good deal like wishful thinking.