Beyond the Dachau Gates

In late May 2000, I was on an eight-country tour of Europe to celebrate my upcoming college graduation. I traveled with a tour company that specialized in tours for post-college youth and young adults, ages eighteen through thirty-five. We traveled throughout Europe on an intense seven-day tour and I was especially excited to visit Germany given my German heritage. When we arrived in Germany, we stayed in a small hotel in the beautiful village of Sankt Goar on the Rhine River. The landscape of Germany is breathtaking, with high mountain peaks and lush forests surrounding quaint little villages. After one night in Sankt Goar, we piled onto our bus and headed south on the autobahn to Munich. We spent the day sightseeing, explored the Marienplatz, and observed the intricate architecture and storytelling of the Rathaus-Glockenspiel. The street performer dressed as a medieval knight entertained me.

 

That evening we ate at the Hofbrauhaus Biergarten, one of the oldest and most famous beer halls in the world. Our group was escorted to two tables on the lower level or the die schwemme. This massive room can hold up to 1,300 patrons, but this evening it was only half full. Many ornate archways and large arched windows caught my attention and were the main attraction of the room. Hofbrauhaus keeps personal beer steins on site for their regular customers in a beer stein safe, a service offered nowhere else in the world. On the music podium the band played upbeat songs, creating a festive mood. Our tour group drank many steins of beer and occasionally some of the regulars surrounding us started to bang their beer steins on the tables, and chanted in German. Although we didn’t understand the chant, all of us were caught up in the excitement; we participated in the ritual and sang along. I dined on rich, hearty German food including hendl (roasted chicken) and mashed potatoes. Someone in our group asked the waitress, doned in traditional German dirndl, if she could demonstrate a traditional dance. She told him dancing was only allowed on the second floor in the festival hall. We had a wonderful evening and the locals’ hospitality made us feel at ease.

 

The next morning, many of us boarded the bus hungover, but content. When we were on the road, our tour director, Graham, announced we had some extra time in our schedule and he had a ‘special surprise’ for us. I had hoped we were going to visit Neuschwanstein Castle, located in the vicinity. Many of us eagerly awaited the reveal of this special surprise… A visit to Dachau, a forced labor concentration camp. I must admit it wasn’t the delightful surprise that Graham had insinuated. However, this unplanned excursion changed my life forever. I felt overwhelmed to be in such a ghastly place; I had never been in a place where war crimes and mass murder were committed.

 

In school I learned about the Holocaust and I have seen numerous films on the subject, including Schindler’s List and The Pianist. Literature and film try to expose what it would have been like to live in those conditions: overcrowded barracks with unsanitary facilities, medical experiments, being worked to death, and prisoners witnessing tyrannical murders of fellow inmates in the main courtyard. Many died from typhus, malnutrition, deadly evacuation marches, and suicide, among other causes. But the only way to understand what the Holocaust would have been like is to visit a concentration camp - seeing the remnants of the atrocities committed by one group of humans toward another group of humans.

 

Being at Dachau for one day was emotionally distressing. I imagined myself as a prisoner there, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. I remember thinking to myself what I would have done at that time and place. My terror and hopelessness would have driven me to misbehave, giving the guards no choice but to shoot me and end my suffering. Alas, my terror and emotions were not a fraction of what the prisoners experienced.

 

Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, opened in 1933 near the medieval town of Dachau, located in Bavaria, about ten miles northwest of Munich. An estimated 188,000 inmates were interred there and a reported 31,951 people were killed between 1933-1945. During its years in operation, Jews, politicians, criminals, and clergy from mainly Poland, Germany, Russia, and the Czech Republic were imprisoned at Dachau. The United States liberated the camp in April 1945.

 

I have visited many historical sites during my travels, including Pearl Harbor and the ancient city of Pompeii, both places where thousands died, but none affected me as emotionally nor as profoundly as my visit to Dachau. Perhaps because the Pompeii eruption was a natural occurrence and Pearl Harbor was bombed from above. To me, however, Dachau felt more heinous because prisoners were explicitly targeted, subjected to torture and death because of their ethnicity, religion, mental and physical disabilities, among other factors.

 

When I passed through those gates, where thousands had passed through before me, I couldn’t help but imagine the hopelessness, fear, and pessimism the prisoners must have felt at that same moment decades ago. A psychic awareness came over me while I walked around the grounds. We explored the prisoner barracks, the gas chamber, and the crematorium; all still standing in their exact same places as years before. There were shrines for different faiths throughout the grounds: The Jewish Memorial, Catholic Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel, and The Protestant Church of Reconciliation. People reflected quietly to themselves, paid their respects to the victims, and others weeped.

 

Dread and desperation overcame me and I felt as if a twenty-five pound weight weighed me down. I could feel the anxiety and bleakness inside me. It felt like the souls of the dead were somehow channeling my consciousness. The psychic energy of the dead haunted the camp and created a lethargic effect within me. I felt tense and emotional. I felt vulnerable in my surroundings.

 

After exploring Dachau, our tour group quietly filed back onto our bus. Everyone, emotionally drained, contemplated what we had just witnessed. I recall the utter silence on the bus; every single person in pensive mournfulness. The silence continued until Graham started talking on the mic and summarized the “surprise.” He said, “although the Holocaust was many decades ago and may seem irrelevant to our generation, it cannot just be swept under the carpet like it never happened.” Our group sat on the bus and listened to him attentively, but no questions or discussions ensued. The silence continued until Graham again talked into the mic and began recounting the history of Brenner Pass in Austria, where we would drive through on our way to Italy.

 

Later that evening, I discussed the visit to Dachau with other members of the tour to get their impressions. Some people had a difficult time articulating their feelings, and many had aggrieved looks on their faces. One woman told me she couldn’t contain her emotions at the camp, she cried quietly the entire time.

 

Why are there memorials for World War II around the world? How do we remember and recognize the millions of victims that perished during the Holocaust? The prisoners at Dachau and the victims of Holocaust were inhumed because of hatred and intolerance. I learned that most German civilians at that time were completely unaware of the atrocities being committed. And those who were aware, felt powerless because they feared their own families’ lives. I learned that ethnic profiling and genocide were not and will never be feasible ways to gain political or financial advantage.

 

Since visiting Dachau, I have shared my story in great detail about what I saw, felt, and experienced. I felt my peers were from a different time and place, and were not capable of understanding the severity of this scar on Germany’s history. The recent hate crimes committed in the US eerily parallel the intolerance and brutality of the Holocaust. We must learn to embrace diversity and not punish those with different ethnicities or religions. The United States was founded by individuals seeking religious and political asylum, by people seeking freedom to express their differences. Those differences, that diversity makes our country strong, makes our country great and unique.

Nicole Bergstrom was raised in Jersey Shore, NJ and studied journalism and communications at Pace University. After twenty years in the corporate world, she decided to change directions and pursue her passions: traveling and writing. She has traveled extensively throughout the United States, Caribbean, and Europe. In the future she plans to visit Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific.