To declare ‘Never again!’
DACHAU, GERMANY—Here in the Visitors Center of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, I am taking my time to reflect, while they are still very fresh, on my thoughts upon having just visited the first (established in 1933) of the Nazi concentration camps and the blueprint for future ones, including the death camps in Auschwitz.
The trip began with a short train ride from Munich—the Bavarian capital famous for its beer gardens—to the Bahnhof (train station) in Dachau. When I arrived many visitors were already gathered around the bus stop for Bus No. 726, which took us to the gates of the memorial.
The people who squeezed into the bus came from all corners of the world. My seatmate was a backpacker from Chile who told me of her visit to the Norwegian fjords. In front of us, an Indian couple were huddled with their teenage son. Some Americans were discussing Donald Trump.
Most of the people wore the cheerful air of travelers who find themselves enjoying a beautiful springtime day. But once we arrived in Dachau, the mood immediately became somber. We knew, of course, what a concentration camp is all about, but actually being there brought a renewed sense of its significance. People had brought their selfie sticks and DSLRs, but there was none of the usual posing at the entrance—or inside the memorial itself. This is, I thought, no place for selfies.
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I joined the walking tour led by Colinne Bartel, an American based in Munich. We retraced the route that the prisoners took, from the gate where they were flogged and the stations where they were stripped naked and shaven to the point of bleeding—to the crematorium where their corpses were burned. Visually, there was nothing of interest, and it was through listening to the stories that we appreciated the significance of each place: “On this wall they hung people from meat hooks.” “To that electric fence, people ran to end their misery.”
Further adding layer to the visit is the context that Colinne raised throughout the trip. While Hitler was the mastermind of the entire operation, she painstakingly reminded us of the context in which the Third Reich and the “Final Solution” emerged: lost nationalist pride owing to Germany’s defeat in World War II, the collapse of the economy due to the Great Depression, and the Nazi propaganda machine which blamed the Jews for many of Germany’s problems. And then she stressed that the Holocaust was enabled by the complicity of many parties: from companies like BMW that made use of forced labor from the camps, to philosophers like Martin Heidegger who provided intellectual cover for Nazism.
Furthermore, many countries around the world set quotas for the number of refugees they would accept from Nazi Germany—preventing many from escaping. One could not miss Colinne’s allusions to the state of the world today: fleeing refugees, the rise of right-wing nationalism in the West, prejudice against certain groups of people, and a global economy that is at risk for financial and social crises.
Her parting words hinted at the politics of remembrance: how, for instance, the Orthodox Chapel commemorating the camp’s Russian victims wasn’t built until 1995, and how many other groups of victims—i.e., Hungarians, Gypsies, homosexuals—aren’t given as much attention as the Jews.
And then she left us with a question: “What have we learned?”
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Surely the clearest lesson of the Holocaust is humanity’s capacity for evil. While many have blamed religion for fostering violence—and while there are those like the members of the Islamic State who kill in the name of their god—the Nazi regime was informed by a philosophy that rejected God, and saw man as caught in the struggle for the “survival of the fittest.” The fact that a highly-educated, “modern” society could degenerate into one that industrialized murder should make us rethink the confidence we have for what “progress”—technological or otherwise—can accomplish.
Another lesson, vital for our times, is humanity’s diminished capacity to remember. For some people to be able to deny the Holocaust—despite the insurmountable documentary and testimonial evidence—is proof that we cannot take history for granted: It is contingent not only on the past but also on the present, and it can be easily revised for certain people’s ends, or forgotten.
How can we make people remember? While walking by the banks of the River Danube in Budapest, I came across some metal boots that were fixed to the ground. These served to remind people that once upon a time, on that very spot, Jews were ordered to take off their shoes, then shot, so that their bodies fell into the river. This simple but haunting memorial—as well as dramatic films like “Schindler’s List”—made me realize that art can play a big role in the labor of commemoration. Surely there are many others, but one thing is clear: History is too important to be relegated to textbooks, and transmitting it to future generations is an uphill battle that requires much effort and thought.
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The world is beautiful, and I have traveled far in search of this beauty. But once in a while, we also need to be reminded of its ugliness—not to make our lives miserable, but to make us more sensitive to the misery of others, and the lessons that this misery, past and present, can teach us.
Confronting these inconvenient truths—and reliving them in ways that can allow many others to partake in their pain and their wisdom: This is the only way we can declare, with full conviction, the haunting words in Dachau: “Never again!”
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.
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