This will probably be the most difficult travel writing I do, and the least enjoyable to read, but it is also an important experience on which to reflect, today on Holocaust Remembrance Day and every day. I have visited two concentration camp sites while traveling in Europe: Dachau during my trip to Munich, and Auschwitz in Poland when my college Model UN team attended a conference in the Czech Republic. The educational experience of these visits is forever burned in my memory, and I firmly believe that everyone should go to a concentration camp at least once. We can never fully understand the horrors that victims of the Holocaust and other genocides worldwide have faced. But we have the responsibility to grasp this reality as much as we can and to reject all contemporary language/movements that threaten the validity of human life based on ethnicity or any other way someone might discriminate against individuals or groups. A recent survey conducted by the US Holocaust Museum and an expert at George Washington University found a startling lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among Americans:
“Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. Only 39 percent of Americans know that Hitler was democratically elected.” –New York Times
These survey results startled and horrified me, because if we do not take seriously the education of generations about the darkest parts of human history, then how will they prevent similar atrocities from occurring again? As I describe my experience at each of the concentration camps I’ve been to below, I encourage you to click the links and read more of each camp’s history from the US Holocaust Museum website.
At Dachau, the first regular concentration camp, you can walk around the camp and historical exhibits on your own, but my friend Alayna and I chose to take a tour with an expert in Holocaust history, and I strongly recommend this approach. Our guide volunteered her time because she was passionate about making sure that this history was remembered, and she was instrumental in my understanding of everything I saw. And as overwhelming as it is to be at a concentration camp, I was very thankful not to be walking around alone. The most poignant experience I had here was walking inside the gas chambers. There are three rooms. In the first room, victims were instructed to undress for showers. In the second room, with low ceilings and the door from the first room shut, the poisonous gas was released. The third room was to store the bodies until they could be taken to the ovens. It is difficult to fully grasp not only the physical torture but the psychological torture that millions endured here. The other moment that particularly struck me at Dachau was not so much the camp itself, but the behavior of other vistors around me. As we were leaving, groups of people were lively and chatty and ready for the next fun experience in Munich, detached from what they had just seen; meanwhile Alayna and I could barely find words. Worse, while photos were permitted in most areas, I was disturbed to see tourists snapping photos of the ovens where corpses were destroyed and photos of themselves smiling inside the gas chamber. Please, please do not do this if you visit a concentration camp. It is not a tourist attraction; it is an educational visit that an organization of Holocaust survivors chose to put together to make people remember the history. And trust me, you do not need a photo to remember what you saw. You will never erase those images from your mind.
When my Model UN team went to Auschwitz, I thought I was at least somewhat prepared, having already visited Dachau. I wasn’t. Auschwitz is eerily quiet; we wore headphones to hear the guide so that it was even quieter. We saw massive piles of shoes, kitchenware, goods that the Nazis confiscated as they captured their victims, that emphasized the sheer number of people who suffered. And because we were in Poland in late November, where the sun began to set at 3:30 in the afternoon as we stood on the ground where housing for victims once stood, it was colder than I had ever experienced before. And that struck me. How chilled to the bone I felt with winter clothes on, with full meals in my stomach, with healthy amounts of body fat to keep me warm. How the victims of the Holocaust endured the same cold and dark winter hours, with rags for clothing, barely any nourishment, starved thin, and enduring hard labor and torture every single day.
I think it is important to point out that several distinct groups were victims of the Holocaust. Homosexuals, the Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Social Democrats, Communists, and other so-called “a-socials” were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. In other words, any group that did not fit the mold for one man and one political party’s vision of an ideal society was deprived of the most basic human rights and dignity. Whether you belong to any of the above groups or not, the seeds of hatred against groups of people can be sown for any group in history, now, or in the future. So when others are oppressed, it is the responsibility of all of us to speak up. And we need not wait until genocide is already happening, such as it is today in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslims. Remember: Adolf Hitler was elected democratically. He ran on a platform of improving the Germany economy and the lives of the German people. People either were blind to or willfully ignored the monster that he was until it was far, far too late. We don’t have to let it get that far in the first place. That is why it is so important to keep people out of power who speak with nationalist rhetoric and who consider only certain groups to be “the people” of a nation. It’s why it is so disturbing to see xenophobic political parties, even self-proclaimed neo-Nazi candidates, gaining voter support and even legislative seats in Europe and the United States. And it is why the attempt to cover up racism and discrimination against groups outside of one’s own by claiming that it’s not racism, just expression of economic worry or patriotism, is unacceptable and dangerous.
Visit a concentration camp, respect the memory of those who suffered and perished there, learn about the history of the Holocaust and other instances of genocide in the past and present, and stand up in the face of any language or action that treats individuals or groups as less than the human beings that they are.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”