It had been a long hot day at Dachau and our tour was coming to an end. Our group had just walked through the crematorium and gas chambers and met our tour guide (James) by this statue. “I like this statue. There is something in the attitude of the guy that is defiant. His head is not bowed,” James said quietly. “The prisoners were not allowed to put their hands in their pockets and I like that he has his hands in his pockets.” There were other tour groups and people who had traveled to Dachau on their own all around, but it was quiet, the kind of quiet that reveals that this place is not an ordinary place. As I looked at the statue and took a picture, I heard an unseen bird singing in the trees. This song would normally go unnoticed. Usually the chatter of the world drowns out the inconsequential songs of birds, but at Dachau the song bird has its most attentive audience. For three hours I had not heard a single happy sound. My mind drifted away from everything that I had seen that day and I began thinking of John Keats‘ poem Ode to a Nightingale, especially the first stanza where Keats discusses his personal anguish and the mysterious bird’s happy song.
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
I had traveled to Keats’ house near Hampstead Heath in London many years ago and sat beneath the tree where it was said he was napping when he heard the nightingale singing. I walked through the stagnant house where Keats lived and wondered if he knew his life was almost over when he wrote those words. Historians believe Keats had contracted tuberculosis from his brother Tom who had died in December of the previous year. Did he see that his life’s arc was going to be so brief?
I thought of Keats’ headstone in Rome inscribed with the words, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” and how he died believing that his poetry would disappear and he would join the numberless members of the human race who have melted into this earth and are now unremembered. Keats’ poetry survived, and his life has been immortalized through those words, but the millions of humans that were murdered during the Holocaust are now reduced to faded photographs and representative statues. The names of the six million European Jews who were murdered by the Nazis did have their “names writ in water.”
Dachau has a way of reminding that life is brief, that circumstances and fate are cruel, and that humans are both brave and savage.
I was not sure if I wanted to spend my final day in Europe at Dachau. I had been to a concentration camp near Hamburg (Neuengamme) several years before and understood that these memorials are not destinations to be visited as a check-off on my to-do list, but I had also come away from the visit at Nuengamme wishing I had someone there to explain what I was seeing. Authorized guided tours of concentration camps are limited by the German government not because they want to cover up the crimes committed during the Holocaust, but because they only want qualified, educated people leading tours of these factories of death. There are a few English-speaking tours of Dachau each day and after reading a number of reviews on TripAdvisor, I decided to go with the “In Their Shoes” tour. It was a good choice.
The tour group (seven of us) met in the main train station in Munich just outside of a coffee shop. We had a quick meet and greet before hopping on the train to Dachau: There were two younger military guys from Michigan on leave from duty in Africa, and a family of three adult children and their mother from Portland. The train trip from Munich to Dachau is about 15 minutes and our group spent the time talking about where we had been during the summer. Our guide, James, began talking about the history of Dachau after we had transferred from the train to a bus. After a month in Europe, and seeing the bits and pieces of the puzzle that led to Hitler’s rise to power, I was reminded that these events did not just take place as words in a history book. The bus dropped us off near the entrance to the memorial and James did what any good guide does, he gave us a brief introduction to etiquette for the memorial and then guided us to the gates of the camp.
My initial reaction to the gate was that it was much smaller than I thought it would be, in fact the entire camp was much smaller than I thought it would be. I suppose I thought the camp should be equal in size to the horror it caused, but this was not a cemetery where graves would mark the great numbers of people who were tortured and murdered here, it was a work camp where the Nazis mechanically tried to destroy several groups of humans. Dachau was the first concentration camp, a camp I had read about in books, heard about in history classes, and the camp that would become the model for the rest of the factories of death. It was not as large as Nuengamme (a camp I had not heard of until visiting) and I began to wonder why it was more “famous” than other camps that murdered just as many people but remain unknown to most Americans. If I were to say, “I went to Nuengamme,” to most people they would assume it was another city in Germany, but if I were to say, “I went to Dachau,” no one would think I went to the small town just outside of Munich. Why?
I believe there are two reasons why Dachau is fixed in our collective American memory: American soldiers arrived at the camp first, and one of the soldiers had a color movie camera that recorded what the Nazis left behind. The movie camera captured the train-loads of bodies, the medical facilities created to test the extremes of human survival, and the surviving humans who looked more like walking dead than living people. These shocking images have survived the 70 years between the end of WWII and today. These are the images of events we swear to never allow to happen again…but we all know genocides continue to plague the world.
I’m not sure how long the tour lasted. We saw the entire camp, the ovens, the gas chambers, the barbed wire fences and moat, the barracks, and the on-site prison. I took pictures, but even today, I don’t want to share them. It isn’t that I don’t want others to see what I saw, it is that I don’t think pictures can bring the reality of the place to life. Pictures dull the impact of the horror because it becomes too familiar, too ordinary.
The millions of people murdered deserve to be remembered, but their hopes, their dreams, and their lives were “writ in water.” There are too many of them to be remembered properly. It is too overwhelming and all the memorials in the world will not make up for what has been lost.
As I left Dachau I thought of the song bird sitting in the trees behind the statue. Keats argued that the bird is not truly happy, it does not know death, it does not know pain, and therefore the bird does not understand happiness even though humans associate its song with joy.