Gunshots pierced a still, sunny morning at Dachau concentration camp. My husband and I cringed. It took a moment to remember that the Bavarian riot police have an active training facility on a portion of the property that once housed SS guards.
I suppose it's economical to make use of the land. Nevertheless, the jarring sound rang like an offensive reminder of all the Jews who'd died there. I wondered how frequently the prisoners heard that sound, what interminable fear they must have experienced every waking moment.
It was September, and we were visiting the former camp as part of a long-delayed honeymoon to Europe. Romantic, I know.
Initially, I resisted visiting Germany. My grandfather, Sam Nager, survived four years in Buchenwald while most of his siblings perished. I had no desire to see the country where bureaucrats engineered the death of so many of my family members. But my husband adamantly wanted to experience Germany in a broader context than World War II.
Of course, you can't go to Germany without running face first into the aftereffects of that pivotal time. Being curious about our heritage, we also sought them out. Neither of us had been to a concentration camp, and Dachau happened to be the closest.
The National Socialist party constructed its first German concentration camp in Dachau, an otherwise mundane suburb of Munich, in 1933, originally to house political enemies. An audio guide with sound bites from survivors and liberators took us through the grounds, which included a museum inside the original processing area, several memorials and the crematorium. The volume of dead bodies quickly outgrew Dachau's two furnaces, so the Nazis added another building with four more, plus a gas chamber.
Toward the end of the war, barracks built for 200 prisoners held 2,000. Standing inside a reconstruction, I couldn't even fathom that many people packed into the room like dirty animals. My blood boiled at the thought of my grandfather "living" in a place like that, of emaciated tenants struggling to climb into the highest of the three-tiered bunks.
The things we saw and read were so tragic, yet I felt detached from them somehow. There were no ashes in the ovens, no putrid smell of decaying flesh. Aside from two reconstructed barracks, there was nothing but gravel where rows of bunks once stood; tall trees marked a path straight down the middle of the complex. Everything seemed clean and orderly, almost surreal. I felt guilty that I couldn't fully wrap my head around what it must have been like to be imprisoned there.
More than sad, I was angry, especially at the residents of Dachau who continued going about their business while thousands of people were murdered in their backyards. In interviews by Allied psychologists after the war, townspeople consistently claimed they had no idea what the camp was used for or the condition of the prisoners there. But we saw with our own eyes how close it was to residential areas.
A road bordered one side of the property where cars drove past a guard tower. Even if there had previously been thicker natural borders, we read that prisoners were often brought out to work on construction projects. If Dachau residents didn't see them then, how could they not have noticed the stream of train cars laden with new prisoners, or the distinctive smell of burning bodies? They may not have perceived the full extent of what was happening, but even Allied psychologists concluded there was no legitimate way to profess ignorance.
Despite the emotional dissonance I felt, I was glad that we made a point of touring the camp, as well as several other Holocaust-related landmarks and memorials throughout our journey. I owed it to the victims.
Aside from growing up in a Reform synagogue, it was my grandfather's experience that reinforced my commitment to my religion. If being Jewish defined my ancestors' death, it would define my life in their honor.
I was proud to bring Grandpa to my Sunday school classes, where we listened, horrified, as he described the Nazi guard who shattered his teeth with a rifle blow to the face and his lonely travels through Russia in hopes of finding family members. Later, we were inspired — or at least I was — by his accounts of starting over with nothing in the foreign Midwest.
I regret not taking notes all those years ago when Grandpa talked freely about his childhood. Chronic depression swallowed him by the time I reached high school. His emotional state worsened until he died in 2008.
Even though I still carry the impact of Grandpa's story, the troubling hollowness I felt at Dachau reminded me how easily humans can disconnect from pain we don't personally experience.
That's why we must fight to keep those connections.
Every year on Yom Hashoah, the Jewish community laments the shrinking pool of survivors who serve as living proof of what must never happen again. So we have to search for other things that resonate, whether concentration camp tours, memorials, literature or history textbooks. And we cannot wait for the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day to do this — it must be an active, ongoing process, even when we'd rather look away.
It would have been so much easier to spend our visit to Munich at any number of art museums or beer gardens. Instead, we forced ourselves to examine injustice so we will recognize and never accept it.
Imagine what might have happened if the people of Dachau had done the same.