by Chang Su
After a half-an-hour train ride from Munich and another twenty-minute bus ride from the town Dachau, with the October light drizzle, I arrived at a humble concrete building with a sign that read, “Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial”. The sign was plain but cut straight to the point. Like any other tourist information center, the only components of the building were an information desk, a cafeteria, and a book store. I got a map of the memorial site from the information desk and headed towards the former concentration camp via an unpaved road shielded by falling golden leaves.
The watch tower of the camp stood behind a natural river covered by trees, and an iron gate tattooed with the phrase, “Work Makes You Free” in German, situated under the watch tower. The whole scene was just like the photos of concentration camps, except now the door could be opened upon anyone’s free will. After all, Dachau was the first concentration camp established by the Nazis, and it was used as a “model camp” for propaganda purposes rather than a death camp. It was to be expected that the gate looked so familiar. It was astonishing, however, almost painful, that the scene was so peaceful, so natural, and so beautiful.
Behind the gate, the big and empty camp ground that had been occupied by prisoners and Nazi officers was now busy with tourists and students. Every student in Germany was required to visit a concentration camp before entering college. Lest we forget. A few buildings surrounding the campground that had been offices, “dorms” or prisons are now museums about the history of The Nazis and Dachau. Survivors claimed that standing on the ground for hours was the worst part of their lives while imprisoned in the concentration camp, because the fear of getting shot by the guards at any time and watching others being punished for no reason had brought more psychological damage than any other experience in the camp. The years brushed away the ashes of prisoners’ sweat and blood from the ground. I did not know if the spirits of those who once suffered here could now see the giant statue that depicted struggling souls and the phrase “Never Again” in too many languages to count carved onto two mighty monuments that replaced the Nazis and were now guarding the camp.
Certainly, nothing here showed the celebration and carnival of Munich during Oktoberfest. Nothing here resembled the extravagant royal palace and fine-tuned old houses in the serene town Dachau either. More surprising still, yet no less certain, nothing here screamed bloody murder. Since the yelling of the Nazi officers and gunshots and gas in the death chambers were gone, there was no sound in the concentration camp, save for the trembling aspens singing in the early autumn wind.
One building on the left side of the camp ground resembled a “dorm” building, inside of which showed how the Nazis put more and more people into the rooms as the war progressed, until 2000 people were crammed in a room with a capacity of 100. All the “dorms” were torn down, yet the concrete base of the buildings remained. There was a tree in front of each base; the trees were replanted many times to keep the original landscape of the camping site, as if they were telling people that the wound of the war closed, but the scars would remained, the way life would continue on the mother earth. On the other side of the camping ground, a few churches of different religions were built after the war. All the churches looked a bit unorthodox and plain, as designing churches for memorial purposes rather than worship was no easy task on a concentration camp.
Right outside the main camp areas stood two gas chambers which were used only a few times for medical experiments. Even though I have read countless ‘medical experiments’ conducted for ‘science’ in the concentration camps before, seeing the building itself standing there with such peace brought the deep chilling pain to my bones. The reasons why the Nazis built gas chambers at a propaganda camp was undocumented, even though the Nazis kept a very thorough records for almost all their decisions. Maybe some history is meant to be buried.
As I was leaving the camp that had witnessed the rise and fall of the Nazis, the sun tore through the clouds and shone on the camp ground. The sunlight warmed the chill that the Dachau wind sent down the spine, painting the grey campground the color of gold.
No death was reported from Dachau that day. No propaganda photos were taken in Dachau that day.
There was no news in Dachau.
Chang Su is a medical student at Yale School of Medicine. She was born in Xi’an, China and immigrated to Calgary, Canada in high school. She attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating with a B.S.E in Bioengineering and a minor in Chemistry. During her undergraduate studies, she studied abroad at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and went on service trips to Panama and China. At Yale, she is the student leader for Art in Medicine, Program for the Humanities in Medicine, a graduate affiliate at Ben Franklin College, a medical school tour guide, and a Trivia hostess. Since high school, she has conducted various basic science and clinical research projects in ecology, machine learning, traumatic brain injury, socioeconomic determinants of health, and cancer prevention strategies. In her free time, she loves to travel, draw, photograph, play the flute, and write a dessert blog.