From Dachau to Charlottesville

During a trip to Europe this summer, my family spent an afternoon at the Dachau Concentation Camp Memorial in Germany. The oldest of the Nazi concentration camps, Dachau is now a museum where visitors can learn about the causes and effects of Nazi rule. A somber day in an otherwise carefree jaunt through three countries, the experience left a deep impression on my family and me. Throughout the museum, photos, writings, and voices of survivors remind us that the crimes of the Nazi era are not so very distant.

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Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial

The museum ushers visitors chronologically through the founding of the camp, and its functioning during the years prior to and during World War II. Visitors walk through the gate that prisoners entered with the empty promise of Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Liberates). Photographs, artifacts, newsreels, and thoughtfully presented exhibits help visitors understand prisoners’ experiences in the camp.

All prisoners were marked by badges that identified the reason for their imprisonment: political activism, religion, ethnic background, and sexual orientation were just a few of the designations. Prisoners were subjected to inhumane conditions: grueling labor, paltry rations, humiliating treatment, rampant, untreated disease, and torture of every sort. The most difficult for me to read about were the medical experiments in which some prisoners were forced to participate, many to the point of death.

A reconstructed barracks unit conveys a sense of the horrific living conditions for prisoners. Most of the 34 original barracks no longer exist, but their foundations are a reminder of the places that once housed thousands of prisoners.

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Reconstructed barracks at Dachau Concentration Camps. Multiple prisoners were crammed onto each of these bunks.

Past the foundations, visitors can view the two large crematorium buildings where the bodies of prisoners were burned. Nearly 32,000 people died at Dachau, from disease, malnutrition, and murder. Memorials throughout the camp, now a surprisingly peaceful place, give visitors time and space to process and reflect upon what they’ve seen. We left with a deeper understanding of history and a sense of responsibility to prevent future atrocities.

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Camp crematorium, where prisoners’ bodies were burned.

The roots of the atrocities in Dachau were deep seated: centuries of religious intolerance, years of state-sponsored discrimination. The museum documents thoroughly the terrifying rise of Nazi power, and the systematic dehumanization of groups of people.

Dachau reminds us of the importance of vigilance against the subtle creep of discrimination today. It starts with our thoughts, our words, our actions. It is evidenced in ugly acts like the ones last weekend in Charlottesville, and in quieter but insidious racism that we see everywhere. We see it when our neighbors or our leaders or our students make blanket statements about immigrants, or African-Americans, or Muslims. To me, these statements can be just as hurtful as a man who slams his car into a crowd of protesters, in part because they are harder to spot and harder to condemn.

In public schools and through youth groups, Nazis methodically, deliberately taught young people to hate. They started with the young because those are most vulnerable and the easiest to persuade. Those of us who work in schools have a responsibility to teach our young people attitudes of tolerance and acceptance. In Long Walk to Freedom, South African leader Nelson Mandela said:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

He expresses well my core values as a teacher — and as a human. Love must win. People must be taught to love. I must do my part. As a new school year begins, I am planning with that end in mind. Our students need to talk about what happened in Charlottesville, and the larger context of hatred and intolerance in America and throughout the world. This collection of resources is a terrific place to start. I hope and I believe that I am ready for the challenge.  

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