Christmas Eve at Dachau and Liberation at Auschwitz
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., Executive Director
World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law
Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Fifty-five days later the Nazis opened Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp and the prototype for the thousands of concentration camps that followed. My husband and I went to Dachau on December 24, Christmas Eve.
We were in Germany over the winter holidays. World Without Genocide, a human rights organization I direct at William Mitchell College of Law, St. Paul, will co-sponsor a trip to Poland and Germany in October 2015 with Congregation Shir Tikvah, Minneapolis. The purpose of that trip is to visit Holocaust memorials and to connect with today’s expanding and vibrant Polish and German Jewish communities.
I had never gone to Germany before. I am a Jew. Distant family members perished in the Vilna ghetto during the Holocaust. I knew I would wonder about every elderly German I encountered – was he a Nazi? Had she been one of the women guards at a concentration camp? Were they members of the Hitler Youth, or perhaps part of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing squads that murdered more than a million Jews? Or were they worse, in some ways – were they bystanders, not supporters of the Nazis but refusing to stand up when their friends and neighbors were rounded up to be slaughtered?
Dachau is a small town about ten miles northwest of Munich. It felt like being in a different reality to take a train from central Munich and, twenty minutes later, to arrive at a station marked with a sign that reads simply “Dachau.” The sign looks like every other German train station sign: white letters on a blue background, completely ordinary and banal. Yet – Dachau.
At the train station we had to take a bus to the camp. We had no trouble finding the right bus stop; the sign said “Bus 726 Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site.” Fifteen minutes later we were there.
It was a crisp winter day with no snow on the ground and a bright blue sky overhead. The camp was closed, the only day of the year it closes.
Several hundred thousand people were incarcerated at Dachau from 1933 until liberation in 1945. It was originally a place for political dissidents but its purpose quickly expanded to include forced labor and the imprisonment of Jews, German and Austrian criminals, and eventually people from 30 countries which Germany had occupied or invaded.
And it was used to train SS guards.
Nearly 40,000 people died at Dachau from starvation, disease, or execution. The bodies were disposed of in crematoria.
Almost every German community had somebody who was sent to Dachau. According to an academic article published in 1946, a jingle went around shortly after Dachau opened. The words were, “Dear God, make me dumb, that I may not to Dachau come” (“Lieber Gott, mach mich dumm, damit ich nicht nach Dachau kumm”).
My husband and I walked around the perimeter of the camp. It was absolutely still. At one point he turned to me and said, “I can almost see Nazi guards in their tall black boots, with their dogs.” At that very moment we heard a dog bark in the distance, the only sound in that frosty morning air.
Millions of people visit genocide memorials every year. This ‘black tourism’ draws people to Cambodia’s killing fields, Rwanda’s memorials, Auschwitz, Srebrenica - Dachau. Why do they go?
Six years ago, when Renee Schwartz was in the eighth grade in St. Paul, she learned about the Holocaust. She came home after school one winter day and said to her parents, “I have to see Dachau.” Her parents understood that she needed to verify, validate, and understand what she had been studying.
The family went to Dachau for Renee’s eighth-grade spring vacation.
Renee took her camera and documented everything she saw. She came home and held a photography exhibit about Dachau at her church.
I recently gave her a gift, a little pin with the word “Zachor,” Hebrew for “remember,” an imperative to remember those who perished in the Holocaust. Renee laughed and said, “You’ve seen my tattoo.” I had not; I had no idea what she meant. She said, “A few years after I went to Dachau, I had “Zachor” tattooed on my shoulder,” and she showed me the word forever inked into her skin in Hebrew.
Renee’s visit to Dachau left a mark, not only the mark on her shoulder, but a mark on her heart and on her conscience. She has attended the World Without Genocide Summer Institutes for high school and college students since their inception four years ago. She was the guiding artist on the Holocaust section of our traveling exhibit Tents of Witness: Genocide and Conflict. Social justice is part of her identity.
But I fear that most of the millions of ‘genocide tourists’ visit memorial sites to learn about the macabre, the grotesque, and the depravity of human behavior, not to honor and remember those who perished.
That Christmas Eve morning in Dachau, my husband and I cried in the silence. We didn’t need to see the photographs and exhibits in the museum or to buy books and memorabilia in the gift shop. We simply needed to be there, just our quiet presence on the grounds where the bones and ashes of thousands and thousands of people lay, underneath our very feet.
We will remember. But remembering doesn’t bring back those who were murdered, nor does it bring justice to their perpetrators.
After the Holocaust, the American military held trials at Dachau, at the time the most widely-known of the Nazi concentration camps. What a powerful setting that must have been, with an almost-palpable presence of the 40,000 dead hovering in the courtrooms.
Over a three-year period at Dachau, the Americans prosecuted 1,672 German alleged war criminals in 489 separate proceedings and convicted 1,416 members of the Nazi regime. Of these, 297 received death sentences and 279 were sentenced to life in prison. All convicted prisoners were sent to War Criminals Prison #1 at Landsberg am Lech to serve their sentences or to be hanged.
One of those hanged was Martin Gottfried Weiss, commandant of Dachau. Among the crimes for which he was convicted: the construction and use of Dachau’s gas chamber, and for directing heinous medical experiments on the camp prisoners. He was executed in Landsberg prison in May 1946.
Justice happens after the horrors have ended. But how do we prevent these travesties to our common sense of humanity?
After a commentary I wrote appeared recently in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I received a hand-written note from a lawyer in Richfield. He asked, “What can I do specifically to help as a student, working person, retired person, etc.? What can my working or retired friends and our kids do?”
Terrible tragedies are happening today in many places in the world – Burma, Congo, Central African Republic, Syria, Darfur, South Sudan. The US sends critical aid; displaced people need food, water, medicine, and shelter, which many nations, groups, and individuals generously provide.
But it is a moral affront to think that we would have sent rice to Auschwitz or to Dachau and assuaged our conscience that we had done enough. We must think beyond aid. We must encourage our leaders to broker peace, to engage in political, diplomatic, and economic measures to end conflict. Call Senator Klobuchar (888-224-9043), Senator Franken (202-224-5641) and urge them to do more. Call every day. Ask your friends to call. Call Congressman Ellison, who is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (202-225-4755).
At a local level, World Without Genocide advocates for specific city and state legislation to make a difference. Governor Dayton recently signed into law a bill that designates every April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month, a bill we initiated and that we support in other states around the country. In 2008 Governor Pawlenty signed into law a bill divesting our state public pension funds from companies complicit in funding the genocide in Darfur. We will be involved in city and state legislation this spring to make a difference in the crisis in Congo and to prohibit medical personnel’s complicity in torture. Visit our website to become part of our work.
Today, January 27, is the United Nation’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date is the anniversary of the day on which Auschwitz was liberated, the largest Nazi death camp where more than a million Jews were exterminated. We must remember. We also must act.