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Monday, October 27, 2008


Dirty, starved skeletons
- description by American soldier of the liberated prisoners at Dachau

I spent five hours at the Dachau concentration camp. Even though there were many many deaths, Dachau was a work camp designed to confine prisoners that the NAZIs viewed as enemies of the state. I was surprised by the diversity of the prisoners: thinkers and political activists, of course, but also entertainers, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, beggars, and those considered racially inferior. In other words, people groups from all spectrums of life were represented.

I don't feel it is possible to neatly summarize Dachau and provide any kind of perspective or interpretation. I was simply dumb struck and speechless. No one can understand Dachau except those who experienced it. For the rest of us--especially those of us who are nearly 70 years removed--there is only the possibility of feeling as though we are tripping around in the dark searching for a light switch.

The primary objective of the work camp was to de-humanize. The sign on the gate is cold and ironic: Arbeit mach frei "Work brings freedom." The daily routines included brutal torture (for example, hanging from poles, beatings, etc.), intimidation, malnurishment, degredation, and harsh work. Upon entrance into Dachau, the prisoners have their property taken away from them and they are told, "You are without rights, dishonorable, and defenseless. You're a pile of shit and that is how you are going to be treated."

The following photograph is significant in its dehumanizing representation: all of the prisoners are simply part of a herd, "pests" shown here as being beneath their superiors:

In the Dachau Museum, the layout is chronological. The beginning points is the NAZI's rise to power, the chronology of Dachau, and then the freeing of the prisoners by American forces.

It is difficult to move through the exhibits. I felt I was more and more overwhelmed by the brutality and horror. The point at which I felt the most potent impact was perhaps when I came to a small exhibit on the poetry of Dachau. As I understand it, the poets sometimes took risks in writing down poetry, but most often they kept their poetry in their minds. I read the following bz Mirco Camia, a prisoner of Dachau, who writes about his encounter with Nevio Vitelli's poem "Mein Shatten in Dachau." I wrote down the words, but I had to stop several times, overcome at several points.

"The value of this poem for me?...it contains everything: the agony of captivity and the elegy of freedom, the meaning of the greatest earthly love, maternal love...and something else that is banished from the normal thoughts of youth and from human suffering: forgiveness.

"It is not possible to endure subhuman conditions, to be nothing more than an 'object'...without being pursued by it an entire lifetime, even in your soul, or without destroying what you possessed before this experience--...the beauty of a vision of the universe and of mankind...Nevio made it possible for me to find mzself again in his unknown poem."

For me, Dachau is a land marker in my life. It is a reference point. I don't feel that I have the ability to understand it, but merely to allow it to inform and shape me at every stage of growth.

For all of the efforts at Dachau to de-grade the human being, for all of the energy spent de-humanizing, the words of the Karl Röder (prisoner 1933-44) are poignant:

"In the camp I made a meaningful discovery: No power exists in the world that is capable of destroying humans as spiritual beings."


Jason Hesiak said...

hey that reminds me...if you're in berlin...you SERIOUSLY need to go here. it doesn't look pretty in pohotos, but people leave there on their knees.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks Jason....or rather....Denke!

I will make a point of trying to get there, that looks very interesting, and I believe you have mentioned this Museum in the past, if I recall correctly. I have always been interested.

Jason Hesiak said...

awsome and you're welcome :) if you go i'd LOVE to hear about your experience. i haven't been able to go.

AND...are we going to get to see the words of that poem??