I visited Dachau earlier this week, and posted about it before I went. I was moved by the stories that some of you told in the comments, so thank you for that.
Dachau was the first concentration camp in Germany and is located near Munich, a real party town whose youth hostel hands out fliers for a 12 euro beer crawl. Arriving at Dachau, though, was sobering. From right when Alberto and I entered, I was already scared. It was a space where an atrocity had occurred, and merely setting foot on the grounds was enough to make me afraid.
There was a movie, a museum section, several memorials, and part of the concentration camp that was restored (most of Dachau is still in use today for other purposes). What struck me the most when I entered Dachau was how emotionless the space was. If it weren't for the other visitors, it would would have been completely free of life - the buildings were a uniform white-beige, everything was at right angles, the ground was covered in white gravel, it was entirely surrounded by barbed wire. To the left were the restored barracks and stones marking where the others were, neat and compact.
Part of it was turned into a museum about the Holocaust and Dachau's history, and the man to the right, whose picture was in the museum, has haunted me every time I close my eyes since I first saw it last week. More on him after the jump. (Also, I'll warn you that there's a disturbing picture of him that you might not want to see.)
About half-way through the museum, I was confronted with this series of pictures:
My first thought, before reading the caption, was that the man in the picture was cute.
The caption then said that it was a series of pictures taken during an experiment on ten prisoners to see what happened when air embolisms were injected into the brain. He died immediately. On the left is before the experiment, in the middle he's in extreme pain, and on the right he's dead.
I don't have any other information on this person or on this so-called experiment. I moved on to the next part of the museum, ashamed that my first instinct was sexual.
That's part of the problem, I think, with how we (don't) discuss death in the West - our massive discomfort with the subject has resulted in us relying on propriety and becoming distressed when we or others don't deal with the subject matter in the way we think they should. Earlier in the day, for example, in the crematorium a group of visitors from India were taking each others' pictures in front of the incinerators, smiling. It enraged me, and I'm still mad at their smiling faces, even though I understand intellectually that it's a culture that understands death differently than the West does, that has complex ceremonies for it, and that actually talks about it.
I haven't been able to get that man's face out of my head, and I want to know more about him. What was his name? What did he do before being sent to Dachau? Did he have a family? What did his friends think he was like? Why was he there?
That was all meant to be erased, though. People who entered Dachau gave up their rights to property, dignity, and individualism. They were assigned and referred to with a number, they wore the same uniform, and their heads were shaved.
It was all, I suppose, to make it easier to kill them. What makes Dachau stand apart from any other tragic site I've visited is the utter gratuitousness of it. Every aspect of the concentration camp was supposed to make the prisoners suffer, from the lack of individuality, the incredibly cramped living conditions, the rampant disease and hunger that went unaddressed, the separation from family and friends, the torture, and the random murder.
It was a machine designed to increase suffering and exterminate human beings, and it was efficient and bureaucratic. There was no escape, no place to retire, no way to fight back. Death was possible at any moment, and those who survived Dachau did so through nothing other than the fact that the Nazis couldn't kill people fast enough.
The abject cruelty is mind-boggling, and with that my mind keeps on going back to the man in the picture above. As someone who studied science in college, I can't understand what they were doing as an "experiment," since it was already established fact that air embolisms in the brain were fatal. It was a game, and the prisoners' lives were simply toys. When they used one up, they could just throw it away without concern.
A section of the museum at Dachau is devoted to a sober explanation of the politics that led up to the Holocaust. After World War I, German politics were in disarray. Using nationalistic fervor drudged up because of the prohibitive Treaty of Versailles, the Nazis came to power, disbanded parliament, demonized the left and labor movements as having betrayed Germany and losing the first world war, banned immigration, and scapegoated a minority (the Jews) for all of Germany's economic problems.
I'm not saying we're heading down that same path, but after seeing some examples of the pink triangles gay men who were at Dachau had to wear, it made me uneasy. Here I am, in an open forum talking about my sexuality, when, who knows, a similar regime could come to power. Instead of thinking of politics as a progression to an equal society, maybe we should understand that our species lacks any ability to collectively mature and focus on education and vigilance.
I tried as hard as I could not to think about the man above for the rest of the day, only to let that memory, and my shame for finding him attractive, fester until it exploded in tears. I have no ability to process what was done to him, to answer the basic "Why?" All I could do was beat myself up for reacting inappropriately, for not having respectably, and uniformly, somber thoughts.
Perhaps my reaction was ultimately humanizing, seeing him as more than a number, proving that he really lived. I don't know, and I don't want to create another "appropriate" model for thinking about the dead. What about the ones who weren't in that museum? What about the millions of faceless people who were murdered during that time period? Is it possible to remember each of them as individuals?
I don't think that's possible, but I just don't know what to do to stop thinking about him.
All I know is that there's no moral to this story.