By Josh Kaplan
People are aware that the Holocaust was a terrible act of hatred and crime, but can they identify with the emotions of the Jewish people? Yes, the Nazi's also murdered Poles, Gypsies and homosexuals, among others, but the European Jews were almost exterminated. Due to the fact that the Jewish religion throughout the world is such a small community, odds are, if you were to ask any Jew if their family was affected by the Holocaust, the answer would be a resounding, "yes".
In the spring of 1996, my junior year of high school, I participated in a trip to Germany with some of my fellow classmates. We visited many historical sights throughout the southern part of the country, but the site that had a long-term effect on me was our visit to the Dachau concentration camp. Located in a small town called Dachau, outside of Munich, the camp was built on the grounds of a World War I munitions factory. Dachau was the first concentration camp built by the Nazis. Jews were not the only ones imprisoned at the camp, there was also homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, political dissidents, communists, socialists, Gypsies, people with mental illnesses and common criminals
As I stood outside the entrance, I thought of my great-grandparents who were two of the 6 million Jews that were unable to make it to liberation day. We only know from the Red Cross that my great-grandparents were transported out of Germany to Poland on March 20, 1942 (Red Cross search of records). Would I see them in the museum commemorating the lives of the prisoners? I was not sure, but it was a possibility. I walked through the visitor entrance near the rear of the camp and as I got my first glimpse of the camp, I could sense the anguish of the prisoners. To know that people suffered and died on these grounds made me think of what they went through. The day was cloudy, which added to the disparity of the camp. The combination of the weather and the dreariness of the camp made my stomach turn in a way I had never felt before.
I have been depressed before, but this was a different type of depression. It was more like a sense of remorse and anger. I had decided earlier on the bus that this was an experience that I had to take in myself. I was the only Jewish student on the trip, so in a way I was kind of isolated. It's not that I did not want my classmates to notice the emotion on my face; I just needed to experience the emotions that the camp brought to the fullest extent. I did not want to hear other students' thoughts because I knew what their reactions would be. This was my own personal journey into my deepest emotions.
I walked into the museum and picked up a booklet to figure out what I wanted to see first. I glanced up from the booklet and in front of me was a big picture of Dachau prisoners with prisoner clothes and their respective patches sewn to them, standing on the inside behind a fence lined with barbed wire. The persecution was evident in their faces. Their eyes were pleading for help and their bony bodies were begging for mercy. Everything in my mind disappeared when I saw the picture. I had drifted off into my own little world and there was no way to get out until I walked back on the bus later in the afternoon. My world was silent; I could hear a pin drop and hit the floor.
It was strange, I wanted to hear that pin hit the floor, but it was my heart that replaced it. It had fallen out of my body and shattered. When my heart shattered it was replaced by anger and resentment towards the Nazi's. I was able to hold in my anger because the event took place in the past. The anger that I felt that day was felt only once before. My freshman year a classmate began saying, "Hitler was cool, Hitler was cool" because I was Jewish. As a result, I punched him in the face and I received an out-of-school suspension. I knew that since I was in a completely different setting, I needed to control my anger.
I finally walked past that first picture. As I turned the corner there were hundreds of more pictures similar to that first one. Each picture that I looked at made my heart skip a beat and the tension in my body rise. I could hear the prisoners screaming through the pictures and the actual sound wanted to come out through my mouth. Our eyes connected and it was if their feelings were being entwined with mine. I stood there in shock, moving my head from side to side, saying to myself, "I can't believe that this really happened." I once again thought of my relatives who were in the same predicament that these prisoners were. While they were prisoners at a concentration camp in Poland, I felt their spirits were amongst every person in the photos.
The final pictures that I noticed were frame-by-frame photos of a prisoner who was being used for medical experiments. This prisoner was experiencing a great deal of pain as a result of the experiment. His facial expression was strong enough that I can still see it in my mind today. The first frame was of him sitting, waiting for the experiment to begin. Slowly throughout the other pictures his facial expressions changed. He went from a calm face, to one that was wincing and screaming in pain. His mouth was wide open, his eyes shut for protection. Finally, the last photo was of him in dire need of medical attention. His head was hanging limp and body was slouched over. The pictures that I saw that day might have had only one or two prisoners in them, but they represented every religion and ethnicity persecuted by the Nazi's.
I decided to move on, so I left the museum and walked towards the crematorium. I passed two of the rebuilt barracks on my way toward the front of the camp and looked in one of the doors, wondering how so many people could have fit into such a small area. The barracks were designed to hold a total of 208 prisoners, but the camp became so overcrowded that up to 1600 prisoners had to live in each barrack.
I headed out of the building and continued my trek to the crematorium. Everything I looked at made me think of the prisoners. Even the smallest pebbles on the ground made me think that prisoners, at least 51 years ago, were walking down this same path. They knew where they were going, but they could not do anything to stop it. I glanced to my right and I looked at the foundations of where the other barracks were. I then thought about the possibility of a prisoner sitting near the building being randomly picked out and shot by an SS guard.
I turned left and I arrived at the crematorium. I looked into the building where four ovens have withstood the test of time. Although bodies were not being burned in them anymore, I thought I could faintly smell the stench of burning flesh. Maybe it was just my imagination. I was not there when the bodies were being burned, but I could imagine what they must have smelled like. The thoughts of the smell made my face scrunch up and despise even more the hundreds of Nazi soldiers that were at the camp during the Holocaust. As I glanced at each oven, I noticed in the farthest oven to the left a fresh rose resting quietly inside. At that time I understood that Dachau was not just a place to get an understanding of what happened during the war, it was also a place to gather your thoughts and to remember the people who lost their lives.
The rose also signified a sense of hope that the extermination, (including the Israeli/Palestinian war), of the Jewish people would eventually end. That rose was very similar to the little girl in "Schindler's List" who had the red jacket on while the rest of the picture was in black and white. That little girl was also a sign of hope. The rose was the only color around a black and white crematorium.
I walked away from the crematorium and went toward the Jewish Memorial Temple. It was built in 1965 and it was the last of three religious memorials to be built at Dachau. The memorial was erected as an effort to commemorate all the Jews who either survived or perished there (www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/Text02.html). In the roof at the center of the memorial there was an open area to look up at the sky. In my line of sight was a gold menorah. I felt that the menorah was telling me to pray for all the Jews who were personally involved with the war. I could also sense that the Jewish victims from Dachau were looking down at me through that hole and speaking to me through my heart telling me that they are all right. They were also thanking me for remembering them after all the years.
Before heading back to the bus, I stopped in front of the most important memorial at the camp. The international memorial was unveiled in 1968 and it was placed there in honor of the Dachau prisoners from 37 European countries. It is a sculpture representing the horror of the emaciated bodies of the dead victims at the Dachau Concentration Camp. I thought it represented all the people who were in heaven and how relieved they must be because they are not in this horrible place anymore.
I finally decided to go back to the bus and as I entered, I snapped out of my little world in which I had been. I took my seat and just stared at the back of the seat in front of me. I continued to think about my great-grandparents and the struggle that they must have gone through. I looked up and I noticed the eyes of a dozen classmates just staring at me. It was as if they wanted me to say something to them, but it was actually their way of saying, "I'm sorry". I could see it in their remorseful eyes. The only response that I could give back was a small grin and a nod. That was my way of saying everything was going to be okay.
from the July 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine