I’m trying to sort through my feelings on my visit to the former concentration camp but it’s hard because I don’t have any.
I expected to feel really sad and heavy. I expected to possibly be moved to tears by the place, but instead the only things I felt were anger (and not even that much of it), disgust, and confusion. I was confused, of course, as to why I didn’t feel sadder. Being here should feel powerful, shouldn’t it?
It was hard to imagine it being such an awful place because it didn’t feel awful there today. The weather was uncommonly nice; the people weren’t weepy or grievous but instead touristy and curious in a scholarly, detached way. There was an unusually large amount of young people in the form of students sitting in semi-circles lunching on sandwiches and even smaller waddling toddlers following their parents around in the gravel. Could these kids possibly have grown the emotional complexity required to sort through the devastation that was the Holocaust?
Maybe if we all let ourselves bear the sadness we deserve to feel, it would break us. But I’ve felt pretty sad about the Holocaust before. Places and times in which I have felt sadder about the Holocaust than I did when visiting Dachau:
- While reading Holocaust-related books, like Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and The Diary of Anne Frank
- At the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and specifically in the children’s exhibit: Daniel’s Story or something like that
- At the Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Israel, Yad VaShem
- While watching Holocaust movies like Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List
- While walking through the Anne Frank secret annex and accompanying museum
I was in the crematorium, standing in the darkened gas chamber room looking through the photos I had just taken…And I realized that looking at the photos made me feel sad in a way that standing there in that gas chamber didn’t. Why, why why??? Because I could imagine better the sounds and smells and reality of the gas chamber when looking at it in frozen 2D time?
Maybe this whole numbness thing is a problem in imagination; it was hard to imagine that all of it happened here – right here!! – where I am standing, in 2013, free, well-fed, and healthy amongst various other people of the same condition.
The experience was clearly emotionally exhausting (evidenced by my immediate need to pass out on the train ride back from the camp), not because it made me feel sad but because my mind was struggling to reconcile the atrocity of the concentration camp with the charming, beautiful, accommodating Germany with which I have become so familiar.
It bothers me that I didn’t feel that sad, but at the same time there is this weird moving forward feeling…I feel like maybe it’s good that a place doesn’t hold on to sadness the way that a story can. The power is in the stories. It’s in the pictures, the books, the exhibits, movies, and re-creations of that time. Maybe it’s a good thing that the residents of Dachau can live normal lives without thinking about the preserved concentration camp down the street.
That being said, I’m glad it’s preserved. I’m glad we have the opportunity to visit it and experience whatever range of emotions it ignites or doesn’t ignite in us.
Moving forward: yes. Forgetting: no, never.