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Visiting Dachau and Feeling…Nothing

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?

Walking through Dachau

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?

Electric fence in Dachau concentration camp

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?

The gas chamber in Dachau

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.

Crematorium in Dachau

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.

Never.

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5 comments

  1. KimVo says:

    What’s creepy is how sanitized it is now.
    When you went to Cambodia was there any evidence of the horror of the Khmer Rouge?

    • mishvo says:

      Most things in Germany are sanitized.

      Molly and I never went to the Killing Fields or anything in Cambodia…I wouldn’t know what to look for beyond that for evidence…Does poverty count? There was a lot of that

  2. ellen says:

    michelle, your sentiments really touch my heart. you write beautifully. it’s true that seeing locations of historical often to not convey feeling, just a window to see a structure or a setting. it made a lot of sense, what you said about a two dimensional photo. when you look at a photo, it takes you on a journey somehow. and, a lot of times our minds and bodies have to be in a calm and available place. especially when alone, we can better process after adding thoughts of family and love and friendship and laughter and compare such an unthinkable event such as the holocaust.

    thank you so much for sharing. so meaningful. and so important never to forget.

    take care,
    ellen weinstein

    • mishvo says:

      Wow Ellen, thank you so much for your comment/feedback/thoughts. I think you’ve touched on something really important here – going to the camp alone would have been a very very different for me I think, and being in a calm and available place….I think maybe I was in a different mindset completely at the time. I remember afterwards feeling like I just wanted to go see something beautiful. I didn’t want to think about Dachau anymore or feel confused about why I didn’t feel “sad enough”; I just wanted to see something beautiful and happy.

      It was interesting to compare my experience walking through the Anne Frank house and accompanying exhibit in Amsterdam a few weeks later to my experience in Dachau. I think I found the Anne Frank exhibit more touching because it was personal/relatable and easier to digest (the use of multimedia in the exhibit, not too much information, photos, quotes, and of course the annex)

      But anyways, I’m grateful for both experiences.

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