Almost exactly a year ago, I sat in a small living room in a hostel on Kangaroo Island with a fellow American, a German girl, a Chinese girl and a French guy. Together over sushi and wine we discussed the second world war and its effects on each of our countries. I hadn't previously given much thought to the topic other than the fact that I knew it was in the history books. Something switched on however, upon realizing that such an event profoundly effected the entire globe. It wasn't just a problem for Germany or for America but it was a world-wide event that all people of all nations can relate to in some form or another.
From that moment on I began growing more and more curious in the stories that took place during WWII. Naturally, I began to study the topic more and more as my trip to Germany grew near. I wanted to see the soil where these events took place. Now that I have been in Germany for two weeks I feel like I have a more concrete idea of what happened during that time. I've walked in a stadium where Hitler gave speeches. I've touched the wall that separated east and west Berlin after Germany was denazified and I've walked through a three-hour exhibit of German History. Today I topped all of these humbling experiences with a visit to the concentration camp upon which all others were modeled—Dachau.
Dachau lies just north of the city of Munich. It was here that an estimated 41,500 people lost their lives during the war. Casualties ranged from hunger, disease, exhaustion, hypothermia, suicide and even experimental medicinal treatments. The entire camp is 1.5 square kilometers and originated as a political prisoner's camp at the beginning of the war, however as the amount of prisoners escalated, so did the size of the camp. By the end of the war there were over 60,000 prisoners living in this one small camp.
I will say that it is a very powerful thing to walk among the actual ground where so much horrific history took place. I was humbled in shock and reverence as I walked through the barracks where so many men were crammed together and forced to sleep on planks. I couldn't speak when I walked through the crematory and saw the gas chamber disguised as a shower for exterminating the sick.
My experience at Dachau was made even more relevant by the fact that the day before I read the first half of Viktor Frankl's book, “Man's Search for Meaning.” The first half of the book is Frankl's personal account of surviving four concentration camps during the war. At one point he was stationed at a nearby satellite station of Dachau and I found his described experiences matched the exhibits in the museum perfectly. As I walked throughout the grounds of the camp I couldn't help but see the images I had read about the day before. I pictured Frankl grasping desperately to his last bite of bread for the day. I heard his footsteps marching in the gravel towards another dreadful day of work in the plantation field. I even felt his sadness as his manuscript for a scientific book was stripped from his hands upon arrival at the camp.
What is more, I completed my experience by reading the latter half of Frankl's book on my journey home from the camp. The last portion of the book is devoted to Frankl's theory of logotherapy, which is to say that people only need meaning to make life worth living. Several times he uses his experiences of living and working in such a terrible state as means for proving his theory. When many of the prisoners were at the brink of giving up or committing suicide, he and the other prisoners would remind that person why their life had meaning—wether it was a loved one, a work project or a spiritual calling—whenever the person was presented with the why they could undoubtedly persevere through the suffering just a while longer. Their life had meaning.
The combination of reading Frankl's book and visiting Dachau made for a very impressionable experience. I feel much more connected to the events of WWII and my reverence for the victims who underwent such traumatic experiences has grown four-fold.
The message of the Dachau Memorial was made clear by writing on a wall near the main exhibit. There in five languages read the phrase: “NEVER AGAIN.” I don't see how anyone could study such horrible events without praying the same phrase.