Let us never forget
As I See It ...
While attending law courses in Austria this past summer, I made a weekend trip to the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany. As Armistice Day approaches I dedicate this column to the memory of those who perished there and similarly elsewhere.
In 1933 Heinrich Himmler transformed this defunct ammunition factory into Germany's first concentration camp. Dachau became a model prison camp because of its strict military regime. Originally built to house 5,000 inmates, by war's end it had held more than 200,000. Every prisoner entered through iron gates over which hang the words, Arbeit Macht Frei — "Work Makes One Free."
Few knew they would be worked to death. The population included Catholic priests, Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, the homeless, gypsies, political dissenters and moral opponents. Jews comprised only 11 percent of the population, since most were sent to extermination camps in Poland.
Our tour guide brought us before a massive iron sculpture consisting of twisted forms twined around barbed wire. The work depicted one of the more common methods of suicide, by which prisoners would hurl themselves against the high voltage fence.
Others would hang themselves in the "Bunker," or prison houses. Inside, two rows of cramped, dark cells lined each side of the narrow hallway. Each room contained radiators, which SS officers would often turn off during the winter to torment prisoners.
More than 31,000 are on record as having died at Dachau, although many thousands of nameless more met death at the execution wall, situated at one end of the Bunker. Behind the Bunker, soldiers would subject prisoners to "pole hanging."
Concrete stakes still line the grass, each drilled with holes from which hooks were placed. Prisoners' hands were tied behind their backs, their arms hooked backwards to the stakes. Blood circulation was cut off from the shoulders and if they did not die, many dislocated or otherwise permanently injured their shoulders, suffering injury similar to that inflicted by crucifixion.
One prisoner recalled being penalized with 30 minutes of pole hanging for having lost a button from his shirt. When guards discovered the missing button in his pants pocket, they assigned him 30 minutes more for theft.
Outside, poplars planted by the prisoners line the camp, verdant and thriving testaments to the work of dead men. At the opposite end of the compound, I crossed a small bridge to find the crematorium. The original one housed two furnaces, but as the body count increased, prisoners were forced to build a new crematorium housing four more furnaces.
By war's end the corpses became so numerous that guards stacked bodies three to an oven for faster elimination. Although Dachau contained a gas chamber, it was never used for the simple reason that the SS could not efficiently deal with the overwhelming number of dead.
As we crammed ourselves into the room next to the gas chamber, the guide pointed to a large photograph of corpses piled up to the window. "This photograph was taken in this very room." Apparently, when American soldiers discovered them, they were so distraught that they rounded up 60 SS officials and executed them on the spot.
The most disturbing part of the tour consisted of SS photographs hanging in the museum. One series depicts experiments conducted by the infamous Dr. Rascher. By exposing prisoners to subzero water temperatures, he hoped to discover why Nazi soldiers rescued from the English Channel would later die.
Some prisoners, after prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures, begged to be killed rather than continue. Other experiments included exposing prisoners to differing air pressures, simulating high altitude conditions of soldiers parachuting from planes. Many died as a result.
One photograph depicted two scientists adjusting straps on a subject sitting in a tub of freezing water. How disturbing to find the scientists only wore expressions of curiosity as if their subject were no more than a laboratory animal. The prisoner's face, unforgettably, bore confusion and submission.
By day's end the sky had darkened ominously. Wind kicked up white dust, and a thunderstorm erupted. Alone, I headed across the camp, passing row upon row of barracks, where prisoners lived 1,600 per barrack.
The wind blew wildly as I trudged through the wet gravel of the roll-call square, where every inmate was accounted for, even the dead, whose corpses were dragged out for a complete headcount. The rain, hard and freezing, had driven other visitors inside random buildings, emptying the exposed grounds.
A sense of desolation pervaded the compound. Soaked through and cold as I walked from one far end of the camp to the other, I did not have the stomach to complain. Many trod the same ground as I trod then, feeling worlds more alone. May we never forget them. Rest in peace.
Christine Niles is a student at the Notre Dame Law School. Her column appears every other Thursday. Contact her at email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, November 8, 2001