Never Forget

It’s not the kind of tourist attraction that anyone looks forward to visiting.  There are no smiling people lining up to take pictures in front of mountain vistas, flower strewn meadows, or famous monuments.  No one is laughing, joking, or dancing around.  Everyone is quiet, serious, engaged.  Tears are close to the surface.  Visitors almost feel compelled to enter into this painful journey.  After viewing a 15 minute introductory movie, I hear one teenager say somberly to a friend, “Depressing film.  I don’t ever want to be happy again.  It would be rude.”

Above the main gate to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany are three cruel and cynical words, “Arbeit macht frei,” “Work makes free.”  Dachau was the first concentration camp of the Nazi Third Reich, operating from 1933-1945 and serving as a model for all other concentration camps.  It was also a training ground for the SS and was called the “School of Violence.”  For 12 grisly years 200,000 prisoners of the state were brutalized, humiliated, tortured, used for medical experiments, and treated as slaves for the armaments industry. 

Of course, work did not contribute in any way shape, or form to freedom.  Concentration camps were designed to stabilize the Nazi regime, maintain domination, destroy any vestige of human dignity, and stifle organized resistance through extreme military order.  How could the world have not known the full scope of this evil?  Why didn’t those who knew speak up?  Even local residents were horrified after the liberation to discover what was going on in their own backyard for 12 years.

The Nazis called concentration camps “protective custody camps” or “work and re-education camps.”  Those interred were not just Jews, although Jews were given the hardest and dirtiest work.  They came from all walks of life and included religious objectors, homosexuals, political opponents, clergy, members of the Jehovah’s Witness, gypsies, antisocial elements, and people with mental and physical disabilities.

Any person entering Dachau was forced to give up all property, human rights, and dignity.  Prisoners worked 12-14 hours a day, lived in overcrowded conditions, and often received only a thin plate of soup for food.  By April 1, 1945, the day Dachau was liberated by Allied forces, a camp built for 6,000 housed 30,000 people.  We walk through barracks that were designed for 50 people but had been crammed with 400 prisoners. 

Thousands died over those 12 years – 31,000 officially – but thousands more deaths went unrecorded.  I walk by a monument dedicated to the memory of the unknown prisoners who died and read the words, “Vergiss nicht,” Do not forget.”  I can’t imagine families never receiving word about the death of their loved one, but it happened tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of times.

Hunger and diseases such as typhus and dysentery took countless lives.  Many prisoners were literally worked to death and when not working were forced to stand motionless for an hour in the morning and evening.  Those caught praying or doing anything deemed offensive to the state were severely punished.

Resisters were shot daily as they attempted to escape or simply said the wrong thing or moved the wrong way.  The only way anyone survived was because the prisoners formed community and helped each other.  As the only concentration camp operating for the entire Nazi regime, Dachau had long tentacles.  During those 12 years, 336 subsidiary camps across the country provided a steady flow of prisoners to replace those who had died.  Prisoners who became very ill were often transferred to other camps since Dachau had built a gas chamber but for some reason never used it.  There was also a crematorium where bodies were burned. 

I am especially moved by various memorials around the site.  In 1968 a Yugoslavian Holocaust survivor Nandor Glid created a powerful sculpture depicting the stages of imprisonment and suffering at Dachau.  Nearby are the words, “Never again.” 

There are separate Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Carmelite, and Russian Orthodox memorials.  I am especially moved by the Lutheran Church of Reconciliation.  At first glance it seems to be cold and dark, yet the design of the building invites reflection.  An intentional absence of right angles in the construction is in direct contrast to the right-angled terror of the National Socialist murder system, which the German novelist Heinrich Mann described as “the exactness within the loathsome.”

The church is constructed as a path that leads one further into the depths.  A brochure describing the church says, “Depth is a symbol for suffering and death, but also of contradiction and resistance.  Furthermore, it is a symbol of shame, as if you wished the ground would swallow you up.  Depth can be something that frightens and threatens but also something that shelters and protects you.” 

I sit in the depths of the memorial, aware of the pain that has pierced my heart.  In what ways have I neglected to speak up?  A few days before our trip to Dachau Gary and I spent time with a German friend, who helped me understand what it means to be a young adult in Germany today.  She said, “Your Fourth of July holiday is coming up, and you wave flags, wear patriotic clothing, and watch fireworks.  But in Germany we are still filled with shame.  As children we are taught over and over about World War 2 and are acutely aware of the horror we inflicted on the rest of the world.  We are not proud of our country in the way you are of yours.”   

Fourth of July is just a few days away, and I am pondering my friend’s words.  I can’t fathom how fortunate I am to have been born in the United States, which was founded on the democratic principles of liberty and justice for all.  Yet even in our country we have to be ever vigilant of evil, injustice, and oppression and be on guard to protect the rights of others.

I think about the conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of child sex abuse and realize that even a huge university like Penn State can protect its own, ignore whistle blowing, and turn a blind eye to the exploitation of the sacredness of all human beings, especially children. 

I think about the 2,700 priests who were imprisoned at Dachau for speaking out against the state and know that despite the freedom espoused in our country, those who challenge abusive systems are also mistreated, discounted, and silenced at times. 

I think about the infamous German SS, for whom tolerance was a sign of weakness.  The Third Reich flourished precisely because of the disdain and hatred it promulgated toward minorities.  If the truth be told, how well do we score on tolerance in our country and in our churches? 

  • Are we willing to name and speak out against racism, which is still alive and well? 
  • Will we avoid stereotyping undocumented persons by calling them illegal aliens? 
  • Will we intentionally include homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered people in the life of our congregations in the name of a Jesus who always looked at the heart? 
  • Will we graciously but directly call out those who delight in exercising power by stifling dissent?
  • After the nail-biter decision of the Supreme Court last week affirming health care reform, will we give thanks, regardless of our own position, for a democratic system that ensures due process and provides checks and balances?
  • During this election year, will we pledge to avoid political rhetoric that divides? 
  • Will we continue to remember the cost of freedom around the world and live so that the countless lives that were sacrificed for our sake will not have been in vain?

Martin Niemöller was a German Lutheran pastor who survived 8 years in concentration camps in World War 2, including Dachau.  In January of 1946 Niemöller preached to 1,200 students in Erlangen and spoke about meeting a German Jew who had lost everything in the war, including his parents and siblings.  He said, “I could not help myself.  I had to tell him, ‘Dear brother, fellow man, Jew, before you say anything, I say to you: I acknowledge my guilt and beg you to forgive me and my people for this sin.’”

Some students shouted and heckled Niemöller, yet he insisted, “We must openly declare that we are not innocent of the Nazi murders, of the murder of German communists, Poles, Jews, and the people in German-occupied countries.  No doubt others made mistakes too, but the wave of crime started here and here it reached its highest peak.  The guilt exists, there is no doubt about that – even if there were no other guilt than that of the six million clay urns containing the ashes of incinerated Jews from all over Europe.  And this guilt lies heavily upon the German people and the German name, even upon Christendom.  For in our world and in our name have these things been done.”  Martin Niemöller is most famous for this saying,

In Germany, they came first for the Communists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . .
And by that time there was no one left to speak up.

May God give us the courage and grace to never forget and always speak up.

6 thoughts on “Never Forget

  1. Laurie,

    My wife and I and 13 friends returned on 6/17 from a 10 day trip to Germany. In my sermon on 6/24 I told my congregation, “I HOPE I will remember the food, and castles, and music, and beer of Germany until I am an old, old man but I KNOW that I will be haunted by my Dachau experience until the day I die.”

    Jay Schrimpf
    Bethlehem Church, GR

  2. When I was 16 traveling in Europe with a choir, I too had the profound experience of Dachua. As we read those same signs and pondered how we too could speak out we sang a song written by Ruth Artman called “Sounds of Hope.” To sing words of hope and grace in a place that had been so full of evil seemed the “just right” thing to do for my 16 year old mind.

    Now many, many years later I still can close my eyes and recall that memory so vividly.

    But we also must remember the grace of God within those awful camps. Think of Bonhoeffer or Corrie Tin Boon.

    Yes, we must speak up, but we also must recognize that God has already been in the places of unspeakable actions and offered love, hope, and grace to those who survived and even to those who did not.

    • I just found a copy of the sheet music for Sounds of Hope by Ruth Artman again. I performed it Dachau Concentration Camp the first year of publication on the 1976 Sounds of Hope Tour when I was only 16. The concert from my memories was the concert allowed within the grounds of the camp among the memorials and in attendance were numerous survivors of Dachau. It was an extraordinary concert that I continue to carry and remember today.

  3. I could tell after reading just the first line that you were writing about Dachau. I experienced this place when I was only 16 years onld, in the summer of 1973. I was there with my brother, recently released from the Army, and his German girlfriend. It is true….she had that shame that you mention, not really willing to talk about what happened. My life will never be the same again. I’m sure this experience spurred me on to speak out….and speak out I will, as long as I have a voice. Peace.

  4. Ken & I are happy to see that you are continuing your weekly essay and blog. Interestingly, Ken is 100% German, and is a 4th generation in the U.S. Ken visited Germany in 1979 and we both traveled to see family members during the 90’s (after the Berlin wall came down). My dad, who also was of German heritage, served on an aircraft carrier during WWII. Our families have many memories of what happened in Germany in the concentration camps during the war.

    I like your comment about the fact that even in our country we all have seen evil, injustice, and oppression. We all have to make decisions about how we deal with those things. I remember that the same year (2005) I was appointed as a pastor, I also was asked to be the chairperson for the W.MI Conf. Abuse Prevention Team. The journey has been a worthwhile experience, particularly as I serve in urban ministry. I praise the Lord and give thanks for the miracles that happen when God intervenes wherever there is evil, oppression, or injustice. AMEN.

  5. Right on, Laurie…………..Title IX was 20 years too late for me. Your reflections and ideas are same for me but so well said by you! Sadly, still many issues & attitudes to tackle.

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