What I Learned at Auschwitz and Dachau
Friday was a hard day for me. President Trump’s executive order banning refugees from entry into the United States and limiting immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries pushed me into a dark place spiritually. Yes, he promised these kinds of actions. I suppose I held out hope it would never come. But here we are.
I want to state clearly and for the record: Trump’s actions to not represent me as an American. His actions certainly do not represent me as a Christian. And his actions do not represent the America I believe we can be. I believe we have the capacity to do what is morally right, fight hate and oppression, welcome those who are cast out with open arms, and refuse to cower to a place of isolation and intolerance on account of fear.
In my early twenties, I visited Auschwitz and Dachau. Rather than narrate those experiences as I remember them now, I’m sharing my words form journal entries at that time. Over a decade later, I still pray that God will use my life for good and change and progress.
Auschwitz — June 29, 2005 (age 22)
I’m on vacation in Poland and today we visited Auschwitz. We started with Auschwitz I (there are three parts of it). In the barracks, they had set up a “museum” with proofs of what happened there. In one there was a wall length, floor deep case of human hair. Another, suitcases. Another, shoes. Another, hair brushes.
Along the walls were pictures taken by SS of what was going on at the camp — unloading of prisoners, sorting. One of the barracks preserved the living conditions. At first, they slept on straw, then thin mats. Then, three-high bunk beds were crammed into the rooms. One of the barracks contained holding cells for prisoners being executed at the death wall. We were shown cells where they shoved in many prisoners to suffocate them; the cell would get completely dark and airless.
Our last stop was the gas chamber and crematorium. It felt evil. We saw the ovens where they had burned bodies.
After that we saw Auschwitz II — Birkenau. This place was huge, unlike anything I could have imagined. The train tracks came under the main gate that is always shown in pictures and movies. We saw “Canada,” where prisoners were cleaned and given prison clothes. There were four crematoriums, all in ruins, but you could still make out the divisions in the building.
A Jewish choir sang at the memorial near crematorium II, the largest one.
They say it is the world’s largest graveyard. At least 1.5 million were murdered there, worked to death, starved to death, or died due to disease because of poor sanitary conditions.
I will never forget today. How is humanity capable of such an atrocity? How did the U.S. stand by and do nothing for so long?
The Jewish choir sang: “I believe in God, even when He is silent.”
Dachau — July 4, 2008 (age 25)
This camp was very different than Auschwitz — it was a work camp whereas Auschwitz was a death camp. There was this large open square that could hold up to 40,000 prisoners where they did roll call every day. You could really understand how life was at this camp — running out of your barracks, down the camp road, to the roll call area.
I think anytime you go somewhere like that, you ask yourself: What would I have done? Is there enough evil in my human soul that I would have been a Nazi? Or a silent observer? Or turned in my neighbor? One can only hope that you’d be strong enough to stand up for what is right.
But places like Dachau really force you to question humanity and the composition of your own soul. The Nazis had to have hundreds of guards to run the camp — how did they convince so many people that the things they were doing were ok? It’s a question I don’t think I’ll be able to answer to satisfaction.
It’s a hard place to visit. Painful because there was so much death and destruction of human decency, but also painful because of the self-reflection it requires.
There were three religious memorials at the end of the rows of barracks: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant. I went into the Protestant Memorial and prayed to God that he would use my life for good and change and progress.