Though the war had ended sixty years ago, I felt like I was a prisoner standing outside of the gates of Dachau. As I read the words on the gate, as all concentration camp gates read, I felt terrified that I might not be let out. “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Freedom, I thought, would not come from any amount of work. During my two-week trip throughout southern Germany, visiting the first Nazi concentration camp had been something I both anticipated seeing, and feared seeing. Getting off of the bus the thirteen other classmates and I rode on with our two German teachers to the camp Dachau, I felt as if I were already one of the many prisoners who had been shipped here to die.
Standing before the entrance of the camp, my palms began to feel clammy. I didn’t know if I would be able to walk through one of the largest gravesites the world has ever known. Our teacher’s voices told us it was time. In a trance, I followed my classmates towards the entrance to the camp. The gates opened easily, as my classmates were advancing into the cage that once held millions of Jewish prisoners. Though my instincts told me not too, I inhaled deeply and entered through what some might call the gates to hell. Once inside, I looked back as the gates closed shut behind me. Prisoner was my identity now.
I felt completely overwhelmed, almost claustrophobic, even though there was so much land in front of me. Again, I was lost as my classmates and teachers moved on ahead into the now memorial museum. I knew better; that was no museum but the house where the Nazi soldiers had stripped all of the Jewish prisoners of their possessions and humanity before spitting them back out to work themselves to death. I did not want to stand alone, so I followed everyone inside.
Pictures hung on the wall of the inmates who had lived, worked, survived, and died within the camp. As I walked slowly through, I knew I was looking into the eyes of the ghosts still caged within. There were possessions on display; the prisoner’s clothes hung up with the number on the chest that had replaced their names. I wondered what my number would be?
I could not breathe in there, and was relieved to be outside in the fresh air. That is, until I saw the sculpture made in honor of remembrance. It looks so real, I thought to myself, as I took in the abstract piece of “art.” I wondered if the sculpture was made of real bones, welded together from prisoners who died within these walls, and then covered them with a bronze coating so the art would not look so obscene. The way in which the bones crisscrossed together, forming the sculpture made me think of the dead bodies tossed on top of one another every which way after the Nazi’s had no more use for those who had starved to death. I could not look at the sculpture any more for it frightened me. How anyone could look at this and call it art was beyond my comprehension. It was disgusting. It was devastating, and the worst part was, it was a reminder that this really did happen.
I was scared of what I knew had happened within these walls. Inside the bunks and bathrooms, I knew skeletons had lived, had fought for their lives each and every day trying to survive. How does one survive hell? I could not imagine; I did not think I would have been a survivor. I was not sure if I would survive the rest of our tour within Dachau.
Finally, our time within the prison was up and we were free to go. I stood there, still inside the cage and felt the wrath that had once been. I felt the souls lost, and for an instant saw the ghosts of prisoners still locked within the walls, working to free themselves. I wanted to cry and throw up at the same time. The tears I let flow, the vomit I held back. “Arbeit Macht Frei”, I read again as I stood outside the gates of hell.