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Above: Remnant of the Nazi fence and one of the watchtowers in Dachau today. Below: An Israeli fence and military watchtower between Jerusalem and Bethlehem today.

Travel

Pilgrimage to Dachau

T. SHER SINGH

 

 

 





I visited Dachau a month ago.

While in Munich and other parts of Bavaria -- all located in southern Germany -- I felt there was no way I could not visit the remnants of the infamous Nazi concentration camp a short distance away.

It now constitutes a memorial to the countless men, women and children who died there, and of course, many, many more souls who were imprisoned there to be tortured and brutalized in the name of a nation that had lost its moral compass in the 1930s and descended into the heart of darkness during the Second World War.

It had been on my itinerary ever since my partner and I embarked on a trip to central Europe, though many tried to dissuade me from going to Dachau, warning me that it would only prove immensely depressing and troubling.

I had long known of Dachau … who hasn’t heard of its menacing slogan emblazoned on its wrought-iron entrance gate: ‘Arbeit macht frei’ - Work Shall Set You Free? A camp described as a hard-labour camp for the ‘enemies’ of the Nazi state was nothing but a death camp. Indeed, as many as 32,000 documented prisoners suffered miserable deaths there during 12 years of its operation. Tens of thousands more remain unaccounted.   

Only a week earlier, we had visited the Terezin fortress 60 km north of Prague in the Czech Republic. It had served as a concentration camp run by the notorious SS unit of the Nazis in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. It had not been a pleasant experience though, I felt, a necessary one.

And then, the night before we were to drive to Dachau -- we were staying with friends in an idyllic Bavarian village south of Munich -- our host related to us a personal story which brought home the horror like little else could. His father was a German Catholic priest in the pre-WWII years who refused to be silenced in his criticisms of the Nazis right from the beginning of their ascent. His dissent became louder and more fearless as the Nazis began their reign of terror.

In 1935, he was arrested and spent the next six years in a Gestapo prison. Then, a stint in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, a couple of hours east of Vienna -- dreaded for its 186 'Stairs of Death' which the inmates were required to climb as part of their daily chores, with large blocks of granite strapped to their backs.

When he still proved to be incorrigible, they transferred him to the deadlier Dachau where he was tortured and emaciated. (Somehow, he was one of the lucky survivors, liberated at the end of the war. Later, he married and raised a family in post-war Germany.) 

Early one morning, we drove northwards through a countryside blanketed by fog, skirted Munich, and arrived in Dachau, a mere 15 km or so northwest of the city.

The main buildings of the former concentration camp still stand, and so do a few of the barracks used by the prisoners. Torture chambers, interrogation rooms, prisoners’ cells, ’dispensaries’ used to experiment on living subjects, cremation ovens … all are still around to convey the enormity of what was carried out there.

Dachau, a creation of Heinrich Himmler, then the Chief of Police of Munich (and later, also the head of the SS, a senior member of Hitler’s inner cabinet and one of the main architects of the holocaust), was the first camp of its kind, later cloned into a hundred similar camps across German-held territories. Many of those who survived the ordeals here met their tragic fates upon further transfer to extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. 

As you walk around the sprawling property, it weighs on you that this is where more than two hundred thousand men, women and children suffered extreme privations. You learn details of their daily lives and you go numb with pain at man’s inhumanity to man. All of this within living memory.

I shudder when I realize that the goings on here did not end until a mere four years before I was born. At a time when both of my parents were growing up, unaware that they too would witness another holocaust -- the Partition of Punjab -- with millions dead and displaced -- a mere two years after the liberation of Dachau by American troops.

I look at the other visitors as they move from one room to another, one building to the next, eyes swollen or brimming with tears, their heads bowed, their own voices hushed as they grapple with what surrounds them.    

Dachau was the beginning of a holocaust which claimed six million Jewish lives.

But not just Jews. The prisoners in Dachau, Terezin and all of the other Nazi camps also had substantial numbers of Germans, French, Austrians, Czechs, Poles, Gypsies, priests and others, all of whom were not Jews. The stories of the latter groups remain mostly untold to this day.

There was also at least one British-Muslim woman - Noor Inayat Khan, 30 - who was tortured and then executed at the camp.

The layout of the camp is not new to me. I have seen it over and over again in documentary footage as well as in feature films: the large ‘parade’ ground where the arduous daily roll-calls were conducted, prisoners’ barracks, crematoriums, medical experimentation huts, torture and interrogation chambers, execution yards ...

But seeing it all in stark reality, even though only a fraction of the original remains, is a bone-chilling experience. It hits you that the atrocities weren’t dictated by war or came about unwittingly through a series of uncontrollable events; they were actually carefully designed and planned and executed with a clear, pre-determined goal in mind: to exterminate masses of humanity in the most brutal way possible.

But I am older now and know more than I did when I first read about the goings-on here when I was but a teenager obsessed with stories from the War. I know better now and no longer swallow the broad brush that labelled all Germans as evil and all on ’our’ Allied sides as knights in shining armour.

What the Nazis did -- there are no ifs and buts -  was the depth of evil and the worst that human nature is capable of. But here’s the rub: they were no worse than what the Americans have been doing around the globe for decades: do I need to cite Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Or the centuries of slavery which continued in effect decades past the end of WWII.

What breaks my heart though is when I see Israel’s Jews behave the way they do today, a mere seven decades after the end of the Nazi holocaust. To have suffered s-o-o much and then so easily, themselves revert to the role of their former tormentors, is mind-boggling, to say the least.

I do not exaggerate. Does the mistreatment of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis constitute any less a concentration camp or any less insidious than any under the Nazis? Is their treatment any less brutal? Israeli tanks are driven into ’settlements’ at will - while the media is deftly kept out of sight -  and summarily raze entire villages to the ground, oblivious of those who live in them … all of it, ostensibly to punish enemies: the same argument used by the Nazis to justify their own outrages.

Again, it’s all carefully planned and meticulously executed to achieve well-defined objectives.  

That’s not where it ends. Only a couple of days ago, news headlines told us that Israel has demanded that all of its thousands of African migrants leave the country, lured by offers of a bit of Israeli cash, or face unspecified consequences. UN officials tell us that if deported, these migrants will face almost certain death. To see Israel behave as racist as the Nazis had been is indeed an ‘Et tu, Brute’ moment.

Here’s what is more disheartening: it appears that all of us are in the same miserable boat. Sadly, no community has proved itself any loftier than the Nazis, regardless of how Hollywood paints each side. What the British, for example, did in the colonies for centuries and even during the time of the Nazi holocaust, does not allow them to put themselves in any better category.

The French, the Germans, the Dutch, the Belgians, the Portuguese, the Japanese, the Italians … no one gets off the hook in comparison.

And what India is doing today to its minorities is no different. Yes, T-O-D-A-Y, as you and I go about our simple, straight-forward lives.   

And then, and then for Israel to become an accomplice with both India and America in their respective descents into darkness … America arms Israel, both America and Israel arm India, and all three support each other in their respective atrocities.

I am at a loss for words.    

I look at the slogan here in Dachau spelt out in several languages, “Never Again”, and think of how meaningless and ineffective the sentiment has proved since then, albeit loaded, I’m sure, with the best of intentions.

Yesterday’s victims have become today’s oppressors. Yesterday’s flag-bearers of freedom have turned into today’s tyrants.  


January 10, 2018  
 

Conversation about this article

1: Narain Singh (New Delhi, India), January 10, 2018, 12:44 PM.

I like the way you have brought together the different narratives to see a pattern in their similarities. You've certainly got me thinking ...

2: Karnail Singh (California, USA), January 10, 2018, 12:59 PM.

A depressing read. Well written, well argued. I wish you were wrong but I fear you've hit the nail on the head.

3: Jonathan Ingersoll (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada), January 10, 2018, 3:14 PM.

You have crossed the line into forbidden territory with the facts you have cited so daringly. For long, it is considered a serious no-no to suggest that anyone has ever suffered from a holocaust, other than the Jews under the Nazis. The word has been monopolized by the Jews, as has also been done, it appears, with concepts such as suffering and victimhood. Suggesting that Israelis today have turned into similar tormentors has been avoided under threat of dire consequences. You can't even suggest that any dictator or arch criminal is like Hitler. Why? Because the Jews claim that their tormentor was the worst in history. How dare anyone even compare someone else with him? And so on ... Thank you for spelling out some glaring truths. You are courageous. I am with you, and I know there are many who agree with you. [I bet you that your words and mine will quickly be labeled 'anti-semitic' - another term that has been usurped, considering that all Islamophobia is also anti-semitic!]

4: Jagdish Kaur (Chicago, Illinois, USA), January 10, 2018, 4:39 PM.

Are you sure we Americans and the British have been as bad as the Nazi were during the WWII years? I'm not convinced by your analogies.

5: Baljit Kaur (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), January 10, 2018, 5:56 PM.

Jagdish ji, let's do the arithmetic: The blacks killed under slavery in America; the genocide of the indigenous peoples; Korea and Vietnam; Iraq and Afghanistan; Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... These are but a few of America's skeletons in its closet. All had their peaks in the twentieth century. Add the figures up and see if the Nazis win or the Americans. Even though, I should add, merely killing more doesn't make you worse. It's not a pissing contest. Killing thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions ... is there a difference in the nature of the evil of the perpetrators? Moreover, the Nazis plagued the world only a few years, mercifully. But the Americans?

6: R Singh  (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), January 11, 2018, 12:25 AM.

In the book "Stupid White Men" by Michael Moore, he explains the treatment of the Palestinians as "abused people abuse."

7: Baljit Kaur (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), January 11, 2018, 9:10 AM.

Furthermore, Jagdish ji (#4), to address the British role in the history of the world's suffering: looking at the twentieth century alone, they were the direct and intentional authors of genocides, famines, concocted wars, rape, pillage and plunder around the world. The Nazi numbers pale in comparison to the number of deaths caused by the Brits ... Churchill alone, in his conscious creation and neglect of famines in India, was responsible for millions of famine deaths in Bihar and Bengal (both are provinces on the subcontinent). In one event alone - Bengal (1943-4) during the WWII years - a famine caused intentionally to boost Britain's coffers and war effort directly resulted in 2.1 million deaths. It could be argued that Churchill alone would match the terror caused by Hitler. Check out real history and you be the judge. Torture, massacres, and a skewered misuse of the legal system were their forte. Our difficulty in looking at the truth is largely because of the magnificent manipulation done by Hollywood and its counterpart in England in creating fictional and fictionalized heroes and ignoring the real stories. The two recent films on Churchill are perfect examples of how pure fiction is being ladled out as history to help gloss over the factual stories that are now surfacing about, inter alios, Churchill.

8: G J Singh (Arizona, USA), January 11, 2018, 12:11 PM.

The article has brought to the forefront the suppression of the weak by the strong. This has been going since the advent of mankind. And yes, the strong and victorious (the people in power) write their version as history.

9: G C Singh (USA), January 11, 2018, 7:35 PM.

After 20 to 30 fraudulent commissions and inquiries in the last three decades not a single person has been convicted for the mass murder of tens of thousands of innocent Sikhs in 1984, although all killers and and their accomplices led by Rajiv Gandhi, Arun Nehru, Narsimha Rao, RSS leaders and state agencies were and are well known and identified, and all the necessary evidence provided. Two years ago, to fool the Sikhs, the Modi/BJP/RSS Government shed crocodile tears and formed a SIT - Special Investigative Team - to purportedly look into the whole issue (after 30 years!). As expected, instead of convicting anyone, the SIT exonerated the killers and closed the cases. So now the Indian Supreme court and judiciary which is totally complicit in the genocide of Sikhs and part of the corrupt Hindutva establishment played another stunt today under the guise of 'giving justice' to Sikhs. It has ordered the formation of another SIT to look into the working of the previous SIT! Yeah, right!

10: Arjan Singh (USA), January 12, 2018, 1:17 PM.

Thought-provoking article. We must continue to write about not only the WWII atrocities and murders but also write about the Rwanda Genocide, 1947 Partition massacres, massacres of USSR, and many other planned acts of violence to subjugate and eliminate entire groups of people.

11: Sarvjit Singh (Millis, Massachusetts, USA), January 17, 2018, 11:55 AM.

A visit to Dachau is a very thought provoking topic. I was there a few years ago, and it stuck me how clean and flat it looks now. The current German Govt takes extra steps to not have any representation of Nazis there. They have been totally removed from the scene. This camp is now within a city. the sewer system for the camp's crematoriums was the same as the locals had in the city. Mind boggling! As Sikhs, we should remember all of these atrocities committed around the world by every which community.

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