Reflections on visiting the site of a concentration camp

My 18-year old daughter has gone to spend a year in Germany as an exchange student. She is part of a group of students spending a month in intensive language training before going to live with their host families. This week, the students visited the site of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. My daughter describes the camp and her experience in detail on her blog; below is a portion of her post that deals particularly with questions of remembrance and human dignity.

Thus arise the questions that no one can answer. How did an entire nation blind itself, how did so many people allow themselves to be ignorant, how did people permit so much of their humanity to leave them that they would stay silent in light of such awful atrocities? It’s impossible to say that the German people did not know what the concentration camp system was, because it engulfed all of Germany–in a way, the entire nation was a single, enormous concentration camp. And why silence reigned supreme is a question and a lesson for eternity.

Today, however, there are different questions.

How can and should citizens of the twenty-first century remember Mittelbau-Dora and the rest of the concentration camp system? Throughout the twentieth century, survivors led the remembrance ceremonies and established Holocaust education memorials as official cultural institutions. But these survivors are passing away, and with them their stories and drive to remember the past (the youngest living survivor of Mittelbau-Dora is 88). Holocaust historians have this dilemma, because no one knows how to remember the past, or how to teach it to others to prevent it from repeating itself, without the tangible lessons and stories from those who saw it.

But, although the people are passing away, the places are not. One essential way to remember and respect the Holocaust is to revere where it happened. This is why Holocaust memorials are so important (and why a group of 50 teenagers on a government exchange program went to visit one). One cannot help but feel the awfulness of the past when walking through a crematorium where literally thousands of people were burned or standing beside the massive ashen hillside where the victims’ ashes were thrown. These places force people to face the realness of the past. These places make the past personal, and make people more human.

It is one thing to hear stories of atrocious yet vague horrors of concentration camps. But it is far different, far more heart-teaching and person-forming, to read the plaques that victims’ families have placed on the wall beside the crematorium ovens or the crosses and ash-gray boulders that have been landscaped into the ash-grave hill so that no trees or wayward feet can accidentally or purposefully mar the sacredness of the ground. The Holocaust becomes real when you see that the thousands of individual persons who died under your feet had lives, families, hopes, dreams, ideas–everything that every other person alive has ever had. Remembering the awfulness of the past is essential to realizing the essential humanity that comes with being a human being, how one feels when they are pulled apart by the deaths of thousands of people of a century ago in a place thousands of miles away from their own homes.

Concentration camps ultimately stand as testaments and reminders of the importance of humanity. That’s why they are so important, and why they are worth meeting.

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