On Tuesday we took a break from homeschooling and research to visit KZ-Gedenkstätte, the WWII Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, which is about 30 minutes from Munich. We didn’t feel comfortable taking any pictures, as the memorial is a somber place. Instead, I grabbed this one from the internet. It shows the main gate for the camp, through which all of the prisoners entered the camp. It reads “Work sets you free.”
We went to the camp with hopes for an enlightening though difficult experience. Julie and I have been talking to the kids about WWII during our time in Germany. I think it’s hard to be an American in Germany and not think about WWII. We thought it important for Lydie and Cassie to learn about some of the worst parts of that war. We also wanted to pay our respects to the people who died there.
We were a little concerned about how the kids would react to a concentration camp, but we also hoped that Dachau would be a good place to start talking to Lydie and Cassie about the Holocaust. About 40,000 prisoners died at the camp, which is a relatively small number as far as concentration camps go. About a million people died at Auschwitz. We wanted the kids to learn, but we didn’t want them to become so frightened that they couldn’t sleep at night.
It was a cold and rainy day, and when we arrived at the site, the woman who gave us maps and audio guides asked how old the kids were. We rounded up to 12. She warned us that half of the museum is not recommended for kids under 14. We figured we would go anyway. Our kids are world travelers, right? We’ve tried to raise our kids to be intelligent thinkers, right? We wanted our kids to be at least a little bothered by something that should be upsetting, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong.
As we started going through the museum, which is housed in the main administrative building from the original camp, the pictures became more and more graphic. An American mother and her adult daughter stopped us to warn us multiple times about some of the exhibits in the museum. Julie and I decided to start scouting ahead to gauge the exhibits. In the end, we only visited half of the museum and skipped the informational video. When we went outside, we toured the grounds and the dormitories that housed the prisoners, but we decided not take the children to the gas chamber or the incinerator. We opted to talk about it instead. Seeing those facilities in the context of the camp is a different matter.
I could write about the details of what we saw, but I think it’s extremely hard to write about concentration camps. I tried to write some small descriptions, but deleted them. Some sounded too detached, some sounded melodramatic, and some sounded like an excerpt from Wikipedia. I found the experience far more upsetting that I had anticipated.
I wanted to write something in part so that we can look back on this account years from now. Since we didn’t take any pictures, it will be harder to remember that day, even though it was a powerful experience. I decided instead to ask Lydie and Cassie to give me a few of their own thoughts about the day. Here’s what they said:
“I thought it was really depressing about how so many people had to suffer even though they tried to stay alive. I think it’s also a reminder about how everyone should appreciate all the good around them, although I would not suggest that everyone has to visit a concentration camp once in their lives. I think it could really upset some people. I’m glad that I went, so that I could realize how lucky I am in my life and that I need to understand what really happens in the world because it’s not all rainbows and kittens.”
“I never want to see something like that again. It’s very sad, and the saddest part is that it actually happened. There were too many prisoners at Dachau. It was so crowded. Some of them were beaten to death, and some of them were worked to death, but most of them died because of disease and execution. I know it’s important to learn about to make sure that we never do something like that again, but I know that even though it’s sad and no one wants to do it again people out there think otherwise. Part of me wishes I hadn’t gone because it was so upsetting that I feel nobody should experience anything like that. But it’s important to learn about these things. While they are still sad, we need to make sure that everyone gets the message of how brutal it was.”