Here’s my May column for the Holland Sentinel:
Before leaving Europe and moving back to the United States, my wife and I had in mind one last tourist destination. We had visited all of the cathedrals, museums and battle fields it was humanly possible to see during the four years we lived in Switzerland, but there was still something more I felt I needed to see—namely, the concentration camp at Dachau.
Dachau today is essentially a suburb of Munich, and so it was a relatively easy three-hour drive from where we lived in Zürich. The drive may have been easy, but the visit was difficult. It was something I will never forget.
I have been to the Yad Vashem holocaust museum in Jerusalem, but visiting a concentration camp was a different kind of experience altogether. German school children in the district of Bavaria, interestingly, are required to visit a concentration camp as part of learning German history.
I can’t say I am glad I went, but I am aware that it was important for me to go. More people should do this.
I thought of my visit to Dachau again this week as I read newspaper accounts about the shooting at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue near San Diego. The shooter apparently told police that he was inspired by a similar shooting last October at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Hate crimes and violence against religious groups—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—seem to be happening more frequently today than at any time in my memory, and that’s deeply concerning.
The concentration camp at Dachau, which was not technically an extermination camp like Auschwitz, was opened in 1933. It was the first of its kind for the new Nazi regime and became a model for several other camps. It was originally intended for political prisoners though, later, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Gypsies (as they were then called) were sent there as well. Only toward the end of the war were Jews and Russian prisoners of war sent to Dachau.
In all, nearly 32,000 people were killed at Dachau—including men, women, and children. It’s possible that another 10,000 undocumented people lost their lives at the site as well.
Toward the end of the war, the cremation ovens stopped working, and the dead were found piled as high as the roof of the crematorium when U.S. soldiers liberated the camp in April 1945. The ovens and the crematorium are still visible today, as are parts of the electrified fences and at least one guard tower.
During my visit I learned that dehumanization and starvation seemed to be the primary purpose of the camp. Upon arrival, prisoners were stripped of their clothes and, importantly, their names. They became numbers, not persons. They were given little to eat. And they were used as forced labor in a munitions factory at the site.
A dear friend of mine, John O’Melia, a 19–year–old on the day the camp was liberated, was among the first U.S. soldiers to enter the camp. Before he died a few years ago, John told me a great deal about that day. It turned out to be a turning point in his life.
After the camp was secured, which was a complicated process—as many as 50 SS guards were killed by the former prisoners—John told me that he sat alone, prayed, and read the New Testament that his mother had tucked into his pocket before he left for Europe.
His prayer that day, he said, was that God would use him in the years to come to prevent anything like Dachau from ever happening again.
John came home after the war and almost immediately went to work for the YMCA. His first job was to be executive director of the YMCA in Cleveland, and he is best remembered for having organized the first–ever, inter–racial summer camp during the 1950s. This idea was not universally popular, but it was John’s way of responding to what he had seen at Dachau. For his courage he was elected, later in his life, to the YMCA Hall of Fame.
As I think about our world and our country right now, I am convinced that we need more people like John, people who are determined to take a stand against hatred, racism, and bigotry, people who will choose reconciliation over division, even when it is an unpopular choice.
I don’t know exactly how to get there, but I am committing my own life to the work. I have been to Dachau, I have seen where division leads, I have been reduced to sobbing in the face of unspeakable evil. I have decided to choose the way of reconciliation.