“Can you believe that just 70 years ago, something as cruel happened?”, Harsha says, after a long period of silence. We were standing outside the Dachau concentration camp, reading about the plight of 32,000 casualties. Even before we enter, there is this sad eerie feeling that looms over us.
Arbeit macht frei, the words inscribed on the entrance of this concentration camps. It is a German saying for “Work makes you free”. Yes, making them work like slaves killed them. The only way to escape this place, was by death, if that was the intent.
We walk around the camp and listen to a hand held audio tour. In no time, we are both in a bad mood and cranky. Cant help it. This place can do that to you. The more ‘information’ we read, worse we seem to get. And then, we met Peter Israelovich Perel, a survivor. Listen to him talk about his experiences made us feel masochist for asking him all these questions. And tear up.
Background: A survivor. He was brought to this concentration camp when he was 16, from Soviet Union. He later was liberated and was saved by a German family that lives in Dachau. The lady of that house is 104 years today and he was going to go see her the day we met him.
What makes you come back here?
“To tell my story. Soon, I will be gone and in a few years, all the survivors will be gone. And i want to tell my story.”
What do you feel being here, after all these years?
“My heart beats faster. Always. The sight of this place. I can smell the past. I am reminded of the events.”
We walked around the camp with him. And he told us about the purpose of each building. A building that is now the camp museum used to be the examination room for new prisoners. “In this room, we were stripped naked. They examined my hair, teeth and genitals. There was no dignity. I was given clothes of another prisoner who had died that day. They had a shortage. I was given a jacket, which was uncommon. And shorts that came below my knee. And sent to a wash room.” “Standing in this court yard always makes me stand erect. The commander would scream at us if we didnt. We had to remove our hats when he walked by. And stay in attention for roll call that happened every morning.” “I was a political prisoner, brought in from Soviet Union. They sowed in a red star to my jacket to indicate that. They shaved my hair in a pattern down the middle. It looked like a map. It looked like a map from Moscow to Berlin. Whenever i removed my cap, they knew what i was, a political prisoner.”
Above are some pictures of inside the barracks. This one is left to show the world, but they demolished the rest after the war came to an end. But imagining 12 thousand prisoners crammed into 34 of these is painful to think of. And i don’t think i will look at a bunk bed the same, ever again. Listening to Peter describe how he had to sleep on his side with what felt like a sea of exhausted bodies, is heart wrenching. He talked about how this camp held various kinds of prisoners: political, rebels, non-pure bloods, homosexuals, emigrants, jews, Soviets, …. and how each kind was shown different levels of hatred. We have all read and heard about the horrors of the concentration camps. I will not proceed to write down all the terrible details again, here.
This was apparently nicknamed the ‘wire of death’. A sure way to die, by getting close to it. Again, most of it was taken down after the war, but fragments of the past remain and they are enough to make you dread it all. One question that haunts you, “how could this happen?”. There is a museum with a time line and possible reasons. Jew hating was a century old tradition, according to a reason listed. And the bad economy, poverty, rise of dictatorship, end of democracy, … enabled Hitler to propose to his country, a ‘total solution’ that will solve all their problems. Makes me wonder, what about the rest of the people who didnt buy into this solution? The ones who didn’t want to follow this path? Below is poster of a film made to propose alternate views and need for democracy. It was immediately deemed ‘anti-German’ and banned. And the ones who actively protested became political prisoners, sending fear to the rebels. More specifically, the residents of the town Dachau, could smell the stench and knew what was happening in their town. But when the liberators came in and interviewed them, said they didn’t know what was happening or that they heard the rumors. Only a handful even admitted to the fact that they knew. Some denied it happening. Maybe its the people who don’t do anything that makes the world dangerous. Made me think of rape in India and i greatly admire everyone who voiced their anger instead of ignoring the problem. This is one problem i have seen a lot, around me, during my lifetime. I sadly, did nothing for the cause, except post a image protesting the way women are treated on instagram. Ashamed.
“After liberation, i was offered food that looked like the best feast i have seen in my life. I tried eating all i could, but my stomach wouldn’t allow it. I had to slowly increase the quantity i eat, because after years of no food, it was too much. Even drinking water was painful. And it was hard because i was finally offered food and i had to resist”, says Peter, when asked about his life after liberation. He was full of stories, some painful, some sad and some happy. He comes down to Dachau once a year, every year and meets the people who are interested in his story. I have to say, interacting with him saved the day, put us out of the bad mood. Inspite of the grimness of the tales he was telling us, he had his ways of making himself laugh and the ones around him. Thank you, Peter.
P.S: All the words converted to English for me, by a translator. I have a video footage of this walk. Let me know if you are interested in watching it. Its all in German though. But the message comes across.