The Gate at Dachau

By | September 28, 2015 | 0 Comments

I have often wondered how it felt to look out through the barbed wire of a concentration camp. When my wife and I visited Dachau years ago, everyone else stood outside to photograph the sarcastic words above the gate, “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free). But I photographed the gate from inside, with the letters backward, as seen by the inmates. My wish to empathize with them was personal – my father’s eldest brother was murdered in the Holocaust.
If I were a prisoner, what would I have thought as I looked out through the barbed wire? Surely I would have tried to find a hole in the fence and escape. And probably I would have wished to strangle one guard before I was shot. But I might have thought, “Those guards really look sharp in their SS uniforms.”
Suffering sometimes ennobles us. There are heroic examples of inmates who gave up their places to others and went to the gas chamber in self-sacrifice. But these examples are rare. Perhaps suffering ennobles only those who already had the seeds of nobility within them. More often suffering embitters us. Since many of us carry the seeds of bitterness, it need not be great suffering. Many people become embittered as a result of seemingly minor distress in personal life, school, or career.
Sometimes, however, suffering has an even worse effect – it makes us envy the torturers and adopt their methods. In an effort to save their own lives, a small minority of camp inmates acted as Kapos, aiding the guards in brutalizing fellow inmates.
A religious person might say that this is the worst effect of prejudice and persecution – worse than being held down in inferior positions, worse than imprisonment, worse even than being killed. The worst thing that can happen to someone is to be turned into a worse human being.
Many people felt indignation over Ruby Ridge and Waco, but it was directed at those responsible. Somewhere, Timothy McVeigh acquired hatred directed at a whole group, so he bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City. In his case it was “the government.” In other cases, it may be “the Jews” or “the blacks.” But in any case, hating a whole group “justifies” attacking all members, including women, children, and those who had nothing to do with the act in question. This is true of a truck bomber in Oklahoma City, a suicide bomber in Jerusalem, or a guard in Dachau.
Seeing groups as subhuman is contagious – it is contracted from one already infected. As with any infection, the likelihood of catching it depends on the extent of exposure, on how severely the contact is infected, and on the virulence of that particular strain. Prolonged exposure to one severely infected by virulent racial or religious hatred can infect a normal person, and it is more likely to infect the most susceptible, especially the young. Sadly, even the victims of prejudice can catch this disease. They are thus doubly victimized, first by being persecuted, then by becoming haters and potential persecutors themselves.
But virulence of the infection is only one factor; the other is resistance. No one may be totally immune to hatred, but we can develop strong resistance. As with other infectious diseases, prevention requires immunization in early childhood plus regular boosters.
Children do not grow up hate-free spontaneously; effort is required. As Columbine High School showed, pleasant surroundings and affluence are no guarantees. Regular doses of anti-hate vaccine must be administered by parents, other family members, teachers, and religious and youth leaders.
This involves learning to respect other cultures, but also – and equally important – learning to respect our own. Unlike the Columbine killers, those who grow up as proud Americans feel no need to give Nazi salutes or celebrate Hitler’s birthday. Those who find meaning in the rituals of religion or patriotism have no use for the rituals of Satanism or Nazism. Those who were taught that they are unique individuals created in God’s image are less likely to seek a false individuality in gang colors, tattoos, or black trench coats.
But now we teach only tolerance and inclusiveness, which give no guidance about what not to tolerate or include. At Columbine, teachers and students tolerated the future murderers giving Nazi salutes and celebrating Hitler’s birthday, and a memorial to the dead included the murderers and their victims without distinction. Unlike a belief in tolerance, a belief in the sanctity of human life helps to immunize against hatred and murder.
Even though we received our childhood immunizations and boosters, we still take care to avoid catching infectious diseases. We advocate wearing masks around persons with active tuberculosis, and avoiding unprotected sex and not sharing needles to avoid AIDS and hepatitis. Similarly, we should avoid contact with persons, publications, and websites that spread racial or religious hatred. And we should take special care to keep such infectious material away from young people. To do otherwise in the name of “free expression” is a cowardly evasion of responsibility.
Why don’t we crash ISIS or other terrorist websites, or hack them with ridiculous or pornographic material to destroy their credibility? Why do we allow them to continue to infect our young people?  Is it weakness or stupidity? Does it matter?
Moreover, we must avoid using hate-evoking labels for those we disagree with politically. When blowhards depict those who disagree with affirmative action as “Klansmen,” claim that those who favor voter ID are “launching a crusade against voting rights,” or accuse those who disagree with gun confiscation of having “blood on their hands,” they are taking the first step toward silencing debate and eliminating dissidents. Like many diseases, hate must be recognized in its early stages to be curable.
Looking out through the gate at Dachau was an emotional and educational experience. Though I was free to leave at any time, I was overcome by a powerful urge to escape. But there were no guards, so I felt no desire to kill them, and – best of all – I was spared the temptation of envying them.
If we want to avoid the horrible suffering that is so readily produced by racial, religious, or political hatred, and especially if we want to avoid inflicting it, we cannot allow wishful thinking to lull us into a false sense of security. Intelligent effort is required. Just as we are grateful not to be looking out through the gate at Dachau, we must also be grateful not to be looking in.
To put it another way, we must avoid contact with the Final Solution, or some of it may spill on us, and – worst of all – we may absorb its poison.
If you want a vague idea of what a concentration camp was like, go to this website. You will see a film made for the U.S. Army by George Stevens, who went on to become one of the top directors in the history of Hollywood. But be warned, you will need a strong stomach.
The gate at Dachau was not opened and the camp was not liberated by Mahatma Gandhi and a flock of pacifists, who believed that “war is not the answer.” Nor was it liberated by a gaggle of diplomats, who understood the Germans’ “legitimate grievances.” Nor was it liberated by a pack of lawyers, who served the commandant with a writ.
No, the gate was opened and Dachau was liberated by soldiers of the U.S. Army, whom the self-anointed elite belittle as ignorant losers. The planes, tanks, artillery, and other equipment necessary for the liberation were produced by the hated “military-industrial complex.” Might there, just possibly, be a lesson here?
Mouthing “Never again!” does no good if, at the same time, we favor weakening our military until it will be unable to combat aggression in the world, and we favor a counterfeit “inspection” deal that allows Iran to select who the inspectors are and where they go. If a fanatically racist regime shouts “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” while developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, and we do nothing meaningful, what does that say about us?
Memory is not merely reminiscences. It is not merely sitting around recalling how things used to be. The purpose of memory is to learn from the past, so we can act wisely in the present to help assure a pleasant future – or any future at all.

iran protest

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