An Impossible Lesson in Empathy: Dachau


Last Friday my husband and I went to the Dachau concentration camp. I have been to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, but I have to admit, I was not fully prepared for what I would see at this location. No amount of book reading, or documentary watching could add up to standing behind this guard gate.


As I walked in, a deep weight hit me. I felt like I had strapped a few bricks to my chest. We started our tour with the receiving area and prisoner’s quarters. Prisoners of war, who had committed a crime against the SS, were kept in these cells. The windows were blocked out, and they were kept in solitary confinement. The prison guards used several means of torture behind these walls, whether to get more information, punish them, or simply for their amusement. Some rooms were standing rooms. The prisoners were made to stand in a small box, for 72 hours. They were not allowed to sit, sleep, eat or drink. The feeling inside this building was eerie, mostly evil and sad, but I maintained composure and was glad to move onto the museum area, and barracks.


The stories of torture, medical experimentation, unacceptable living conditions, humiliation, lack of nourishment and an insurmountable amount of physical labor was inconceivable to me. I stood where these many brave men once stood wondering how they had the courage to even face another day. The feeling was numb and surreal because no matter how hard I tried; I could not truly empathize with them. I would never understand the depths of their pain and despair. This feeling made me feel helpless, powerless and guilty.


I grabbed my husband’s hand and told him I was ready to go. I was stunned, in a state of shock. Yes, I knew about the Nazi regime and the horrible things that had happened to so many innocent lives, but there was always a buffer in the story. It was behind a screen, in a book, or carefully behind the walls of a protected museum. I was standing now where they stood, in the cells in which innocent victims were tortured, humiliated, experimented on and then sent outside to be shot. There was so much hopelessness here. I could actually feel it.


We walked toward the back of the camp, which we believed to be the exit and the end of the tour, but I was not ready for the building that awaited us. Tucked outside the gate of the camp, was what they called the crematorium. I heard a young woman tell her friend she did not want to go inside, and I briefly reconsidered but then decided to go ahead. I can’t explain the feeling inside this building. It was unlike any emotion I have ever had before. We walked through the changing rooms where the men were forced to disrobe and were told they were being sent to a large shower. Then, we went into this dark, deep, brick, “shower.” This was the gas chamber, where people were quickly exterminated. I was hesitant to walk in at first, and honestly had not read the sign before I stepped inside, so I did not know at the time that this was the actual killing site of so many innocent lives. I gingerly stepped inside and felt a presence of fear, hate, sorrow, confusion and pain. I quickly exited. From there we were lead through the room where dead bodies were held to be cremated. The next room contained hanging poles, where many where hung, and right behind it, the furnace for cremation. My husband and I left quickly and walked through the garden memorials, only to see walls by which men were lined up to be shot, and trenches in which the blood was collected.   At this point, I could no longer hold in my emotions.  I had no more composure. I put my sunglasses on and put my head down, trying to walk forward as quickly as possible. I began to weep. I am not even sure how to explain what I felt. I am so used to spending my days listening to people’s pain, trying to empathize and put myself in their shoes, but this environment crushed my soul. I knew no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to understand what this hell on earth was like, and this began to build a sense of hopelessness, disbelief and fear of what mankind can and had become.


I have to admit; I had mixed feelings after leaving Dachau. I spent the rest of the day in a pensive mood, sometimes teary, confused and in a state of shock. This place did something to me. Would I recommend people visit this place? Absolutely, but one needs to prepare themselves for the experience first, and I do not ever recommend children under the age of twelve go to this place. We must never forget what cruelty and hatred can do, and how evil can tear apart the foundation of humanity. What I learned from this is once again, that we can never fully understand anyone else’s pain no matter how hard we try, but we can educate ourselves, be a beacon of light and hope, and work to keep atrocities like these from ever occurring again.