A Train to Dachau
My mother never had to warn me about getting on trains to places such as Dachau – I just knew.
Yet after a long and cheerful Christmas vacation, I chose to visit the concentration camp at Dachau. It may seem that visit to Dachau was a dreary way to end my trip – but for me it was refreshing: a crisp and stinging reminder of my reason for working with cultural heritage sites.
Let me start at the beginning,
I didn’t want to go to Dachau, and I had to go.
I wanted to walk the grounds not as a Museum Informaticist, but as Laura-Edythe. I wanted my moment to honor those who had suffered atrocities, to remember the tattooed numbers upon the supple skin of survivor’s forearms – moments from my childhood that are mixed with memories of dinners cooking and eyes filled with stifled tears.
Dachau had plans of its own, giving me both what I sought, and asking for more of me than I had expected.
First there was the language barrier as my ability to understand German is in its infancy, and I feared that I would only be able to comprehend the visual elements of the visit. Of course there were audio tour guide devices in English – and I was soon equipped with a telephone like device that squawked at me in a British accent. Armed with my audio guide, I ventured through the gates of Dachau Concentration Camp.
Did I mention it was 22 degrees Fahrenheit? And with the wind chill, the air felt 9 degrees? And the land was covered in ice and snow? I simply wanted to stand in the snow, and wait for the ghosts of Dachau, propelled by a winter’s wind, to stop seeping through my chest. I wanted to breathe, and I wanted to wake up.
I forced myself to snap a few photos, and then to keep walking.
As I walked between the buildings, across the snow-covered fields, my sense of dread increased. I entered the set of buildings denoted in the audio guide as the “crematorium.” I promised myself that I would look into this place, that I would peer at the cold walls that once burned with horror. Yet, I also promised myself, long in advance of this trip, that I would never enter the showers. I supposed, in my naiveté, that each of the rooms of the crematorium would be clearly marked, and that one would have a choice in entering or skipping a room.
I was so wrong.
After passing the furnace, I entered what I thought was a hallway. Horror filled my blood: the tall young man ahead of me in the room reached up to tap the shower head above! I pushed my way through the tourists and burst through the doorway on the other side. My world – my world was twisting in a nauseating pattern.
I forced myself to look back: oh. The sign is on this side of the showers. I had entered the “exhibit” from the wrong direction, and the signage lay on this side of the room.
I watched the others as they walked through. “ooh look here – there is a little window to look in” said the tourist with the multiple animal key fobs on her bag. My mind screamed “woman don’t you know that was to check to see if the people had stopped moving?” I realized in this moment that I was not a tourist here, that I was a mourner, and that this “exhibit” was an integral part of my identity creating process. I marveled at the people who seemed interested and so content to stand in a room that was designed with a sole purpose: to exterminate the innocent in numbers. I would never have entered that room, had I known that I was walking into the showers. I felt an uneasy kinship with the dead of Dachau: I too walked numbly, naively, into the shower room. For all my education, I would have still walked in.
After the crematorium, I visited the museum. My fear turned to anger as I listened to an unofficial “private” tour guide. The tour guide, followed by a flock of tourists, spouted anecdotes of dubious (if not outrageously wrong) historical value to his ever-growing crowd of followers. I was reminded that the Dachau Concentration Camp website specifically forbids the presence of private tours. To fuel my disdain, the tour guide loudly made an announcement, “This is a private tour, and if you are not a member of the tour group you will go away now.” Every ounce of my socially-inclusive museologist, freedom-of-access-to-information librarian, human body wanted to strangle this disgusting tour guide. How dare he forbid anyone to stand here? The survivors of Dachau had one distinct creed “Never Again.” We are to visit this place to add to our knowledge of human kind: that we can survive, that we can commit great horror, and that we can grow beyond our past. If even one person is denied the ability to confront the horror of our past, how can we possibly pass on our identity? Our culture?
I walked on through the museum, and met an answer for my anger and my fear: the card catalogue. Yes, at Dachau Concentration Camp there was a card catalogue that contained the information of those individuals who had walked through the gates as prisoners. As an information professional, my heart swelled with pride as I read the story of those who had preserved these records with one reason: to assist the kin in the identification of those who had perished. This is the true meaning of “information professional”: to connect people with information in meaningful ways. As a museum Informaticist I seek to connect people, information, technology, and cultural heritage so that they may create (or co-create) their identity in meaningful ways.
On my Christmas trip to Germany and Austria, I took a day to remember why I do what I do: I embrace the power of museums to promote healing and reconciliation because I am determined to save the world one object, one exhibit, one museum, one community and one nation at a time.
I took a train to Dachau, and I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.