Many experiences change who you are and how you view the world. Yesterday Prime Minister Trudeau visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and shared a written reflection in the book of remembrance on the importance of not forgetting the dark moments of history. “Today we bear witness to humanity’s capacity for deliberate cruelty and evil,” he wrote.
I was in Germany for a few days in late fall 2014 with some friends. We drove from Munich to Frankfurt and decided to make a stop in Dachau on our way to Frankfurt. The weather was appropriately dreary and cold. Of the five of us, all emotionally hardened health care professionals, accustomed to dealing with death, dying, tragedy and misery, only 2 could complete the tour. The rest terminated our visit after various lengths and re-grouped in the cafeteria.
For those not familiar with Dachau, unlike Auschwitz, it was not an extermination camp, but rather a camp originally intended to hold political prisoners and subsequently became a labour camp. Some 32,000 people are known to have died at Dachau and likely many thousands more perished without record.
Dachau is a place of indescribable evil, but the most disturbing element of Dachau was how it exemplified Hannah’s Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil. I watched a video of four survivors describing their arrival at the camp and their ordinary, bureaucratic, routine processing as they handed off their clothes and received camp clothes. On the walls, the paint had finally peeled off, years after Dachau was liberated to reveal an imprint: “Rauchen verboten” – no smoking. Records were meticulously kept and officers wrote home to their spouses as if they were posted at any other ordinary posting.
I found myself reflecting on what exactly has been learned from Dachau. Germans, as a nation, seem to have learned much. But it is disheartening to observe that humanity, as a whole, seems not to. Srebrenica calls into doubt whether “never again” is anything but a motto. How the world has approached Syria and the brutal, bloody reign of Assad, means that we have not learned the imperative of fighting those for whom human life is expendable. We have not learned that the sanctity of human life is non-negotiable. We have not learned that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I found myself wondering what would have happened if Hitler had not been so reckless as to invade Russia and the Vichy regime was more successful in establishing a vassal state in France. Would the UK, the US and others have been more willing to ‘engage’ with the Nazis because Nazi power was a fait accompli?
In the center of the camp – where prisoner roll call was held, a sign now stands in four languages that reads: “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defence of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.” I wondered then and I still do – has it?
I found myself more bothered by this question of ‘what have we learned’ than I thought I would be. I am still not sure. I know that given how difficult Dachau was, I am not likely to go to Auschwitz any time soon. One can only absorb so much evil at a time
Read more of my work at www.waelhaddara.com