It’s the 13th of January and the wind strips you raw. The snow is beautiful from afar; up close, the white is suffocating. When I visited the Dachau concentration camp on a -1 degree Celsius morning (30.2 F) I was wearing enough layers to hinder the movement of my legs to a waddling shuffle. The warmth those layers promised seemed to somehow justify my obstructed movements. Despite the coatings of cloth, however, I felt naked. My feet swam in ice, anaesthetised. All I could think of was peeling off my pants, followed by my leggings and then my lightweight wool socks, and sinking my feet on the slab of concrete snow. I imagined being barefoot.
There’s an eerie benefit to visiting Dachau in the winter. You go in the summer and visit the shunt room, see the barracks and the camp road as you bask in the sun. A dreary place, indeed. But it would not seem farfetched to want to stroll for hours, examining every crevice, gawking at all the evidence of human atrocity. You might want to ingrain every detail and become imbued with every fact. The winter, on the other hand, isn’t so forthcoming. Yes, you want to learn about the roll call square where prisoners stood still, sometimes for hours, in mere uniforms that did the bare minimum against the cold. But you’re standing on that square, entrenched in layers of wool, cotton, and wick, and you’re so cold all you can think of is the ice pricking at your every pore. All you can think about is finding someplace warm. All you can think of is leaving. And so it is in winter that man can come a millimeter, a bare inch, closer to standing in a work camp prisoner’s shoes, if that is even possible. Such a tragic experience seems to be light years away from anyone outside of it.
Dachau, located 20 kilometers north of Munich, was a working camp during the years of National Socialism under Hitler. Heinrich Himmler described it as the first camp for political prisoners. These consisted of communists and other political opponents of the NS regime. They were the first to arrive when the camp opened on March 22nd 1933 in what used to be a gunpowder and munitions factory. The camp would later house ostracized groups such as Jehova’s Witnesses, Sinti and Romas, and homosexuals. There is little evidence that the gas chamber in Barrack X was used on the live prisoners. The crematorium was used to cremate prisoners who had died from the grinding weather and working conditions. Vernichtung durch Arbeit, was the motto. Extermination through labor. The NS was clearly keen on carrying this mantra through to its full extent.
You read books about National Socialism, about the Hitler Putsch in 1923 and “The Night of Cristal Glass” on November 1938. Perhaps you’re interested in the event sprouting the systematic planning for the extinction of Jews and thus read more on the Wannsee Conference in 1942. Most people delve into concentration camp memoirs, narratives depicting every atrocious and heartbreaking detail, words fleshing out a world lacking in everything that composes a human soul. Narratives that describe toilets you can count on 2 hands in a barrack of hundreds of prisoners, toilets sometimes reeking of typhus-born diarrhea and vomit. You can also read about Dachau, about the fact that it was open for twelve years and that it also served as a training headquarters for the Nazis. Perhaps you will encounter the words, “ ehrlos, wehrlos und rechtlos,” just as the prisoners were presented with them on arrival, protruding brutishly from an NS officer’s mouth: dishonorable, defenseless, and without rights. This mental attrition went hand in hand with the physical. Perhaps a Prügelstrafe for misconduct resulting in floggings of sometimes up to 25 whippings, maybe because you didn’t make your bed to a T. Maybe you made you’re bed too well.
In the end, you can read about it all. But if there’s something about life, it is that we can only come so close to something we have never lived. Experiences dwelling in a fortress of turbulences far from anything we have ever witnessed stretch even further from our grasp. Reading about Dachau nourishes our curiosity, while visiting the camp in the summer paves a closer trail to information and perhaps a visual of what the prisoners lived. Dachau in winter brings you one step closer. It provides not just a visual, but a stage. A stage equipped with the facility to strip you, if not of your values and hope, at least of your momentary comfort and a coherent train of thought not centered on your numbing limbs and on finding an escape. It makes you feel bare in so many ways.