I think that you feel beyond the poisonous barbed wire of these barracks,
and I think that you see me with my hairless head and the dark frame
of the black circles around my eyes, bloody and dirty
and my heart knelling
a death bell.
– Excerpt from My Shadow in Dachau
by Nevio Vitelli, Dachau prisoner 1945
Nevio Vitelli, an Italian prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp, died only 3 years after being freed by American soldiers at the age of twenty. Teenage feet that should have been trudging to school experienced a more arduous route. Between 1933 and 1945 more than 200,000 people suffered horrendous conditions imprisoned by the Third Reich, more than 41,000 were murdered.
SS soldiers prodded Nevio and the thousands of other political, religious, homosexual, disabled, racially “inferior”, and anyone they saw as a threat to their new world order, prisoners from the rail station, through town, and through the gates of Hell, a black rod iron gate inscribed with words: Arbeit Macht Frei – “Work Sets You Free”.
We had the luxury of a free bus ride and an air conditioned visitor’s center to greet us. We walked through the gate without the fear of being stripped of our clothing and dignity. Our heads weren’t going to be shaven and our bodies beaten. We would have a soft hotel room bed, not a cramped board with someone’s feet as our pillow. We would not starve, not have open festering wounds, no fear of typhoid, no fear of death.
The Dachau Concentration Memorial Site is a reminder of the inhuman treatment one group of people upon another group of people. Gas chambers, mass graves, torture, hunger are the results of bigotry and the corruption of power.
As we read about Dachau’s dark history we realized the fraility of the freedoms we take for granted. We have no idea the roles our German relatives played in World War II: perpetrators, victims, spectators, or good Samaritans. What role would we have taken on? It is easy to look back in hindsight and say we would have been the good guys, but who knows what influences there would have been on our choices.
The last presidential election in the U.S. showed us how easily a country can be divided. Kevin and I felt the ominous warnings at Dachau reverberating with the political upheaval at home. The diverse views within our own familes, let alone through out the country, had\has the potential to grow into something as destructive as the Holocaust. Hopefully, we have more checks and balances, and more historical knowledge to keep it from seeing fruition.