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by Yvette Barnett

For what seems to most young people of today like a lifetime away, Dachau a small suburb of Munich, opened its doors as Germany's first concentration camp in 1933. Today, people still flock in their thousands daily to Dachau, not to gawp as they do with so many ėtourist attractions; people visit Dachau simply to remember. Today one enters the memorial site via a tarmacked drive into the courtyard of the freshly painted prison camp, and not through the poignant gates that the prisoners once went through. If you want to see the gates with the words Arbeit macht Frei inscribed, you have to walk to the other side of the camp. The words translated into English mean: Work makes freedom and that's exactly what the prisoners believed when they entered the camp; they thought they were going there to work, not to die.

The road, where the gates are still situated, are on the route with the densely planted poplar trees; the ones planted by the prisoners nearly sixty years ago. To see the maturity of the trees in the camp is yet another stark reminder of how long ago it was. It's easy today to think that this sort of thing would never happen today, not in our modern society. But it so easily could and indeed to a certain extent in the former Yugoslavia it did only recently. Ethnic cleansing is the very same thing, but by a slightly different name. I firmly believe that the only way to stop such atrocities from happening in the future, is by visiting places like Dachau, if only to be reminded of what happened, and in the hope of preventing it from ever occurring again.

As I walked around the site, something I have done a few times now. Not that I'm so morbid as not to know what else to do on a Sunday afternoon. I have been there to escort groups of Americans around the memorial. I never cease to be appalled by what occurred there. I get to the entrance, and already the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. As you enter the museum, the map in the vestibule shows where all the concentration camps were situated across Europe; it's staggering to see how many there actually were. Twice daily, a film is shown in English, at 11.30 and 3.30pm - and every day the theatre is full. Having seen the film once, I have never felt compelled to watch it again. Walking around the museum, there are photographs on the wall showing in graphic detail the experiments that were carried out on the Jewish prisoners. For example, one shows a prisoner demonstrating how much pressure he could stand to his head before it exploded. Only the Germans would have kept such meticulous records of what they were doing. The barracks, already derelict when liberation came were quickly destroyed and only the foundations remain. A reconstructed barrack is open for one to see. I walked in and counted the beds - 72 in total. I looked at the size of the room and it seemed a fair size for the number of people. I didn't think 'what is all the fuss about'? but almost. I read the diary on the wall kept by a prisoner, and was shocked to learn that, although the barrack was intended for 72 prisoners, crammed into that relatively small space were as many as 1600 people.

At the end of the foundations for the barracks are the churches and the convent; today a silent order. The churches of the Jewish, Christian and Orthodox faith are represented. I walked inside the Jewish chapel and on the floor beside a candle was a bouquet of fresh flowers left by the daughter of a prisoner who died there. Written on the card, very simply, were the words: 'I can forgive, but I will never forget.' If it were my parents who were slaughtered at the camp, I'm not sure that I could find such forgiveness in my heart. At least that's what I thought when I read the card. Since then I have thought about the words a lot, and I suppose the only way that we can move forward, and hope for a better future, is to forgive. Hatred in the end simply takes us back to where it all began.

© Yvette Barnett 2000.

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