Once before I had attempted to visit Dachau only to find the camp closed. All museums are closed Mondays, said the guard. But how could they close the camp on this day? On any day? I returned to Dachau nearly four years later. It was a Wednesday.
My family, like many of those from Eastern Europe, is small. I had three grandparents, an uncle, aunt and two cousins. The rest of my family was exterminated. During the war, both grandmothers were hidden with their children. Both grandfathers were taken away by the Nazis. One perished in slave labor on the Russian front. The other was shipped from his home in Hungary to Auschwitz, then to Dachau-Mettenheim and, finally, to Waldlager, where he was liberated on Feb. 5, 1945. My surviving grandfather never spoke of his time in hell, yet with this burden he managed to live life to the fullest, taking advantage of every moment of every day, relishing the simple fact that he was.
I had been to the Wiesenthal Center, the Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem. I thought I was prepared for the emotion of Dachau. At first I was happy to be a part of a large tour group, thinking that a collective experience would somehow be cathartic. We listened to the doleful biography of the camp and toured the museum that was not more than a sparse littering of atrocities from the camp photo album. Mounted below each picture was a terse description translated into several languages. Surprisingly the pictures weren't even all from Dachau, as if there hadn't been enough atrocities at this camp to cover the walls end to end 100 times over. At the conclusion of the museums tour, visitors were shown grainy black and white footage of Holocaust atrocities. The poor quality of the film, accompanied by a monotone and detached narrative, allowed the viewer to register the events on an intellectual level, but prevented them from creating an empathic connection with the victims.
Having studied the Holocaust throughout the years, I was mostly acquainted with the tour guide's lecture, so I trailed behind the group hoping to find an emotional link to the past through my solitude. I approached the original entrance to the camp with the disdainful lie still emblazoned on the iron gates: "Arbeit Macht Frei" -- Work sets you free. I grasped the gate, but all I felt was the chill of cold metal.
The original bunkers at Dachau were razed, with one exact replica rebuilt when the camp became a museum. How ironic: A model within a model. After all, Dachau was Hitler's first and oldest concentration camp, and used as a model in propaganda films to sell the idea of mass extermination to his minions. The bunker was pristine, as were the gas chambers. The ovens suffered from no wear and tear and looked like they hadn't even baked a loaf of bread, much less thousands of Nazi victims.
The visitors slowly departed at the conclusion of the tour, but I stood alone in the anteroom of the gas chamber and wondered how such a horrific place could leave me devoid of emotion. Looking around, I noticed that none of the other visitors had left with tears in their eyes. I realized that the Wiesenthal Center, the Holocaust Museum and Yad Vashem were built, in part, in memorial to Hitler's innocent victims. Each presented images and words designed to create an empathic link between visitor and victim. Dachau's purpose was inapposite. It was built in a remote location, behind large secretive walls designed to house "undesirables" -- a place where people could be exterminated in silence, then forgotten. Rather than memorializing its victims, Dachau was sanitized of their memory. True to its original design, Dachau was a place longing to be forgotten. The rain began then, a natural reaction and fitting tribute to this monstrous place.
Looking through the rain, I finally saw what my heart longed for: He was a solemn, gray figure that approached in slow labored movements. He was introduced to me as Martin Zaidenstadt, a Jew, a member of the Polish resistance and a Dachau survivor. Zaidenstadt was happy to tell me his story, for this is why he still comes here. Zaidenstadt was part of a small group of Polish soldiers captured by the Nazis and interned in Dachau. As Jews and resistance members, he and his comrades were to be summarily executed. By some twist of fate, Zaidenstadt's true identity was obscured and he was incorporated into the slave labor details, even though his comrades were executed. After liberation and a brief stint in Israel, Zaidenstadt returned to Dachau, took up residence and has visited the camp on nearly a daily basis for the past 52 years, vowing never to forget his fallen comrades.
Zaidenstadt took me on a personal tour of Dachau, detailing in broken English some of the many atrocities committed on these grounds. His mind's eye painted the camp as it was those many years ago: Forced prostitution, starvation, pestilence, medical experiments, suffering. Finally, I felt.
In parting, Zaidenstadt allowed me to take his picture, but insisted it be in front of a rather nondescript and somewhat obscured memorial. As he stood there, he translated the inscription: "To Honor the Dead and to Remind the Survivors."
Looking at Zaidenstadt, I realized what memory I was to take from Dachau. The memory is as much about those that died as it is about those that survived. It cannot be wedded to a physical place or limited to a particular time, for it is an everlasting tribute to the triumph of the human spirit. It is the collective memory of a people past, present and future who will never forget, who will say "Never Again" and who live life to the fullest, taking advantage of every moment of every day, relishing the simple fact that we are.
Michael D. Braun is an attorney at law who lives in Los Angeles.