October 4, 2007
Elmau & Dachau: A Muslim’s Testimony
(Page 2 - Previous Page)As the conference ended, I was asked what I intended to do in Munich for the next three days, and our plan was to visit Dachau and meet with an old German friend. My feelings about the visit to the concentration camp had not been sorted out; I just knew that I wanted to visualize something I had read about in many post-Holocaust testimonies. But my eagerness to go to Dachau was deeper than I thought.
I wanted to go to Dachau because I wanted to pay my respects to the many Jews, Christians, and Gypsies who had perished and been abused there; I went as an act of simple respect for the dead.
Dachau was a Nazi German concentration camp built on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory near the medieval town of Dachau, which is located about 10 miles northwest of Munich, in southern Germany. As one walks toward the camp, there is an iron gate nested in between bushes and tall oak trees with the slogan: "Arbeit Mach Frei" (work will set you free).
When the Nazis opened Dachau in March, 1933, Heinrich Himmler, the police president of Munich, described it as the Nazi's first camp for political prisoners. One can still visit the barracks where the many prisoners and SS guards were housed: the long, gray buildings with low ceilings today contain exhibitions of old propaganda, art and SS paraphernalia. It is not hard to envision the harsh reality the prisoners had to face or the lives of the SS guards.
When we stepped off the train, we saw the sign for Dachau; I began to see the sadness in the words and wondered how anyone living there today could bear to give out their address. How would the effect of memory and narrative intersect here? As I carried my daughter in my arms toward the front gate, she began to howl in a chilling manner, and I am still amazed at myself for bringing my newborn to one of the most atrocious places on earth.
I am not sure whether this was something I could have predicted, but as we approached, Ruya was exceptionally unhappy -- my child who rarely cries -- and her shrieks made it all seem even more difficult. The camp was bare, with white pebbles in the square and an empty space that spoke of the horror that lay in the lives of the prisoners, and the terrifying howls of my baby echoed throughout time.
Dachau became a prototype for the Nazi camps that followed, and it retains a bareness and coldness that evokes its history. The exact number of how many passed through the camp is unknown, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, which also reports that 160,000 prisoners were registered on the files and about 90,000 in the camp's branches. But many more transported there in the last days of the camp were not registered. Some inmates stayed in the camp, some were transported further in "death transports" and others were murdered or died there: as many as 32,000 prisoners died at Dachau of starvation and disease. In early 1945, a typhus epidemic spread through the camp, which led to an evacuation and the death of a large number of already weakened prisoners. Dachau was also the site of the first medical experiments on prisoners.
As Ruya cried, I asked my husband to keep walking so I could stop to feed her, and as I did so at the bottom of the steps of the barracks, I felt the haunting cries of so many children there before us. My daughter sucked on her milk with tears streaming down her cheeks.
As I approached the camp, I found myself saying an Islamic prayer for the dead in the courtyard, and I felt a sense of responsibility to the victims. At that moment, I felt as if I were a witness giving testimony to all Muslims. As someone who has witnessed numerous Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, I found myself standing alone in the courtyard of Dachau, watching my daughter's eyes become blinded by the white stones of the camp and thinking to her out loud, telling her that this very act of remembering and sharing the atrocities with others is the only assurance that this will never happen again to anyone. My baby daughter squinted at me with her wet lashes as I held her in silence.
We were led toward the crematorium and she calmed a bit, and I pushed her in her stroller into the gas chamber, a dark room with showerheads looking down upon us. It was as if she and I alone were witnessing the moment before the horror. This was the moment when I saw her scrutinize the ceiling, and I knew there was something uncanny about her newness, freshness and innocence witnessing the closeness of death. I walked out vowing that she too must in some way become a witness for all future generations of Muslims.
Dachau is one of the most famous of the Nazi concentration camps and was liberated by Allied forces on April 29, 1945 -- less than 10 days before the end of the war. Soon after the British and Americans arrived, images and reports of the camp gave the world the first shocking visions of what had happened there. And now here I was, experiencing it firsthand -- not a journalist, not a Jew, not a Christian, not a liberator, but a Muslim sharing this public memory.
Witnessing is, as so many post-Holocaust writers have spoken of it, a form of speaking. And Dachau is a place where silence can be broken and where the atrocities can now be declared openly. I became a witness of the ghosts and survivors of Dachau. But more notably, I felt that even by witnessing just one camp -- or one death -- it is as if I have witnessed a million camps and a million deaths.