One of my daughters invited me on a European trip before she began a study program abroad. We started our adventure in Germany, moving into Austria, then the Northern lakes of Italy, on to Switzerland, ending our trip in London where she will study for the fall semester.
Our first sightseeing point of interest was Dachau, one of the concentration camps established by the Nazis during World War II. My daughter did not want to go and was kind enough to appease her mother for an afternoon in anticipation of the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, the one thing she was most excited for on the vacation.
We chose to take the audio tour, a hand held recording devise accompanied by a map. As I turned the tour on and entered the gates of the memorial site, a strange and eerie feeling came over me. I stood in awe of this overwhelmingly ordered enclosure. I was present in a place that was built to hold 5000 and ended up housing over 40,000 prisoners who lived and worked under unfathomable conditions. Why did I want to come here? What did I expect to see and feel?
I forced myself to walk through the different buildings and see where men lived for years working and suffering under inhuman circumstances and some were subjected to medical experiments ordered by the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. At the point I thought I could not endure any more of the tour, I looked toward the opposite end of “the yard” and saw a religious structure and was drawn to it like a moth to the flame. Here in the mist of all this evil was a crucifix. Walking down the long path lined by Poplar trees and flanked by the haunting foundations of “the blocks” where prisoners lived and horrific acts took place, the beautiful and unexpected monuments waited at the other end. During the early 1960’s, religious structures and places of worship were erected to honor the religions represented by the prisoners in the camp. Because Dachau was established as a political prisoner camp, many priest and public figures were held here.
The opposing forces of holy and evil are hard for us to comprehend. As Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, reminds us, “the binary, dualistic mind cannot deal with contradiction, paradox, or mystery, all of which are at the heart of religion”. We are unable to open ourselves to holding both the death and life that exist at Dachau. Kabbalah teaches that we can experience both and in doing so, something new is created. The prisoners of Dachau believed it was a place without God and even Christ on the cross doubted His presence. I believe it was a place with God and human ego. Hitler and the SS chose to ignore the God inside them and operated from a linear experience. God had to be present for the prisoners of Dachau or they would not have walked out the gates. Many lived to tell the stories we read about today. They were able to endure a non- dualistic life, suffering injustices too great to mention while having faith and connecting to the Divine.
Dachau reminds me the contradictions of life keep us seeking something greater than ourselves. My experience there was beautiful and heart wrenching, creating gratitude and curiosity for the mysteries of life.