Dachau: Germany’s first community of death became grim viewing for Roundtable members late one afternoon. The original Nazi concentration camp, it opened in 1933 shortly after Hitler’s ascension to power and long before the “final solution” was put into practice. Dachau’s first prisoners included artists, intellectuals, homosexuals, and individuals with mental and physical handicaps. Jewish prisoners were added later. Dachau records suggest that 206,000 prisoners went through the camp’s infamous gate with its cynical motto “Arbeit macht frei ” (Work sets you free). Some 32,000 died of malnutrition, disease, and overwork.

As German citizens were arrested without charges and imprisoned without trial, as journalists were silenced and Jews were demonized by the regime, most Germans remained silent. The quote from the Lutheran theologian Martin Niemoller comes to mind:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Some Dachau prisoners were executed, how many is unknown. What is clear from the testimony of survivors is that many suffered brutal interrogations under torture.

Interrogation room

One painful torture technique memorialized by an inmate’s sketch involved hanging prisoners by the wrists for hours for infractions as minor as improperly made beds.

Many able-bodied Dachau prisoners were worked to death as slave laborers to manufacture weapons and war materials for Germany. Additionally, some Dachau detainees were subjected to brutal medical experiments. To escape these appalling conditions, some prisoners committed suicide by entering the forbidden zone (made up of a ditch and wire fence overlooked by guard towers). Guards had orders to shoot prisoners in this zone on sight. Some prisoners climbed the fence and threw themselves on the barbed wire topping it before death came to relieve their misery.

Reconstructed forbidden zone of ditch and wire fence

Although gas chambers and incinerators, along with disrobing rooms and fake showers, were constructed at Dachau, it is unlikely they were used for mass murder. They may, however, have been used for smaller-scale experiments in murder and incineration, experiments that were later deployed on a large scale in other infamous death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Roundtable members examine incinerators at Dachau

The Dachau experience has a lesson for educators. Israeli educational psychologist Haim Ginott wrote:

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates.

So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is this: Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

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