Why don’t I feel more?

Fall morning (2010).

Some visitors are deeply moved by Dachau, but many are not. I often heard the sentiment, “I expected to feel more here.”

I think it has something to do with what we bring to Dachau. Many of us have violent and disturbing Holocaust images in our head from documentaries and history books. Then we visit Dachau, the first camp, “the place where it all started”, and we see similar images in the museum, but mostly we walk around the actual place, which looks nothing like the pictures.

We see solitary confinement cells that are now empty. We walk through a small gas chamber. We stare at industrial size brick and iron ovens. The distance between those black and white images and the reconstructed barbed wire fence you can touch is vast. How to bridge it? And here, everything’s in color. It’s real time.

Most visit Dachau in the spring and summer months when it’s warm. You are one of thousands walking around the “park”, snapping pictures and wondering if the poplar trees that line the camp street were there when the camp was in operation. Your guide is knowledgeable and interesting, but wow, was it hot standing out there on the roll call square. You were distracted by others in the group groping through their bags for bottles of sunscreen and water, in a sea of hats and sunglasses. You were grateful for the moment when your guide let you sit down on the stools in the coolness of the barrack, but the break was short.

Winter is something different. There are very few tourists and days pass where no visitor walks through the museum. There are only the people who work there: administration, security, volunteers, maybe a visiting scholar. Bavarian winter days are short. In December and January, it’s pitch black by 4:30 in the afternoon. Snow covers the walkways, the poplars are bare, the temperature stays below freezing, and somehow the memorial feels more powerful in cold silence, edged in white flakes.

I occasionally asked colleagues: do you feel more or less at different sites? They all said that they do react differently to different memorials. One said she feels nothing in Auschwitz, but in Maidanek (Lublin, Poland) she feels discomfort. Another said it was Yad Vashem in Israel, the room with the names of the children that stopped him. Still another told me that Dachau is very powerful for her, “It moves me every time I go there.”

Most visitors to Dachau will come once in their life. Most will never visit another concentration camp memorial. I think many come with expectations that cannot be fulfilled. In discussing this question with a colleague who also spent years working with the public there, he believes that many visitors expect to feel terrible and even feel guilty if they don’t. Many have sacrificed something to see Dachau, in a sense they’ve paid for it. They have traveled a long way and have have planned two days to see Munich. They  “give up” a half-day to visit the memorial when they could have taken a day trip to a castle or seen an art museum. Some look for shock value and are disappointed when they stand in the actual place and get nothing.

Click here to read the next question: Are there ghosts? What about past lives?