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Set Free in Dachau

The day was ironically bright and sunny with clouds slowly rolling overhead and tree leaves floating in the gentle breeze. Walking down the winding trail that led to the entrance of the camp, the roughness of gravel grinding under my thin, tattered sandals competed with the heavy pressure in my chest that seemed to grate itself against each breath that I took. Everyone looked the same as I felt. Quiet, solemn. What can you really say to someone when you realize you’re walking on the same path so many others have been dragged down, bound in shackles?
I was prepared to be depressed, but for some reason curiosity made me eager to get to the entrance gate. A couple wrong turns and there it was. A tall, stone entryway bordering an iron gate that displayed the words “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Skimming through a small brochure, I discovered the phrase is German for “Work sets you free.” More irony. [gate]
Working my way through mounds of other tourists taking photos of the gate that marked the line between imprisonment and the outside world, I cautiously stepped onto the other side. A field of gravel stared me in the face. Slowly I wandered off to the right toward a set of long buildings that stretched on for what looked like miles. The drone of the man’s melancholy voice on my audio guide told me that the buildings I was about to walk between were known as the bunker, or a prison within a prison. Taking one last gaze at the rows of barbed wire that menacingly bared their teeth above my head, I walked into the prison wing.
Headset on and camera in tow, all I could do was stand in uncertainty and stare down the long, dark hallway that extended in front of me. The cracked, concrete walls seethed with wear. Two adjacent lines of silhouetted doorways led to cells that looked even more gloomy and sinister than the hallway itself. Ducking into one of the first rooms on my right I didn’t know whether I felt refuge from the intimidation of the hallway or unease from the dank, restless vibes I got from the cell I had entered.
Looking around, I noticed there were displays of laminated books and texts bordering the box of a room, two windows near the ceiling, and more concrete. Putting a stop to the speaker of information at my fingertips and letting the audio guide dangle from my wrist, I turned to a set of laminated pages that were positioned under the windows. They were log books of prisoner accounts. As I skimmed the first few pages trying to ignore feelings of discomfort and let them sink in all at the same time, I heard something fluttering near the ceiling above my head. [birdinflight]
My eyes followed the noise to the window on the left, and I noticed a small bird flapping its wings in place. At first glance, I thought it was perched on the outside of the bunker cell window. When I looked again, I realized that it was actually inside of the cell trying to fly out. Looking more closely, I saw that the barred window was also sealed by a clearly cemented pane of glass. The only way for the bird to escape was through the same door it had entered-the same door so many had entered. Snapping a few pictures with my camera, I wondered how it would manage to escape since the door to the cell room was much lower than the windows. An older man with a white ball hat and small tree branch walked in and tried to guide the bird away from the window and toward the door.
As more people filled the room and left again, I began reading the pages of prisoner accounts. A Jewish prisoner was describing the level of excruciating pain he felt after being beaten and tortured by SS guards in the bunker. In detail he explained how he couldn’t even lie still for more than a couple of seconds because the pain was so intolerable, but when he moved the pain would only double. Reading on, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. How could anyone do something like this to another person? What possessed so many people to allow a place like this to exist? How was it possible to endure something like this? Why was I so angry? [crematorium]
All of a sudden I felt a slight tap on my shoulder. Tearing my eyes from the page, I answered the gentle pat through a glaze of both sadness and frustration. It was the man that was trying to guide the trapped bird from the window. He began talking to me in (what I thought to be) fast German. Since I don’t speak German, all I could do was hold my hands up in apology and slight embarrassment. After all, here I stood as a blatant summer weekend tourist complete with camera, audio guide and all. And to add the ignorance icing to the cake, I didn’t speak a lick of the language. However, it was at this point when I realized no audio guide, brochure or translation could ever teach what was about to be impressed upon me.
The man realized that I didn’t speak German, so in broken English he said, “You…set…bird…free?” Looking up at the window and then back to the man, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Me? But how?” His eyes looked tired but full of energy and drive. “I’ll lift you up…to window…then…,” he said. He got down on one knee and linked his fingers together to demonstrate how he would lift me toward the window. Grabbing his white hat and pointing to the bird, he explained, “You…grab…with this.” Peering down at him and then back up to the ceiling, I thought it was impossible. With a nervous laugh, I cracked a joke about being heavier than I looked. He didn’t understand.
Stifling my laughter, I set my camera and bag on the ground. It was worth a try. He got back down on one knee and turned his hands into a stepping stool. Flicking my sandal off to the side, I slid my foot into his hands and grabbed his shoulders as he hoisted me toward the window to our left where the bird was pounding its wings at its reflection in the glass. As I took the man’s hat from his head and went to reach toward the window, the bird hurled itself to the other window on the right side of the wall. Letting me back down to the ground, the man pointed encouragingly to the right window as if to say, let’s try this again.
When he lifted me up a second time, again the bird flew to the opposite window. At this point, freeing the bird seemed hopeless, and the man was clearly tired. Seeing his disappointment and watching the bird continue to struggle, I decided we shouldn’t give up. Picking the tree branch up from the ground, I said, “Here, lift me up one more time.” With a slightly desperate laugh but a look of determination, he readied himself again.
I stepped into his hands one last time and, holding onto his shoulders, we wobbled toward the left window again. I was planning to use the stick to let the bird perch itself, but as I got closer and closer to the window, I realized it wasn’t flying away this time. Tossing the stick to the ground, I eagerly grabbed the man’s hat off of his head. I clutched the windowsill with my right hand for support and cradled the bird with my left. As I started to slide down the tilted, black display wall, this time with the bird in tow, the man guided me to the ground.
There we stood in the middle of the cell as I cupped the bird in both hands and looked at my rescuing partner in disbelief. A part of me wanted to stay standing there so I could let the moment sink in until he pointed toward the exit with a look of satisfaction and half smile. Not even bothering to put my sandal back on, I turned from him and started to make my way out of the bunker cell. [monumentbunker]
I hobbled down the dark corridor of the prisoner wing toward the light of the exit door. Squinting from the brightness of the sun, I stood at the top step of the doorway and raised both hands and released my grip on the hat. With a sweeping motion, the bird seemed to soar out of my hands in slow motion and into the sky. The imprisoned bird was free. And for whatever reason, something inside of me couldn’t help but feel liberated.
I returned to the bunker cell and thanked the man. I wanted to say more, but he wouldn’t have understood me. Besides, I’m pretty sure he knew how I felt. I put my sandal back on, picked up my camera and audio guide and took one last look out the cell room windows at the blue sky outside. As disheartening as the bunker was, I was able to be a part of something that was impossible for countless prisoners who were tortured and trapped in that very same cell.
Wandering throughout the rest of the bunker area, exploring the rows of prisoner barracks that lined the center of the camp, and witnessing the horror of the gas chambers and crematorium, it became more and more apparent that the experience is something that I will always remember. I gradually approached a monument standing near the middle of the camp that displayed the phrase “Never Again” in five different languages. The reasons behind that message had never been made more clear to me than they were that day.
I walked around in a state of both slight shock and increased awareness. I couldn’t stop thinking about what went on in that building, let alone the numbers of people who never did make it out of Dachau alive. I’m not Jewish and, as far as I know, I have no relatives who were directly affected by something of this magnitude. But any person with a heart in their chest and eyes in their head that enable them to witness something of this magnitude cannot avoid being impacted or at least affected in some way. [birdsill]
As I made my way out of the camp, the gravel was still grinding under my feet and my heart was still thumping, but for reasons that were different from my arrival. On a sunny day in Dachau, I helped accomplish something that so many others before me were never able to do – to set a soul free.

For more information about Dachau, visit the official website at http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/englisch/content/index.htm

To learn more about the Holocaust, go to http://www.ushmm.org/

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