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Dachau: Work Shall Set You Free

Dachau, Work Shall Set You Free

I didn’t see it then. The jet-lag and sluggishness I felt as I entered Dachau was actually a blessing in my tour of this concentration camp. As I trudged through the entrance, the greeting  “Arbeit Macht Frei” proclaim to all that “work shall set you free.”

Work shall set you free


Dachau, work shall set you free

As I thought about this, I felt mocked. Betrayed upon arrival. Like most everyone, I’ve watched movies and documentaries and read stories about the injustice and cruelty that happened in camps like this one. Indeed, work had not set anyone free. Except maybe in death.

I wasn’t prepared for the burden that would cling to my weary shoulders during this tour. The intensity of brutality, the sorrow over the loss of dignity and life brought on a weariness that sapped whatever energy I had left after flying all night long.

Speaking of flying:

“They say that the birds never sing at Dachau. Perhaps they cannot produce their wondrous music in a place that has witnessed such tragedy, such cruelty, such horror. Perhaps God forbids it. Or perhaps, on their own, they are muted by the the profound sense of sadness that permeates the very air around Dachau – air that once was filled with the cries of innocents and the lingering smoke of their ashes.”    ~ Jack Sacco, “Where the Birds Never Sing”

If you’ve not read this book, I highly recommend it. Jack Sacco tells the story of how his dad in WWII, was part of the troop that liberated Dachau. I read the book after my visit to Dachau. I wish I’d read it before.

Dachau: A model of evil

We strolled through the gate and onto the drill field where our tour guide, Matthew, shared that this property was originally a gunpowder and munitions factory/warehouse. It was transformed into a prison. Dachau was the first camp of its’ type and hundreds of other sub-camps were modeled after it throughout Germany and Austria. It became a model of evil.

The drill field was the place where prisoners gathered every morning to receive work orders. You know, the work that would set them free kind of work… There were days where they were commanded to stand at attention for hours because of some infraction — or worse; at the whim of a Nazi officer who just wanted to inflict pain.

Prisoners stood here in all types of weather and at times were stripped of their clothing, bearing that indignity while suffering from any number of diseases or starvation. I stood there with my convenient and stylish crossbody handbag, thankful that my belly, birthmarks and privates were not exposed. I thought about scriptures that talked of “covering our nakedness” and realized again how natural it is to want to cover our bodies.

The chasm of lifestyle created here was overwhelming. While my feet were sore, I became acutely aware of my socks and shoes. I had dressed for comfort on the flight over, but it now seemed frivolous and the heaviness of my exhaustion was seeping into my very soul. I began to look around for a bench to rest my weary bones.

Instead, Matthew shared, “The camp was surrounded by walls and barbed wire and also had a moat at one time. The guard towers were placed around the perimeter with a certain area being off limits to any prisoner. If a prisoner were to venture into that area they could be shot from the guard in the tower. It is said that guards would at times throw a prisoner’s hat into the area and when they went to fetch it, they would be shot. Once they began to realize what was going on, some of them even used it as form of suicide.

Heaviness Day-in and Day-out

At this point, I felt like I was walking with heavy logs for legs and stones for feet as we entered the museum. We trudged along, viewing pictures, maps, lists and examples of punishments placed throughout the building.

Dachau tool of punishment


It was here that Matthew shared how the discrimination against prisoners was taken even further. There were arm badges that each prisoner was forced to wear. A color was assigned to each person delegating them to certain groups.

  • Red badge – political prisoner
  • Green – criminals
  • Yellow – Jews
  • Pink – homosexuals
  • Violet – Jehovah’s Witness
  • White – Idiots

I wore navy that day, but wondered what badge color would have been assigned to me. As a believer in Christ, not a Jehovah’s Witness, but as a  Baptist, what if my denomination had been considered a cult in that day? What if my simple faith and belief in creation vs. evolution made me an idiot in their eyes? Could we be that far off from such radical bullying?

I know we’ve come a long way since WWII, but one shocking revelation was the list of companies who enlisted the slave labor of the camps back then. Two shocked me. BMW and Mercedes were on the list. I was sad to hear they have this darkness in their company history.

From the museum, we wandered outdoors again where the bronze memorial sculpture is dedicated to those who suffered the despair and cruelty of their captors. It is one of the most moving and disturbing “monuments” I’ve ever seen. The arms and legs of the figures are sculpted to resemble barbed wire.

Bronze Sculpture-Dachau


I soon learned that within the camp there are no benches. No seats. The ground is gravel or in some places there might be some remnants of pavement. The only “seat” I could see were the steps that led outdoors to the sculpture.  I was fading fast after no sleep, flying all night long and being on my feet all day.

Barracks of Dachau


The next area to tour was the barracks. I have to confess that at this point in the tour my brain was mush. Brain fog set in and showed no signs of lifting any time soon. I had a very hard time paying attention to Matthew. As we exited the barracks I complained about how there was no place to sit here and how surely someone recognized the need for benches for visitors who toured the complex. I’ve never wanted to sit down more in my life as I did in that moment.

Matthew replied, “It sort of gives you some idea of what it felt like to be a prisoner here, doesn’t it?”

I woke up. The fog cleared. Collapse came in a debilitating wave. Not physical, but more spiritual. The thought of standing for hours at attention seem to become a memory and not just my imagination. Even “falling into bed after a long day of work” would bring no rest. It would not set one person free. Prisoners had lost their furnishings, their art, jewelry, family photographs, heirlooms and most importantly, their family. And I wanted a bench.

When I considered the starvation, and bullying and terror all day long, I realized that every day was a catastrophe. And it all started with the ego of one evil man. I wanted to weep over the dead and for those who had been caught in barbed wire while attempting escape from Dachau. Sorrow ran deep into my soul.

There had been evil plots of a political party to extinguish an entire race. The Nuremberg Laws that the SS adopted institutionalized racial and religious discrimination. These camps, modeled evil while proclaiming Jews, foreign nationals and others to be evil. Evil was good and good was evil. Does this scare you? It does me! Two hundred thousand or more prisoners from over 30 countries walked through these “Work-shall-set-you-free” gates. There are 32,000 documented deaths. Thousands more are undocumented.

Honor the Dead, Warn the Living


Grave of Unknown - Dachau


The last building we stumbled into was the crematorium.  A statue is placed across from where the gas chambers were built that encourages every generation to stay alert. The statue has the inscription translated to English: Honor the dead, Warn the Living.



Warn the living. Don’t ever let this happen again.

The exit out of the Dachau compound was literally a sweet release. The bus back to the train station a welcomed sight. A ride back to life and civilization and rest. I was set free. Ashamed that I had complained about not being able to sit in a place where some say the birds never sang; I apologized to our guide for my lack of attention. Jetlag is a real thing.

As we entered our hotel lobby, 007 turned to me and remarked how much he had enjoyed the tour. He had learned so much. And then, he added. “I counted 9 life birds there.” For those who aren’t birders, a life bird is one you’ve never seen or heard before. The living have been warned. The dead are continuously honored. Perhaps that is why the birds can sing again. And I want to believe that somewhere in heaven, benches are filled with resting souls, where the Truth has set them free.

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