Fishbein: Discovering Dachau

There is much evil, but we all have goodness within ourselves.

by Daniel Fishbein | 1/30/18 12:30am

I took a Ryanair plane to Munich for less than 100 euros roundtrip. Then, I traveled toward Petershausen on the S2 subway line before taking the 720 bus from the Dachau Stadt Railway Station.

Past the BMW Museum, past the beer gardens and Christmas markets, past the Golden Arches that seemed to loom over me no matter where I traveled, I finally reached my destination.

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk,” “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”

As I journeyed last December to Dachau Concentration Camp, I had Du Bois’ “Jim Crow Car” in mind, namely his desire to find the edge of civilization and go beyond it, to see the unseen, to rediscover that lost interconnection.

The grates I found there caught me off guard. I do not know if I can describe them, not sure I have the words to do them justice or if justice can be done — or what justice might even mean, for that matter. But the regimenting lines that leaked the gas metaphorically encapsulate so much of what is going on in the world today.

We would like to think that something has changed between 1945 and now. As of Jan. 27, Auschwitz has been closed for 73 years. Since then, humanity has built up the thriving metropolis I found myself in, paved the subway lines that got me there, developed the iPhone I used to navigate. But if change has taken place, what’s changed and how? What was the event?

The words of an imprisoned poet plastered on the museum wall resonate with me.

“In the camp I made a meaningful discovery: No power exists in the world that is capable of destroying humans as spiritual beings. Never had life provided so many reasons to write … the thoughts, the reflections, the impressions cried out to be written down … scribbled note could mean a death sentence … I didn’t want to write about experiences in the camp … was more important to express the thoughts and impressions that moved me …”

The American capitalist system has long tried to destroy the humans of its underclass. Despite myths of democratic progress, this fact still rings true today. The numbers should seem familiar. Wealth inequality has seen a sharp rise since the 1980s, a disparity exacerbated along racial and ethnic lines. States spend more on inmates than on public school students. The police kill hundreds of people each year.

But numbers alone matter little. As the imprisoned Jewish poet attests, human strength lies in thoughts and impressions. I needed a term away from Dartmouth, a journey across an ocean and a glance at a device used in the systematic murder of thousands of my kin to remind myself of this basic nature of my selfhood. Thinking that we still have a system that feeds off of numbers and ignores the inherent value of each and every person born with the capacity for thought and feeling leaves me deeply disturbed.

Yet, as the Dachau poet realized, focusing on the depravity of a system will not change it. When faced with the specter of death, the prisoners wanted to focus instead on the positivity of life. Ignoring the camp will not make it go away; it serves as an ever-present aspect of reality. The poet knew this, but the individual also knew that the prisoners could liberate their own subjectivity to inspire others.

Moved to some, albeit limited, action by this reminder of the strength of the human spirit, I have gone to several Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration events this month. I did so with some hesitancy. The image of King has gotten manipulated since his assassination — the radicalness of a man critical of not only the legal but also extralegal mechanisms of coercion that have and continue to keep African-Americans in a state of poverty has been neutered. His thoughts and impressions, though, when viewed in the context of his life, cannot lose their power.

In a 1957 sermon, with words that ring true to this day, King told his congregation that “every person must decide, at some point, whether they will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”

Ignoring the myriad of problems society faces today will not fix them. We must make the decision that the unadulterated King believed we could make.