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Had I Forgotten?


I have just returned from a RENEW trip to Germany where I had the pleasure of bringing our Why Catholic? process to members of the Archdiocese for the Military Services—the Catholic people who serve our country on military bases all over the world.
 
This trip included visits to the bases of Wiesbaden, Kaiserslautern, Vilseck, and Grafenwoehr and then flying home from Munich. I learned from a friend that the concentration camp at Dachau is just 10 miles outside Munich. I have been to Germany many times but never have had the opportunity to visit one of these sites. I decided that it was now or never.
 
I took the train from Vilseck to Nuremberg and changed for Munich. The Munich HBF (main station) is huge, and I thought there must be a locker system for temporarily holding luggage. After asking a few questions, I found the lockers and, thanks be to God, both my big bag and my computer bag fit into one; so for 6 euros I was good to go for 24 hours.
 
I took a subway and then a bus, and about 45 minutes later I was dropped right at the entrance of the Dachau Memorial Site. Admission to the memorial is free of charge. The camp was located on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory near the medieval town of Dachau, about 10 miles northwest of Munich.
 
Dachau was the first of the concentration camps set up in Germany—this was in March of 1933. I spent three amazing hours wandering through the museum, viewing the film that tells the history, and praying. I found myself praying for much of the time.
 
The original gate still stands, and a visitor must walk through it to get to the other buildings. The words “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which mean “Work Brings Freedom,” are formed in the rod iron of the gate itself. The camp is quite large—most of the original buildings have been knocked down. One barrack building is still there with the sleeping bunks filling the rooms. It is hard to fathom that over 200 men slept in a space designed for 50. I found myself thinking that not much sleep was had there; intimidation and fear were the guards’ most powerful weapons. The photos and displays are many, and those faces are etched now in my mind’s eye. So many – over 15,000 – lives just dispensed with—no honor, no dignity, no respect, no names, and no mercy. A resounding sense of solidarity rings through the whole place.
 
Over and over again, the reality of brother reaching out to brother, supporting, protecting, and, yes, even giving their lives for one another was evident and stands as the gift to me and to all who walk through those buildings and on that sacred ground.
 
At the far end of the camp is the crematorium. Unlike many camps, Dachau was not primarily designed for extermination but for forced labor. There was one gas chamber where the sign over the door reads “Brausebad,” which means “Shower Room”. Many at the camp died of typhoid fever, and the bodies were burned—there were six ovens in the largest room in this building.
 
In 1964, Bishop Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler founded the Carmelite Convent of the Precious Blood of Dachau, which is built adjacent to the far south wall of the camp. Its entrance is one of the guard towers – a visitor walks through the tower to enter. It was the founder’s intention to make this place, where there had been so much horror in the past, into a place of contemplation and prayer, and to establish there a living symbol of hope. Bishop Neuhäusler (1888-1973) was himself a prisoner in the camp from 1941-45.
 
My time at the camp was a vivid reminder of what so many people have endured just because of what they believed. Had I forgotten that and do I take for granted all the blessings in my life? I prayed for all the victims and I pray that we will never forget, in order that the horror of those camps will remain in the past forever.
 
Sr. Maureen P. Colleary, FSP is on the Pastoral Services team at RENEW International and a Franciscan Sister of Peace.

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