Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial: A Personal Story
It has been incredibly difficult for me to find words to describe my visit to the Dachau Memorial. I mean, what can you say about something like this? I have no words for this.
There were so many times during my visit to the memorial site where it felt like I had been hit by a truck. These things would strike at my chest in a way that I would be at a loss for words or any sense of intelligent thought. I had imagined that after my trip to Dachau, I would be able to write something incredibly thoughtful and capturing. But even now, weeks after my visit, I can't put into words what I experienced there.
I have always been interested in the years surrounding the World Wars and I always had a particular fascination with World War II and the Holocaust. I read every memoir, personal account, historical analysis, and work of fiction about this time period that I could get my hands on. I watched documentaries ad nauseam and wrote voluntary essays and papers on this time period. I know very intimately what happened at Dachau and at so many other places. I had read about the massacres at Ponary, Rumbula, Babi Yar, and so many others. I had studied the camps and the horrible things that happened there. I was both horrified and fascinated by the human ability to be incredibly cruel and to survive even the worst of circumstances.
My perception changed slightly when, earlier this year, I found out that some of my family were victims of the Holocaust. This was not something I had even considered possible-as far as I knew, my German family were Catholic. But after a bit of research, I found a branch of my family that was Jewish and I found that almost all of them were murdered by the Nazis.
I did a paper on Dachau for an AP History class in high school. I didn't know that my cousin Siegbert had died there. I watched a fascinating documentary on the Einsatzgruppen, unaware that my family was massacred at the Rumbula Massacre with about 24,000 other Jews.
The idea that this happened and could happen again has always haunted me but putting names to the people who died there made it so much more painful. Knowing that people with my last name were sought out and murdered changes it. Knowing that my cousins suffered and died there changes it. This incomprehensible but often abstract idea is now so much more real-it is palpable, it is painful.
I couldn't help but look down at my feet and wonder if Siegbert had stood where I was standing. What were the stories of those who stood there before me? I walked along the ruins of the barracks. Which one did Siegbert stay in?
Siegbert never knew my name. He died long before I even existed. He died before my parents were even born. I probably look nothing like him but I will never know. That little piece of family history is gone-it was taken from us. My great grandparents were the ones that left before there was even the inkling of a war-he may never have even heard of my branch of the family. But, in his darkest moments, I wonder if he thought he was forgotten. I imagine he thought the whole world had forgotten him and so many others. Did he go to bed wondering if he was in anyone's mind or heart? Did he wonder if his family would come here to mourn him, long after he was gone? I'll never know.
But he is family. He is not a number, he is not just one of 6 or 12 million other faceless numbers. His name was Siegbert Heiser and he was only 32 years old when he died. He died four months before liberation.
He never knew I would come to be, he doesn't know my name. But I can carry his with me. Siegbert, you are not forgotten.