KMC ‘stands where they stood’

Story and photo by Christine June
USAG Kaiserslautern

Imagining what it must have been like weighed heavy on some of the 39 Soldiers, civilians and family members who visited the Concentration Camp Memorial Site at Dachau, Germany, on April 28, the day before the 64-year anniversary of when it was liberated by American forces.

“You can always read about (the Holocaust) or watch it on TV, but to actually be there – standing where they stood – it’s just such a unique experience,” said Sgt. 1st Class James Ligons, the U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern’s equal opportunity advisor.

Opened in March 1933 100 miles northwest of Munich near the medieval town of Dachau, it was the first Nazi concentration camp in Germany.

More than 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries were housed in Dachau, and it is believed that 25,613 died in the camp and almost another 10,000 in its sub-camps.

That’s exactly why, said Ligons, he wanted to sponsor a bus trip for Army units in the KMC to Dachau instead of hosting an event on base for the Days of Remembrance, an annual commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust, observed in late April.

“No guest speaker can cover it like actually being here – seeing the place for what it is – a place of death,” said Justin Wiese, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
“(It) hurts the soul – it really does – the needless death and slaughter,” said his wife, Sgt. Angela Wiese, the garrison’s Headquarters, Headquarters Detachment supply sergeant. “You can still feel the anger and hostility resounding in this place.”
The Wieses tried to read all the poster boards documenting the camp’s history, its prisoners’ lives and the history of the Nazi regime.

They also spent some time looking at all of the glass display cases, especially the ones housing photos and written documents belonging to the camp’s prisoners.
“Stats – photos – all this information – so many posters – so many people died,” said Mr. Wiese, who also listened with his wife to the English self-guided audio tour that includes in-depth explanations of the camp’s layout and adds to the written accounts hanging from the ceiling, creating a maze of history.

But time was running out, as the observance tour had less than two hours – the drive there took twice as long – to see the whole camp.

Across the courtyard – where the summary execution of prisoners took place, the Wieses walked along the ditches in front of the fences, still wrapped in barbed wire and further unsettling with iron stakes and a wall with seven guard towers.

They met up with two other garrison Soldiers – Sgt. 1st Class Eric Healey, Directorate of Emergency Services and Sgt. Robert Figueroa, Chaplain’s Office, while touring the fully restored barracks – complete with triple prisoner bunks, bathroom facilities and washroom, lockers, tables and chairs.

“(I) can’t imagine sleeping on that,” Sergeant Figueroa said.
Upon liberation, Americans found about 32,000 prisoners, crammed 1,600 to each of the 20 barracks, which had been designed to house 250 people each.
Dachau’s camp area consisted of 32 barracks total, including one reserved for medical experiments.

In back of the restored living quarters are rows of 17 barracks’ foundations – each with numbered markers and arranged with stones to show the original dimensions. These rows eventually lead to the crematorium.

Dachau – its organization and camp layout – was the prototype and model for the other Nazi concentration camps that followed.
Here, the husband and wife went their separate ways.

She checked out the Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Catholic religious sites and visited the covenant on the far side of the camp. He went to the crematorium, disinfection rooms, ovens and gas chamber.

On the way to Dachau, Sergeant Ligons showed two films – “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and a French documentary titled “Night and Fog.”
Both movies showed how camp prisoners were told they were going to take a shower, when, in fact, they were in the gas chamber.
Those movie scenes, said Mr. Wiese, ran through his mind as he was walking into the gas chamber. He said the experience was very humbling.

“It’s hard to imagine being here – then,” he said.
“Hurts the soul,” repeated Mr. Wiese, as they walked back through the camp’s iron gate marked with the sentence Arbeit macht frei – “Work will set you free” – to get back on the bus for the more than four-hour ride back home.