Scrapbookpages Blog

March 11, 2011

Was it wrong for the Nazis to trick prisoners into going into the gas chamber at Dachau?

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 10:50 am

This morning, I read a very interesting blog post, written by a young student who went with a group of students on a guided tour of the Dachau Memorial Site in February this year. I haven’t been back to Germany in a couple of years, so I was very interested in what the tour guides tell students now about the camp and how the students react to the information.

In reading this particular blog post, I was struck by the fact that this young student thought that it was “disgusting” the way the Nazis had gassed prisoners at Dachau by fooling them into thinking they were going to take a shower.  Was that so wrong?  Would it have been less cruel if the prisoners had been told that they were going into a gas chamber?  Was it because the Nazis had such a low opinion of the prisoners, as this student wrote, that they tricked them right up to the last second of their lives?

Here is a quote from the blog post, in which the student writes about how the tour guide explained the gassing process at Dachau to the student tour group:

The guards would pick the prisoners that were too weak to be of working-value anymore, or prisoners that were out of line in general. They would tell them that they were being moved to a better area, and take them to the crematorium. Here, they would strip the prisoners of their uniforms and shuffle them into the gas chamber. But not without one last pathetic attempt of trickery. Over the entrance to the gas chambers, they painted the German word for “showers.” So the prisoners entered believing they were going to get nice, warm showers, and instead they got asphyxiating poisonous gas. While I do think knowing what they were going into would have been scary for the prisoners, and some maybe would have rather stayed in the dark about what was happening.. I just think it’s disgusting that they would think so lowly of these people that they’d trick them to the last second of their lives. They even installed traditional shower heads in the room, even though they were unnecessary to the distribution of the gas to the prisoners. The gas could have come out of bare, open pipes. But instead, they chose to fool them til the last second. I can only imagine the terror they experienced when the warm shower they were looking forward to turned out to be lung-burning gas.

The usual explanation given by Holocaust historians, for the gassing of the prisoners, instead of shooting them, was that gassing was done in order to spare the feelings of the SS men who had to kill the prisoners.  The tour guide should have mentioned this important point.

The quote from the blog, about the gassing of the prisoners at Dachau, continues with this:

Stepping into the first room, where the prisoners undressed and prepared for their ‘warm shower,’ I saw the writing over the doorway. “Showers.” Such a cruel, low, final blow. I can only imagine that they laughed at the foolishness of the prisoners as they walked through that threshold with hope of a better future.

Did the tour guide forget to tell these students that the prisoners were handed a bar of soap and a towel before going into the gas chamber?  This detail is usually added to the story.  Maybe the tour guide wanted to spare the feelings of the students by not telling them of this added cruelty.

One thing that I learned from this student’s blog was that the last remaining shower head is now gone.  I was fortunate to be able to see Dachau in 1997 and again in 2001 when there was still one shower head left after the souvenir hunters had taken all the other shower heads.

Here is this student’s description of how the gas chamber at Dachau looks now:

I stepped down into the gas chamber, my foot hitting the tiled floor with a loud tap. And I was completely underwhelmed. It was an empty room, without a single showerhead in sight. I could see the remnants of the pipeline used to transport the gas, but that was all. It was just empty and dark. I remember thinking something would hit me, a wave of emotion, a feeling of dread, anything.. but I got nothing. It was too much when I started to force myself to imagine standing there and having it happen to me.. so I moved on to the next room.

I don’t recall that there is a step down into the Dachau gas chamber.  I have been in the gas chamber at Dachau several times, but I was never able to see “the remnants of the pipeline used to transport the gas.”  If I ever get back to Dachau, I am going to take a photo of one of the holes in the ceiling with the flash gun pointed right into the hole.  I hope that this will be enough to get a photo of the pipes.

I remember the first time that I stepped into the Dachau gas chamber. I was completely confused about how the gas entered the room so I asked a Memorial site staff member who was in the room.  She pointed to one of the light fixture boxes on the wall; I didn’t yet know that this information came from the film shown at the Nuremberg IMT.  At that time, I didn’t yet know that the gas was in the form of pellets, the size of peas. I was curious about how the gas came through an empty light fixture box, but I didn’t want to show my stupidity by asking dumb questions.

I wanted to know the reason for the little windows on the east wall of the gas chamber, but I didn’t want to sound stupid, so I didn’t ask.  Some of the Dachau tour guides now tell tourists that the Zyklon-B gas pellets were thrown into the gas chamber through these little windows, which were not included in the film that was shown by the American prosecutors at Nuremberg.

The last thing on this student’s blog post is a short video in which the sounds of the bell outside the Catholic chapel can be heard.  Apparently this student didn’t question why this bell was tolling.  (“Ask not for whom the bell tolls…”)  The Catholic chapel and the bell at Dachau were put there in honor of the Catholic prisoners; the majority of the prisoners at Dachau were Christians.  Most of the prisoners at Dachau were non-Jewish political prisoners which is a euphemism for Resistance fighters and illegal combatants.

But according to this tour guide, there were selections at Dachau, in which non-Jews who could no longer work, were sent to the gas chamber, and to top it all off, they were cruelly tricked into thinking that they were going to be transferred to a better place after they took a shower.