Timescapes of the concentration camps

When visiting concentration camps, I had reverberating through my mind two quotes I had come across in preparing for this trip:

I once visited Dachau with some Americans who had asked me to come along. It was a clean and proper place, and it would have taken more imagination than your average John or Jane Doe possess to visualize the camp as it was forty years earlier. Today a fresh wind blows across the central square where the infamous roll calls took place, and the simple barracks of stone and wood suggest a youth hostel more easily than a setting for tortured lives….The missing ingredients are the odor of fear emanating from human bodies, the concentrated aggression, the reduced minds. I don’t see the ghosts of [those] who dragged themselves zombielike through the long, evil hours, having lost the energy and the will to live. Sure, the signs and the documentation and the films help us to understand. But the concentration camp as a memorial site? Landscape, seascape – there should be a word like timescape to indicate the nature of a place in time, that is, at a certain time, neither before nor after.

Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, p.67

The screams and shrieks that once permeated the air of Dachau have been muted, entombed behind glass windows. A barrack has been built to exact specifications, a perfect replica of the original, but it is antiseptic and clean, utterly devoid of the stench of death, untouched by the indelible stain of human torment and degradation. The museum, with its manicured grounds and memorial plaque, has submerged the reality of the Holocaust, blunting its true magnitude and impact far more effectively than could bulldozers and asphalt.

Art Katz, Dachau: A Silent Witness

I’ve written previously that smell is a powerful route to our childhood memories; odors seem to be processed by the amygdala, a brain structure strongly linked to fear and our social lives that seems to be the fast track to our emotional brain. The pictures and films taken at Buchenwald, Dachau, and other liberated concentration camps are shocking enough, even 60 years later…but they do come in only one sense, visual, and they can only approximate the tangible, odiferous experience of the time. Dachau in particular feels much like a museum, and even the original buildings are mostly empty and sterile, with only very peeled paint to remind us how old they were, and the gas chamber was merely another room with “Brausebad” (“showers”) written above the door. I wanted so much to know what these places were like, but my own amygdala does not appear to have gotten involved in the experience, and I seem to have learned the most how right Kluger and Katz are.


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