Alex Blaze

Dachau, death, and this man

Filed By Alex Blaze | August 20, 2008 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Dachau, Germany, Nazi, World War II

I visited Dachau earlier this week, dachau victim 1.JPGand posted about it before I went. I was moved by the stories that some of you told in the comments, so thank you for that.

Dachau was the first concentration camp in Germany and is located near Munich, a real party town whose youth hostel hands out fliers for a 12 euro beer crawl. Arriving at Dachau, though, was sobering. From right when Alberto and I entered, I was already scared. It was a space where an atrocity had occurred, and merely setting foot on the grounds was enough to make me afraid.

There was a movie, a museum section, several memorials, and part of the concentration camp that was restored (most of Dachau is still in use today for other purposes). What struck me the most when I entered Dachau was how emotionless the space was. If it weren't for the other visitors, it would would have been completely free of life - the buildings were a uniform white-beige, everything was at right angles, the ground was covered in white gravel, it was entirely surrounded by barbed wire. To the left were the restored barracks and stones marking where the others were, neat and compact.

Part of it was turned into a museum about the Holocaust and Dachau's history, and the man to the right, whose picture was in the museum, has haunted me every time I close my eyes since I first saw it last week. More on him after the jump. (Also, I'll warn you that there's a disturbing picture of him that you might not want to see.)

About half-way through the museum, I was confronted with this series of pictures:

dachau victim.jpg

My first thought, before reading the caption, was that the man in the picture was cute.

The caption then said that it was a series of pictures taken during an experiment on ten prisoners to see what happened when air embolisms were injected into the brain. He died immediately. On the left is before the experiment, in the middle he's in extreme pain, and on the right he's dead.

I don't have any other information on this person or on this so-called experiment. I moved on to the next part of the museum, ashamed that my first instinct was sexual.

That's part of the problem, I think, with how we (don't) discuss death in the West - our massive discomfort with the subject has resulted in us relying on propriety and becoming distressed when we or others don't deal with the subject matter in the way we think they should. Earlier in the day, for example, in the crematorium a group of visitors from India were taking each others' pictures in front of the incinerators, smiling. It enraged me, and I'm still mad at their smiling faces, even though I understand intellectually that it's a culture that understands death differently than the West does, that has complex ceremonies for it, and that actually talks about it.

I haven't been able to get that man's face out of my head, and I want to know more about him. What was his name? What did he do before being sent to Dachau? Did he have a family? What did his friends think he was like? Why was he there?

That was all meant to be erased, though. People who entered Dachau gave up their rights to property, dignity, and individualism. They were assigned and referred to with a number, they wore the same uniform, and their heads were shaved.

It was all, I suppose, to make it easier to kill them. What makes Dachau stand apart from any other tragic site I've visited is the utter gratuitousness of it. Every aspect of the concentration camp was supposed to make the prisoners suffer, from the lack of individuality, the incredibly cramped living conditions, the rampant disease and hunger that went unaddressed, the separation from family and friends, the torture, and the random murder.

It was a machine designed to increase suffering and exterminate human beings, and it was efficient and bureaucratic. There was no escape, no place to retire, no way to fight back. Death was possible at any moment, and those who survived Dachau did so through nothing other than the fact that the Nazis couldn't kill people fast enough.

The abject cruelty is mind-boggling, and with that my mind keeps on going back to the man in the picture above. As someone who studied science in college, I can't understand what they were doing as an "experiment," since it was already established fact that air embolisms in the brain were fatal. It was a game, and the prisoners' lives were simply toys. When they used one up, they could just throw it away without concern.

A section of the museum at Dachau is devoted to a sober explanation of the politics that led up to the Holocaust. After World War I, German politics were in disarray. Using nationalistic fervor drudged up because of the prohibitive Treaty of Versailles, the Nazis came to power, disbanded parliament, demonized the left and labor movements as having betrayed Germany and losing the first world war, banned immigration, and scapegoated a minority (the Jews) for all of Germany's economic problems.

Sound familiar?

I'm not saying we're heading down that same path, but after seeing some examples of the pink triangles gay men who were at Dachau had to wear, it made me uneasy. Here I am, in an open forum talking about my sexuality, when, who knows, a similar regime could come to power. Instead of thinking of politics as a progression to an equal society, maybe we should understand that our species lacks any ability to collectively mature and focus on education and vigilance.

I tried as hard as I could not to think about the man above for the rest of the day, only to let that memory, and my shame for finding him attractive, fester until it exploded in tears. I have no ability to process what was done to him, to answer the basic "Why?" All I could do was beat myself up for reacting inappropriately, for not having respectably, and uniformly, somber thoughts.

Perhaps my reaction was ultimately humanizing, seeing him as more than a number, proving that he really lived. I don't know, and I don't want to create another "appropriate" model for thinking about the dead. What about the ones who weren't in that museum? What about the millions of faceless people who were murdered during that time period? Is it possible to remember each of them as individuals?

I don't think that's possible, but I just don't know what to do to stop thinking about him.

All I know is that there's no moral to this story.

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I wonder if there are similarities to its emotionlessness and the surroundings of guantanamo

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 20, 2008 7:31 PM

Alex, don't guilt-trip yourself for finding the unnamed man attractive! Sexual desire is, in many respects, the antithesis of death. Your desire is a way of recognizing your common humanity and remembering him.

As for a holocaust happening in the US, I'd like to just say that prior to the rise of the Nazis, the German LGBT community enjoyed more rights, recognition, and freedoms than has been achieved until the past 40 years in the EU and USA. So we should remain vigilant, especially considering that the first step to such a horror is demonizing "the other," as the Religious Right has been doing to the LGBT community.

And good point regarding Guantanamo, capitalistpiggy!

Hi, Alex. I guess it goes without saying that this is a very moving post. I don't think you should feel shame either but I get what you're saying (not wanting to create an 'appropriate' model for thinking about the dead).

Your point about the other people, the nameless faceless ones who also died, reminds me of the International AIDS Conference back in 2002. I took part in the Names Project, whereby you selected a name from the book of the dead, crossed it out so nobody else would take it, spent some time thinking about it - imagining who it belonged to, wrote it on a sticker and placed it on a board. Some people were only listed as Anonymous. And what bothered me was that I noticed a few stickers bearing the name Nkosi Johnson, the activist who died at 12. Obviously, people remembered his name and were moved by his story, but multiple people had chosen him rather than people they'd never heard of, and that seemed to me to go against the spirit of remembering everybody equally - it's no more tragic just because his name was well-known.

And I've got no conclusion for this story, either. I chose Mr Wang, though. A first name wasn't even supplied. I don't know who he was, but I still think about him.

I highly recommend Victor Klemperer's "I Will Bear Witness" in two volumes; 1933-1941 and 1942-1945 and;

Myriam Annissimov's biography of Primo Levy.

The Klemperer works slowly but compellingly document - in great detail - the gradual descent into non-person status for a Jew in Germany who converted and married a gentile.

Levy, of course, spent a considerable amount of time in Auschwitz. Annissimov provides remarkable clarity on the man and the era.

Great read - thank you so much for sharing.

Perhaps your entire experience was for someone to read about it and learn something about themselves.

Don't beat yourself up for it.

Be well!


Alex --

Just by coincidence, I recently ran across these articles, which I thought might be of interest to you in light of your recent trip to Dachau...

"INTERVIEW: Teaching the lessons of the Holocaust"

"FEATURE: Auschwitz will stay with me forever"

The articles prompted me to look these folks up --

The Holocaust Education Trust

And finally, all of this reminded me of a post I saw a couple of years ago at boing boing...

"Homophobic flyer at Auschwitz: what does it say?"

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 21, 2008 4:22 AM

Thank you Alex.

As cruel, barbaric, and strange as the medical experiments were, portions of Dr. Josef Mengele's studies on heredity are still used to teach physicians. Only perhaps does that lead to any good.

Please do not allow these beasts of over six decades ago to get you. Although their cruelty did not die with them it does not need to be a burden to you. The fact that you felt such sadness is a testimony to your humanity as part of our shared cultural understanding. If you could have gone through a place like this and felt nothing to be guilty about you would have more to worry about.

I don't know of any higher compliment than still be thought of as cute so long after my death. Plus, it made his face and story stick out in your brain; you'll remember the camp even more vividly now. And that's the entire point of the museum - so we don't forget. He's done his small part to make sure one more person doesn't forget - you.

One of the things that really got to me at the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. was an exhibit that had of shoes... thousands of them... and you could still smell a very leathery, yet human smell. It ripped those faces off the walls and forced me to see them as more than just pictures and a story.

Thanks for sharing this, Alex. I agree with Brynn, Bil, and capitalistpiggy. Your reaction humanized this man.

A few years ago I went to a traveling exhibit from the Holocaust Museum that was about LGBT victims of the Holocaust. Leslie Feinberg gave a speech about it at the Jewish Community Center in Tucson. It was a very moving exhibit.

The man in the series of three photos was a subject in the experiments done for the benefit of the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force). The subjects used in these experiments included 10 volunteers who offered to become subjects for a promise of being released from Dachau. The rest of the subjects were men who had been condemned to death and were awaiting execution. America did similar experiments for our Air Force, and when Dachau was liberated, the results of the German experiments were confiscated by the American military. These experiments were done in order to find out which equipment worked best and the purpose was to save the lives of pilots.

As for this man's background, he could have been a German criminal who was condemned to death, or he could have been a Communist Commissar who was captured by the Germans in battle. The Communist Commissars were condemned to death before the invasion of the Soviet Union because the Germans were basically fighting Communism. Or he could have been one of the 10 volunteers.


I was there in April 2008. And it was the most emotional thing I ever experienced. Did you go to the media place where they showed the movie about the history of this concentration camp? I couldn't help myself and I cried the entire time, it was too emotional for me. About your pictures. You are not the only one that feels the way you do. I myself too experienced the same exact emotions as you when I saw this photographs. For days (just like you) I couldn't get this image out of my head, especially the first photo where he looks so innocent and helpless. I would never return to a place like that ever again (b/c of how emotional they are) but I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to to be part of history. The gas chamber rooms and the crematoriums are proof of how these people could be so evil in that era. My heart goes out to all the families that suffered during the Nazi regime.

Oh wow,
Thats so weird, I went to that memorial not long ago and I thought the same exact thing about that man! He was so precious and that picture of him really got to me when I saw it, one moment he's so happy and next he's suffering. But I came to say THANK YOU for taking a picture of that picture, I was about to take a picture of it when I was there myself but my dad kept rushing me through it all.

I visited Dachau KZ last friday (8th Jan 2010). Of all the pictures on display this was also the one that struck me the most and is the one I consider most upsetting. I cannot look at it without feeling tears come to my eyes.

It seems that there are many others who feel the same.


I too visited Dachau KZ, and was also struck by that picture. It was looking for a reproduction of the picture that brought me to this site.

I overheard the tour guide explaining the picture. In the first, the man is experiencing hallucinations hence his features. In the second, the vacuum is complete; his ears burst. In the third, he is dead.

This picture, more than anything at Dachau, summed up the place, it's purpose, and it's utter shameful depravity.

Hello! I am very moved about what you wrote about Dachau. Until a week ago I didn't knew about this place but when I saw that one simple word can hide so many memories I got scared. I still can not get used to the idea that there had been so much malice and cruelty.
What terrifies me, is that did they put those prisoners to say "cheese" before taking the pictures? I mean..who thinks then to take pictures..instead of helping them!!
Also, making reference to this man from the picture, what did they actually wanted to show us? His suffering or wanted to show that they succeeded in killing another man? It's scary!

Hello! I am very moved about what you wrote about Dachau. Until a week ago I didn't knew about this place but when I saw that one simple word can hide so many memories I got scared.I still can not get used to the idea that there had been so much malice and cruelty.
What terrifies me, is that did they put those prisoners to say "cheese" before taking the pictures? I mean..who thinks then to take pictures..instead of helping them!!
Also,making reference to this man from the picture, what did they actually wanted to show us? His suffering or wanted to show that they succeeded in killing another man?