Choosing Ignorance

Sometimes we prefer not knowing to being uncomfortable

Posted Feb 08, 2013

Riding the subway, I was surprised to find a stop at Dachau. In my mind, concentration camps existed in deep forests, far from urban centers. But there it was, accessible by the commuter railroad, not far from downtown Munich.

I was in this southern German city for a few days, staying at a mutual friend’s house. When I mentioned that I taken aback by the infamous prison being so close by, my host explained that during the Nazi period that area was considered a distant suburb. He was a teenager at the time and knew a special prison had been built on the site of an old munitions factory but he paid scant attention to the rumors about what was taking place there. “There were rumors,” he said. “Only rumors.”

“Was the camp secret?” I asked. “No,” he said. “People were afraid to ask. So I didn’t know.” Not until after the war.

In effect, my host and those around him chose ignorance.

The Nazis kept meticulous records at this camp, unlike at others where history was to consign the activities to the maw of forgetfulness forever. Here, at Dachau, however, they noted their procedures in detail and photographed their experiments, so that these advancements in torture and murder could be duplicated more systematically and efficiently in yet more horrible places.

At this, the first concentration camp, they designed poison gas shower rooms, more efficient gallows, and ovens for human burning. It was here they engaged in medical experiments so hideous in their design that the results were sealed after the war by the Allies, to make clear that human beings are not to be used in such vile ways, even when the results could possibly lead to cures for intractable diseases.

What remains in my mind from my visit to Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site is the photograph not of children and mothers but of one political prisoner wearing a pilot's helmet. This man, neither Gypsy or Jew but a Socialist, served as an experimental subject to determine the amount of pressure the skull could withstand, presumably to design better military headgear. The picture shows him wide eyed and terrified just moments before his head exploded.

My host drove me to the concentration camp. He said that he had never gone in and wouldn’t this time either. He chose to sit in the car to wait for me as I walked through the ghostly grounds alone.

“What’s the point of visiting the past?” he asked. “Why stir up bad feelings?”

I often think about the visit to Munich, the camp at Dachau, the photo of the man in the helmet. And I think about my host who chose ignorance then and later couldn’t face his own cowardice. This makes me wonder what it is today that I refuse to see as I go about my business, not wanting to know, not wanting my life disturbed. I ask myself how much I am like those who lived near Dachau and preferred their daily routines to acknowledging the barbarities carried out around them.

The late German sociologist Theodor Adorno may have had my Munich host in mind when he wrote, “The highest form of immorality is to be comfortable in our own home.”

Being responsible requires a degree of discomfort; being moral requires a dose of courage. The price they paid for their comfort was incalculable.