The Life of Dachau ~ On Quality and Giving Up

Dachau, Germany -1

Those three words, seared into the mind, bring a pain I cannot define. I want to reach out and feel the cold iron letters, erasing their significance ~ “Arbeit Macht Frei”

The naïveté when I first read this motto ~ “Work sets you free” still burns.  I stepped through the gate into my new home at Dachau, holding fast to this false promise of hope. Hope because hard work and quality were where I hung my hat.

I’ve since learned.

Dachau, Germany -2

The cold today still gnaws at me within my bones, the chill a constant reminder of Dachau. I adjust my covers fully aware the feeling will never leave, so I lay quietly, shivering. One thought creeping around my mind like a serpent, a repeated whisper: “give up, give in.

My mind drifts back to those first months. Every piece of my body ached, the world seemingly dissolved around me; work was not setting me free, it was killing me.

Dachau, Germany -3

“You do what they say, nothing more and nothing less. Be invisible.” Shukhov, my bunkmate smiled to me as we gathered our mess tins for breakfast. “There is no life to be had here. The sooner you understand this, the better off you’ll be.”

It had been the worst months of my life and I was fading fast. Shukhov took me in and taught me to survive. “Giving up is inevitable, and in prison, it is an absolute necessity. If you remain stubborn, they will break you.” 

Not wanting to hear those words, I ignore him but asked, “What do you mean, giving up is inevitable?”

Dachau, Germany -4

“Everyone gives up at some point, be it in life or in prison. For young ones like yourself it is difficult to grasp, but as you get older, giving up gets easy.” Shukhov’s toothless grin was followed by a push toward the mess hall as he continued his speech:

“As you age, you realize what’s happening: life is, basically, like sinking in quicksand.  It’s slow at first and takes you by surprise, but there’s a point at which you realize there’s nothing you can do.  You’re going under.  Once you realize you’re sinking in quicksand… the best thing you can do is try not to thrash around, instead prolong the experience, and make it as pleasant as possible.  That’s what giving up is.” 

“On Giving Up” by The Casual Theorist

Dachau, Germany -5

“Give up…give in.”

I began to ponder these words as I stumbled down a blurred hallway, my eyes quickly swollen shut from a slew of punches, a result of bumping into an SS guard. I fought with the idea of giving up before realizing: Dachau is the worst kind of quicksand, and fighting it would kill me.

“A piece of advice you best take to heart,” Müller, a warder and past friend from my neighborhood whispered to me. “Do not give anyone a reason to draw blood…you will need every drop if you expect to make it in here.”

His meaning echoed the words of Shukhov, “Give up…give in.”

Dachau, Germany -16

I roll out of bed, put the coffee pot on and wonder aloud if people today share the attitude of “giving up” as written by The Casual Theorist, the rationale of short-term thinking to take an easy way out.

Are people unknowingly casting their freedoms away when they choose to slide by with as little effort as possible?

Around me, I see it everywhere. Eat crap. Watch crap. Drink crap. Talk crap. Gone are aspirations to seek a purer life.  Instead, we quickly get older and life becomes more difficult. Giving up is a chronic habit. We’ve become too lazy to seek and pursue quality in life.

Dachau, Germany -7

The whistle on my coffee pot goes off, snapping me out of thought and I slowly get up and shuffle my way to pour a cup. There is a certain art to making a great cup of coffee, art mastered over the years ~ the aroma, the steam, and the color moving together as it flows from the pot to my mug.

A sign of quality, and it takes me back to a time when I first discovered the importance of this word.

Dachau, Germany -77

The darkness of solitary confinement had continued my free-fall. I wondered if I would make it through another day, and then as Müller clicked my peephole shut, it did not close. A blinding beacon of light sliced through the darkness.

Drawing myself up, I saw in the distance the simple beauty of broken rays of sunshine filtering down through a tree. With imagination, I saw tomorrow and my eyes filled with tears.

For the first time in Dachau, I saw a quality of life I had forgotten. Now giving up had meaning. It had a partner: quality.

Dachau, Germany -9

The Statue of the Unknown Prisoner holds power, the resemblance to Shukhov is uncanny, the words just as wise.

Den toten zur ehr den lebenden zur mahnung ~ ‘An honor to those who died, a warning to those who live’

Dachau was filled with days upon days upon days of nothingness. Bitter cold, fear and constant hunger left just enough energy by lights-out to crawl back into bed and do it all over again tomorrow.

Dachau, Germany -10

Such times were deafening and defeating, but there was an unknown consequence to such days as well. My mind became more in-tune to the smallest pieces of quality. Something simple and pure, and while it may have lasted only a few seconds, it felt like a victory.

This instinctive, private search for meaning was feed by an invisible curiosity. It kept me sane. The misery of cold and hunger blinded the spirit, but when quality arrived, it made the day almost happy.

Dachau, Germany -11

Shukhov lit a small cigarette and spoke thoughtfully, “I’ve figured out we have roughly ten minutes in the morning another ten at night…the prisoner’s own time.” He looked out the window at the guards getting ready for roll call, and Shukhov added, “All remaining hours belong to the camp.”

Grabbing his bag, he kept talking. “A ridiculously short time, but it never surprises me the quality we can fit in.” He got up from the bench tapping my shoulder to hurry up, “a fine balance we keep. Prison life will not give you time to do anything but give up.”  

Dachau, Germany -12

I laugh at this thought. In such an environment, the modern mind couldn’t function, but then again the mind can be so strangely efficient when pushed to the brink.

Finishing my cup of coffee, I begin to prepare my oatmeal, more out of habit than hunger. I no longer feel hunger, just a rationalization to supply fuel for my body.

It leads me to wonder, “How could anyone ever understand the true meaning of hunger…?”

Dachau, Germany -13

Meals. “Every day, my mind was sharply focused on each spoonful. Slowly chewing even if there was nothing to chew, just moving it around my mouth trying to trick my stomach into thinking it will be getting more than it actually would…” A story I often share when asked.

As for a story I never share: if you had offered me a choice between “my meal” or “freedom from Dachau” ~ I’d have chosen the meal. Every time. We all would have.

Hunger. Humility. Dachau demanded it.

Dachau, Germany -14

The dullness of a day steals time until years feel like it is all just one long day. Prison life cannot help but defeat a mind, staring at the hours of nothing. I use to wonder if the mind could ever find its way back into reality.

I look around me today and I see the same. People mindlessly giving up, allowing the dullness of a day to stretch out into years.

Pulling my collar tight, I shiver with the oncoming cold.

Dachau, Germany -15

Cold mornings always woke me early. The few extra minutes before reveille were precious. I never wasted a thought for a few more minutes of sleep, too obvious. Instead, I began my plan to make it through the day: the hope for a few more grains of oats at the bottom of the bowl, an honest cut of bread and if possible a drag on a cigarette before the workday began.

Never forgetting I belonged to Dachau whose only goal was to break me.

Dachau, Germany -6

A cold breeze sweeps over my face – a breeze I know comes not from the cool winds outside my window but from a distant memory a lifetime ago.

In Dachau, the human trait of giving up served me well. I survived and I began to understand the balance between “accepting the inevitable and giving up” and its silent partner, “the inevitable curiosity of quality which leads to the pursuit of life.”

The balance is dynamic, evolving as we age. Every morning we reconciled within our minds ~ weighing two thoughts: which shall I focus on today?

Dachau, Germany -17

Dachau, Germany -18

120 Comments on “The Life of Dachau ~ On Quality and Giving Up

  1. Beautiful and profound. The cruelty of human nature never fails to overwhelm me, but the strength of human spirit is even greater. I dont think I could cope with visiting a place like this. So thank you for bringing it to me with your sad story and stunning pictures.

  2. This post is haunting. We have not visited Dachau, even though we were near it recently, because my husband objected. We have visited Terezin (Teresienstadt), the children’s concentration camp in the Czech Republic, and it shook us to our bones. It also had the Arbacht Macht Frei sign. Tens of thousands of people died there, and more than 150,000 other persons (including tens of thousands of children) were held there for months or years, before being sent by rail Treblinka and Auschwitz extermination camps in occupied Poland. There is a museum in Prague which displays the artwork and writing of the children held at Terezin.

  3. It is so important to pay tribute in a way to the people who “became free” in such a way… in order to remember and be vigilant… thank you!

  4. I simply couldn’t click “like.” Growing up Jewish plus a decade of living in Israel let me hear many stories. Of the Auschwitz death march. Of the ovens. Of starvation and beatings and cruelty beyond imagining. I wasn’t there, but it fills my nightmares.

    I think there is a truth in “we all give up.” Not meaning that we stop trying to be our best selves.Not meaning that we go through life doing the least possible to get by. At least that’s not what it means to me.

    More like giving in to realities I can’t change. Finding way to deal with limitations that have closed doors through which I once walked. Learning to enjoy other things. Finding what I CAN do as opposed to obsessing on what I once was able to do. I don’t think that’s capitulation. I think it’s pragmatism and making the best of the now.

    Beautiful piece. Ugly history.

  5. Your photography is amazing and tells its own story. The words are extremely emotional and thought provoking, a very powerful write and presentation indeed. True resiliency is just that, the ability to find the essence of beauty and grace in what often appears to be the meaningless nothingness. I find a life worth living is a life spent enjoying the gifts found in the small things. Beautiful, please take good care. Shantih. ~ Mia

  6. Have you ever been in Auschwitz. This is a sad place full of history. Really worth seeing. bilere

  7. I went to Auschwitz in 2008. The starkness of your pictures I remember from my visit. The focus on seeking and finding moments of quality in each day offers me a profound new way to see the prisoners’ terrible experience. Thank you.

  8. anywhere that there is power there is also resurface and resilience…thoughtful post as always Randall…I appreciate your wise words and tender representation…❤️

  9. I visited here, Struthof, HItlers redoubt in Obersalzburg, his eagles nest, the nazi museum in Austria and Nuremburg’s parade grounds and court room, and the memorial in Berlin. Your photos capture the coldness. I just was so cold in Dachau and Struthof. The days we visited were freezing, as if to make us feel the cold the inmates lived with continually in thin clothes while starving. My family would have been killed because we were Polish, Roma and Slavic, all of whom the nazis despised and slaughtered. It is just so horrible and it is not over. Genocides continue. Humans have too much to account for and we seem not to learn.
    The post was powerful Randall.

  10. Incredible post. I still remember going to Dachau. I unfortunately went with an acquaintance who I can only assume didn’t fully understand the haunting power of the place. His attitude I recall was almost playful… disturbingly so. I remember the feeling I had the moment I stepped out of the car, the snow on the ground. It was awful, that feeling and it never left me the entire time I was there. Yes, I tell people I visited this place occasionally when talk of being in Germany comes up. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling to different countries and sites, but this was a place I immediately felt I never needed to experience again. Even in the silence of winter I heard sound, the saddest sound in the world… and yet, it’s a necessary place, necessary so those who do visit will remember…

  11. What an impressive article, your combination of photos and writing are so striking! Very important message, thanks for sharing!
    Greetings, Ron

  12. I haven’t been to Dachau, but have visited deeply disturbing genocide memorials in Cambodia and Rwanda and can relate to the sentiments this post evokes. The depths of bestiality the human species is capable of, the despair and the hope. Your photos are as powerfully evocative as your words and well chosen quotes. I loved the use of coffee as metaphor. As for the balance between giving up and seeking quality, I too suspect it is skewed towards the former, mostly. But you, Randall, do not belong to that vast majority. Thank you for exposing us to excellence with each outstanding post.

  13. Your photos capture the overwhelming bleakness and desolation and the story is moving in the extreme. It’s very powerful and sad.

  14. Thank you for this story, Randall. I wish people from all over the world visited a camp at least once in their life and realised that those who were tortured there were humans. My father survived seven concentration camps and the GULAG. He was not able to speak about those times without bursting into tears. He would simply say ‘Those were the times and we were there’, or ‘ human should remain human whatever the times may or may not be’.

  15. This story kept creeping into my heart, leaving a lump in my throat…I longed to break free, I felt very much a part of this story, as if I was there behind those doors…ah! choosing “my meal” instead of “freedom”…how rightly has somebody said…”Giving up is inevitable”!!
    Thank you dear Randall for writing this story…the inhumanity stares starkly.

  16. As European, it is embarrassed for me, that you had to see Dachau! The sum of wonderful places and awful places, in Europe, it is equal to zero! Because you must forget about Dachau, I send you a spring poem (in Romania is a beautiful spring now), written by me and translated by our friend “DoarNicol” for which, English language, has no secrets!

    Of Love.. And Spring

    Out of the window soaring high
    Against the noon’s balmy sky,
    Cherry tree snow-covered branches
    Just like your face on my retina blanches.

    The cherry blossoms seem to be
    The days of our wonderful glee,
    The petals as hours
    The pollen drops minutes serene,
    And there are seconds, too, but unseen.

    Gushing from buds, sweet and bare
    You take wing in the air
    On the breeze of my stare;
    You draw sky-scraping rings
    On soft swallow wings,
    To caress wind and calm
    Like my cheek in your palm.

    You ask, through a tarin’s sweet trill,
    Why don’t you come?.. hope you will!..
    The answer.. encrypted will be
    In the colours of flowers, you’ll see,
    Having the force of the grass,
    Inching its way through the ground
    Or through the sidewalk to pass.

    Don’t let yourself be deceived
    By the dust on those blades of grass
    The wind wipes it away in its dance;
    Like this love letter’s envelope, which you tore
    And threw away carelessly,
    In a rush through the lines just to see
    The eyes of the one you adore.

    I hope that Europe is now slightly more beautiful for you, Randall Collis! 😀

  17. A heartbreaking history that I wish will not repeat. I do wish so. Some politicians nowadays seem to forget the past. Blaming on specific society groups for the wrongdoing happen in their countries instead of searching for the root of the issues. Easily forgetting the compassion and tolerance towards fellow humans who differs in ethnicities, skin colors, religions, or sex orientation…
    Your post is a great reminder, Randall, thank you for sharing your wonderful writing and amazing images.

  18. This is so heart wrenching and haunting Randall. An amazing capture that I couldn’t let go of. I can only imagine the impact it had on you being there. It brought to mind Viktor Frankl and Mans Search for Meaning. Although we must give up, we humans can still find meaning in all forms of existence.
    Thank you for shining your light from your soul. Xo

  19. Randall, just wanted to let you know I forwarded your post to friends and family. Everyone was moved by the gravitas of the words and images, as am I.

  20. What a powerful post, Randall, at so many different levels. The history that we need to understand. The little pieces of quality that keep us alive. The light sliced through darkness that suddenly reaches us. The instinctive search for meaning that keeps us going. And the imagination that helps us see tomorrow. Wonderful.

  21. As noelleg44 points out; this post is haunting. How can human beings end up being so dehumanized as making camps like the German concentration camps? And then you point to something just as haunting, how can modern day people give up their lives for crap and easy entertainment. Do we need to suffer, to see what quality in life means? I can’t let go of your words, Randall, they are holding on to me. Strong words, poignant words and inspiring words—as strange as it may sound.

  22. North of Prague in the Czech Republic there is a former military fortress called Terezín that was used as a concentration camp during the war. The site was more for administrative processing and diplomatic prisoners, but the feeling I had deep in my stomach while walking around Terezín resurfaced while experiencing this post. This is a deep and powerful exposé Randall. Thank you for sharing and reminding us of a past that we dare not forget.

  23. For one, there is definitely beauty in a breakdown. It also reminds me of a line from Fight Club where Tyler Durden said “It is only after you lose everything, that you are free to do anything.”
    With that, I think the man giving the advice of giving up simply means he has accepted and freed himself from higher expectations for greater things to come. In his situation, I don’t blame him. I didn’t feel like defeat, but more of having that ease and freedom for himself.
    Secondly is how you talk in grand scale about quality in life. It goes hand in hand with being grateful, and everyone’s perspective on being abundant. It’s about contentment. When you think simple and get imprisoned with it, then you live simple, you ask for something simple, you’ll get simple things, and you get simple problems. When you ask for something big or long for greater things and have that freedom to reach it, then you have to think big, work big, and you get bigger problems.
    Third, it really is all about perspectives.
    Your images are dauntingly beautiful and your words so poignant. I bow once again with your brilliance.

  24. Wow, Randall, so beautifully woven with words and images. Your posts are in a class of their own. The notion that giving up can be a chronic habit — such an astute observation about the world today. And quality — that really resonates with me. As time moves forward I pay more attention to this. Thank you for such a thought-provoking and haunting piece.

  25. No matter where we are, how we spend our days is how we live our lives. A very powerful reminder from one of the tragedies of human history about where our focus should lie. Thank you.

  26. Excellent post… very moving and poignat… I think and correct me if I am wrong that Dachau was one of the first Nazi Camps, whose prisioners were mainly Communists and dissidents… I think there were not exclusively jews…
    If you are interested in The Holocaust I recommend you this documentary film
    Thanks for sharing, my friend… Love and best wishes. Aquileana ⭐

  27. Words and pictures fit together, I get the chills. Our memories of the war where many people died. Freedom, these are the intentions of the war. Your picture and story they are very special, spectacular! Thank you very much Randy for this marvelous work! Regards.@Della

  28. In our pursuit of life, each of us interprets via lenses and experiences that significantly shape our being. I have been to Dachau and tried to imagine life there, at great length, in protracted silence. As I juxtapose your words and images, my inner voice screams that life does not have to get more difficult as we become more chronologically gifted. It can actually become easier if/when we choose a mind-set that embraces life’s minute gifts, one’s indefatigable spirit and a determination to exist (and preferably, thrive) with or without quality.

    Your eloquence here, Randy, prompts a mental revisit to Dachau and other seemingly desolate life points that serve to remind and reinforce that it’s about attitude, individual choice and how we manifest that ‘simple and pure life.’

    Thank you for prompting an invaluable reframe and reset.

  29. Amazing photos. Very chilling… and not because of the cold weather. Unimaginable.

  30. Reading your post, I remembered Herta Mueller’s book “Atemschaukel”, the story of the rumanian-german 17 year old boy who, completely innocent, ended up in one of Stalin’s work camps for Germans. The description of the protagonist’s reduction of his thinking, feeling and living, first, on eating, on the “hunger angel”, dominating every part of a second of his life in the camp, then,more and more, on just keeping on breathing (Atemschaukel = “breath swing) is haunting. For him the breath swing was that “simple and pure life”.

  31. Let me add the following: According to many religions, conscious breathing is the ultimate and essential confirmation of God.

  32. Randall, you really do amazing things with your posts. I’m with Marilyn Armstrong, above – giving up and giving in can be positive ways to exist within boundaries, as long as you can remember to break through the boundaries when you get a chance, whether by breaking someone elses rules or by the simple but subtle and deep appreciation of quality. Great photos as always (the third to last one especially, for the way it seems to enhance the sculptor’s work), and great, thought-provoking text. I feel like it may have wrenched you to put this together, and now you’re resting.

  33. Powerful piece. The pictures are haunting. They look deceptively peaceful compared to the history of the place.

  34. Very haunting and thoughtful post. I think it’s true that we often give up on quality and settle for crap.

  35. What haunting words. If we get to meet up over dim sum (or tapas) we must talk about this one. I often wonder if I’ve already given up on too m any things.
    PS Your photos are gorgeous as always, I especially like the 2nd one. It’s also quite strange to see a European setting here in your blog… Have a great weekend!

  36. Stirring! Beautiful, haunting images reminding us what humans are capable of. The black and white goes really well with this-Love the cherub photo. The metal plate, cup and spoon on a stark black background speak volumes. I can’t even begin to imagine what went trough those people’s minds, it’s so sad.
    And like someone mentioned above, genocide and brutality is still happening in the world today. I am thinking of people of Syria. There are innocent people there living this nightmare.
    I am glad you brought it up, Randall. Life is beautiful, but it can also be brutal, when giving up might seem like the better option.
    Someone also mentioned Terezin, it’s in my country, after reading this I can’t help but think of Lidice-a whole village was razed to the ground and most people including 88 children were killed, following an assassination of Hydrich, the Reichsprotektor of Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. It’s unthinkable that people can commit such horrendous crimes.
    Take care for now, Randall!
    Gia x

  37. Without words ………… an extremly moving report, supported with you impressive photos ……….. I hope, furthermore ! although so much bad things, what happens in the world, that never happens again. Sometimes I think, we are on the way back there, when I have a look at the European situation ………… thank you Dalo !

  38. Randall the essence of your writing is soulful. Your photography hauntingly beautiful but sad. I took this thought away from it all. Even though we are free and our quality of life is pretty damn good. We are still trapped in time, we are still prisoners of our own mindset.

    Being in such a place would bring a clarity of how life could be so cruel, how humans can be so cruel. And in all that darkness some still tried to live, and survive. Hoping we humans can learn by our past mistakes. Also to take charge of our own existence and live life with gratitude.

  39. When you talked about the cool breeze that hit your face… the breeze from the past… I thought how poetic that sounded! Amazing photos as always!

  40. An interesting read on giving up. When I went to Poland, our pilgrimage to Auswitch was cancelled due to flooding. I very much wanted to see for myself the remains of the horrors and atrocity of mass genocide. One thing that remains to my heart as a person of faith is Maximillian Kolbe. He did not give up instead he give in to what was. Never give up for our heart of soul will tell us what to give in for the good of humanity. Love your post as usual, Randall.

  41. The way you write sends chills to the bone. The way you structure your feelings with the pictures blend in great like a smoothie on a Saturday afternoon. I have a few stories on my blog, gastradaus. Any comments or reviews would really help get me off the floor, the sites starting to build momentum, so if you have the time to look at my work sometime, then that would be just swell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: