There are twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, and one-thousand seven hundred and sixty yards in a mile. A mile contains one point six kilometers. The Dachau concentration camp was over one square kilometer when it was liberated in 1945. An estimated 41,500 people were murdered within this space. These are numbers and facts. They are unavoidable. The sheer numbers stand alone, horrifying in the vastness of their scope. They are persecution and terror in stark black ink on a white page. We associate numbers with clarity. Despite a few conversions between systems of measurements, numbers often transcend language barriers—a recognizable figure on a receipt or otherwise unreadable plaque.
Dachau demonstrates that numbers can fail us, can deceive by packaging experiences into a figure. A visit to Dachau forces an examination of the meanings behind the numbers, that they represent the systematic and industrialized torture and murder of innocent people. The realization is unquantifiable, an attempt to understand infinity. I could easily say that I don’t have words to describe the terrible vastness of the camp. It would not be an inaccurate statement: Dachau is appallingly enormous. The yard that once held the barracks brimming with prisoners stretches on and on. As you walk down the central road, away from the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” gates towards the back of the compound, near the cruelly efficient crematorium, every step is a wish that the road would end. It doesn’t, not until your feet and your soul ache. Every step by every marked plot for a barrack building is a haunting reminder of the thousands that suffered in that very spot. It puts numbers into perspective.
I could say that there are no words to describe the moment that numbers become inadequate. It would be easier than scouring the dictionary and thesaurus for a suitable word. I would not have to recall the eerie feeling of standing in front of the execution wall, where countless people spent their last moments facing a firing squad. I could try to let the shock of seeing storage rooms dedicated to corpses awaiting the flames of the crematorium fade away. I could let the horror of bold black letters advertising a gas chamber as a shower dull with time. Personal experiences generate visceral reactions that we must process. Numbers fail us, words fail us, pictures fail us. But we must continue to attempt to record our reactions, our experiences, to capture them at their most poignant. I can not, I will not, and I absolutely refuse to allow myself to dull this experience into “I can’t describe it.” For me, attempting to interpret a day visiting Dachau is a reminder, if only to myself, that it is impossible to quantify the amount of suffering in an inch.