“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 
Victor Frankl
As I walked out of the gas chambers into the garden the tears which had been building in the last few moments of our tour began to flow like a flooded river. I was overwhelmed and quite unprepared for the torrent of emotion I felt in that moment. The beautifully manicured gardens that surrounded the gas chamber of Dachau, Germany’s oldest Concentration Camp, provided a calming refuge for me to sit and reflect on the horrific experiences of the people imprisoned here. But even in that moment of sadness, after walking through prison cells, torture rooms, sleeping quarters and the gas chambers my thoughts turned to the nature of resilience and the capability of the human spirit to endure the most appalling atrocities and circumstances, and to heal from extreme trauma. 
Dachau was the first and longest running Nazi Concentration Camp, operating from 1933 to 1945, and was where a regime of systematic terrorisation and humiliation of prisoners was first introduced and refined. It became the training grounds for SS guards who were then deployed to other Camps. Dacchau was known for its medical experiments, and as a mass murder site. Of the 200,000 or so people imprisoned at the Camp it’s estimated that approx. 40,000 were killed there, but not all within the gas chambers. The killing was primarily done through execution, within the bunker courtyard, and then later, in the purpose built shooting range. 
Throughout the site there are various sculptures, monuments and statues. In the garden where I sat to reflect on the atrocities committed there I came across the statue of the ‘unknown prisoner’. Inscribed below it are the German words, Den Toten zur Her, Den Lebenden zur Mahnung, which means ‘To honour the dead, to remind the living’. A perfectly worded statement that underlines the need for society to be open to discussing past atrocities, to prevent them from ever happening again. Something which perhaps my parents intrinsically understood. As a young child they took me to a few different Aboriginal massacre sites on, and near, my Grandparents Country.  As a child I didn’t grasp the significance of the places we visited because to me it was just another trip out bush with Mum & Dad. But I can recall how the mood of the trip shifted once we arrived, and that I had to be very quiet. This was obviously my parents way of respecting those who had passed on that hallowed ground. Den Toten zur Her, Den Lebenden zur Mahnung. 

After the tour we stopped in at the café/gift shop outside the grounds of Dacchau which is where I found one my most treasured books in my home collection. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is an account of his experience of life in Nazi Concentration (Death) Camps, and the lessons he learnt on spiritual survival.  Frankl was a psychiatrist and based on his experiences developed a psychological approach, known as logotherapy. The premise of it is that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find a meaning in life. Finding something beyond our experiences that keeps us moving forward.

Dachau Concentration Camp April 1929 - May 1945 Dachau, [Bavaria] Germany
Source: courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The years that Dacchau was operational lingered in my mind as we walked down the path towards the exit. My Mum was born in 1933, and my grandparents (and mum) were granted Exemptions to leave the central Qld mission, Woorabinda,  in 1946, a year after the prisoners of Dacchau were freed by the US Forces. On the short train ride back into Munich I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the trauma experiences of my own family’s history.  From the massacres of unknown numbers of Aboriginal people (some of which would have been my ancestors), to the act of having my Grandparents shipped around to various Queensland Aboriginal Missions/ Reserves, and to the committal of my Aunt Emily to a Mental Health Institution, with the order to ‘Never to be Released’. 
A well-known quote from Viktor Frankl is:

‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom’. That’s the power that cannot be taken from an individual. 

That’s the power that ensured my Aunt Emily’s spirit was not broken despite having being separated from her Country and her family for over 30 years, having her children taken from her, to only be reunited with one of her five kids towards the end of her life, and enduring who knows what in mental health institutions from her for almost 50 years.
Nature vs nurture. When it comes to resilience what is it that allows one individual to endure unspeakable trauma and still maintain the will to keep moving forward, compared to another who endures the same trauma and remains stuck in a spiral of despair.  Is it mindset or is it just luck of the DNA lottery? Who knows…..I’m certainly no expert. But what I do know is that resilience is a character strength that can endure anything. I was blessed to have a family of role models who showed me what it meant to stand my ground in the face of adversity, no matter what. Life is full of many obstacles to good mental health and wellbeing but if history has taught us anything it’s that the human spirit can endure extreme trauma designed to break it and still keep moving forward. 

I may not know the scientific explanation for resilience but I sure know what it looks like from the stories of my Ancestors and grandparents, to growing up in the presence of my parents, aunts and uncles who were the living embodiment of it.

Isabelle West – Turbane
29 April 2024