HAVERHILL — Caleb Smith had seen the video documentaries. He had seen the photographs in history books of the horrors that Nazi Germany perpetrated on Jews during World War II.
Smith, 20, of Haverhill will never forget what it was like to stand on the soil where countless Jewish people took their last steps in life before the unimaginable happened.
"I didn't think I'd be affected by visiting a concentration camp. It wasn't part of my ancestry or ethnicity," Smith said. "Just standing on the ground where they would line prisoners up and beat and abuse them every day was incredibly moving."
On Feb. 20, Smith and fellow members of the Brandeis University Chorus visited the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany. During their visit they performed during a memorial service inside a synagogue on the camp's grounds. For the last 12 years Smith has also sung with the West Parish Church in Andover.
"Our group wanted to perform internationally, and we wanted to perform in Germany and Austria," Smith said of his college chorus. "Since we were going to be in the Munich area, we decided to stop in Dachau, where visitors gather."
His chorus presented a program of traditional religious Hebrew music. They sang "Elohim Hashivenu" — or "Oh Lord God."
"We'd planned on singing four songs, but we only did the one," he said. "We were all emotionally moved by the experience of being at this camp."
Although he did not take an official tour of the camp, he did walk around on his own and with his fellow students.
"We saw the crematorium, where bodies were burned," he said. "It was a humbling experience for all of us."
No one is really totally prepared to experience the enormity of what happened in Europe during World War II, said Rabbi Ira Korinow of Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill.
"The savagery of the Nazis and what they did is something that is beyond human comprehension," Korinow said. "Whether one experiences it at Dachau, or even visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, one cannot really prepare totally for the experience one can have when they visit such a site.
"I led a group four years ago to Eastern Europe, and we visited Auschwitz and Berkanow and one other camp, and no matter what you've read or what you've heard, a visit to such a place — you can never really be prepared for it," he said.
During his visit to Dachau, Smith watched a video explaining the history of World War II and the concentration camp.
"It was a very sad and very depressing video," he said. "It showed images of people in the camp and images of Nazi Germany."
Smith was home-schooled his whole life until attending Brandeis, where he is studying Islamic and Middle Eastern studies and economics — a double major.
"I'm thinking about eventually attending law school or working in the Middle East in something related to law," he said.
From the age of 8, Smith sang with the Treble Chorus of New England, which is based in the West Parish Church in Andover. He's performed on stage numerous times with the group.
The Brandeis group performed at venues such as St. Michael's Church in Munich and the Salzburg Dome in Austria.
"I've been to England, but this was my first experience in a country that was not primarily English speaking," he said.
Smith, a Protestant Christian, said the thought of performing at Dachau made him feel honored.
He is the son of Edward and Anne Smith of Haverhill and has three brothers and two sisters, all of whom are home-schooled.
About the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany
Established in March 1933, was the first regular concentration camp of the Nazi government.
Located at an abandoned munitions factory near the town of Dachau, about 10 miles northwest of Munich in southern Germany.
A crematorium was built there in 1942.
German doctors performed medical experiments on prisoners.
The number of prisoners held at Dachau between 1933 and 1945 exceeded 188,000.
The number of prisoners who died in the camp between January 1940 and May 1945 was at least 28,000. Others died there between 1933 and the end of 1939, as well as an uncounted number of unregistered prisoners.
SOURCE: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.