Dachau was the first concentration camp, constructed in 1933 and was in operation until the end of the war in 1945. Today, the camp is a museum documenting Nazi atrocities, and a number of memorials have been added. In the Jewish Memorial, the following verse is printed on the wall:
"Strike them with terror, Adonai. Let the nations know they are only human." (Psalm 9:21 CJB)
Let's take a brief look at why this verse was chosen. I think it is fascinating.
The choice of Psalm 9:21 was not without controversy. It was suggested by the architect of the memorial. However, a Jewish German survivor did not like the choice because he felt it was a 'psalm of vengeance.' Certainly, no one wants to live in the bitterness of the past, longing for revenge, but rather to look forward with hope to the future.1 Plus, there was a concern that it was anti-German.
However, you must read the whole psalm. It is truly a psalm of praise, not vengeance. In the same way that a piece of poetry can provoke much discussion, a mere verse represents something much larger. I believe the architect hoped that the reader would read the whole Psalm.
The psalmist starts out by giving thanks. (vv. 1-2)
Yes, his enemies stumble, but only because God is his defense. (vv. 3-6)
He continues, not to gloat but to thank God for his help. (v. 11-14)
Next, he explains the principle of sowing and reaping. Those who plan evil will "fall into the pit they dug." He asks God not to forget the needy and afflicted. (vv. 15-18)
Finally, we get to our verse, v. 20 in English translations.
"Strike them with terror, Yahweh; let the nations know they are only mortal." (NIV)
(It is a powerful, life-giving psalm. When you're done reading this, you might want to take a moment and read the whole psalm.)
In light of the previous verses, it is a psalm of thanksgiving to God for protecting his covenant people. David asks the Lord to strike his would-be killers with terror—a reasonable request for a warrior. But it is the last part that is a haunting reminder to the Third Reich. Hitler called it the thousand-year Reich (Reign). It was to be the third and most successful of the three German empires. It ended up being the "12-year Reich," missing its mark by only 988 years. The psalmist reminds the enemies of God that they were mere mortals under God's sovereignty.
To humans belong the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the proper answer of the tongue. (Prov. 16:1)
The survival of God's covenant people is part of God's plan for world redemption in Yeshua. No mere human can thwart Yahweh's plan. Just as Yahweh rescued Israel in Egypt (fitting as Passover is coming in a few days), He would also hear the cries of his people in Europe (Ex. 3:9).
The psalm doesn't merely focus on the defeat of the Germans but on the Kingdom victory. In the face of the worst genocide in world history, somehow, God's covenant people came out—and they didn't merely survive; they came out of concentration camps to establish the rebirthed nation of Israel.