We spent our last afternoon in Germany at the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich. A bus full of other tourists, quiet and somber, took us to the site, where you have the option of visiting on your own or with a variety of guided tours. With limited time before I caught my train back to Holland, we chose a short tour and an audio guide and did our best to learn what we could.
Dachau began as a work camp, the first of many more that would be established during Hitler’s time in power. Upon entering, we passed through the iron gates with the unsettling inscription: “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” – work will set you free. Two days before we had taken a free tour of Munich and saw the spot on the street where Hitler’s bodyguard took 8 bullets for him during one of his earliest attempts to gain power. Then we found ourselves walking through the gates of his first “work camp” that ended up claiming the deaths of over 30,000 people.
I took a Holocaust history class in college a few years ago – one of my most challenging and most rewarding, by far. The class demanded many hours of reading and writing, and I heard first-hand stories from a good number of survivors, including one – a shining light in my life – who I interviewed personally and maintain a relationship with. She was held in Ravensbruck and liberated from Bergen-Belsen, the camp that killed Anne Frank.
Despite the amount of studying I have done on the history of the Holocaust, from the painful details to the horrifying greater implications, to actually be in a place where victims lived out these details day by day, where masses of people were killed before a world turning a blind eye – this was something different. It took no more than a foot through the gate to gain a better understanding of the suffering that went on there. The air hung heavy and low to the ground, thick with sadness. Everyone visiting moved slowly, as though trying to temporarily relinquish their vitality, to step for a moment outside their own glowing, un-ruptured souls in respect and memory of those who didn’t have a choice. They all seemed to stare either straight ahead or at the colorless gravel beneath their feet.
And everything was black and gray, with the exception of the border of grass surrounding the grounds, the grass that came before the electric barbed-wire fence. During the camp’s operation, touching the fence resulted in instant death – a desirable end for some – but if a prisoner stepped on the grass to get to it, he or she was immediately shot from the watch towers. Attempting this was called “going to the wire.”
A shocking fact I had not heard before was that the camp’s barracks were actually put to use after WWII had ended. During the Cold War hordes of Soviet refugees fled to Germany, and the government decided to solve the housing crisis by putting them in the Dachau barracks for temporary shelter. This temporary shelter remained their home for 20 years, and the camp was turned into a sort of small, self-contained village. It went on like this until some survivors came back and, in outrage, put into motion an initiative to turn the camp into the memorial it is today.
It should stand as nothing else than a reminder of what happened and a place where anyone can go to gain knowledge and better understanding. A place that continues to put the demand out into the world: “Never again.” I would encourage everyone, if you ever have the chance, to take a few hours during your travels and see a site, like this one, of Holocaust history. Remembering the bad can only do good.