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The Dangerous Business of Going Out Your Door I am often tired of myself and I have a notion that by travel I can add to my personality and so change myself a little. I do not bring back from the journey quite the same self that I took. - W. Somerset Maugham

Never Again: Dachau Concentration Camp

GERMANY | Sunday, 19 June 2016 | Views [843]

Something reminiscent of ashes brushed across my face and landed in my hair as I approached the entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp. They were floating around everywhere, creating a disorienting haze in the unseasonably brilliant early spring sun. I jolted to a halt, believing for an instant that this was some distasteful reenactment of the camp’s crematoria where so many tens of thousands of bodies had been burned, their ashes floating through the air and falling to the ground like snow. Surely they would not do such a macabre thing! And indeed, they had not. Catching a piece in my hands, I felt foolish to recognize that they weren’t ashes at all, but the cottony white blossoms of freshly blooming trees. New life was beginning in this place of so much death.


Ready for a Profound Experience

It was a false start of my imagination, fueled by a somber anticipation of the emotional journey I was sure to experience during my first visit to a concentration camp. I was ready to be moved deeply. I had prepared myself to be shocked and horrified in the face of so much cruelty and human suffering. I was expecting a life-changing realization that would make me question the inherent goodness of humanity and wonder how our species was capable of such darkness.

But those feelings never came.


The Contrast

The budding spring perfumed the whole area with fragrances of peace and serenity, leaving no room to imagine the stench of death and disease that must have once dominated. Anything that had once been sinister was now whitewashed and impotent under the wide resplendence of the sky. All of the original barracks had been torn down, with rows of numbered, tidy, and perfectly symmetrical concrete markers the only indication of what had been. Two barracks had been reconstructed for the memorial site, but they felt too sterile and staged to be convincing. Only the original crematoria remained intact, and I tried to harness my attention to focus on the atrocities that took place there, but the surrounding gardens and overly-manicured paths made the history feel too stale to be very powerful. Large groups of tourists and schoolchildren were milling about, and though all were being respectful, the whole atmosphere was far too full of promising life and clear light to convey its grim reality.

I hesitated to write about this for a long time because I didn’t know why I hadn’t felt the way I was supposed to have felt. Why wasn’t I trembling at the sight of those ovens or crying over the mass grave of ashes? Why had cold shivers never once gone down my spine as I walked through the torture chambers? Was I devoid of empathy? Numb to evil? If so, then I wasn’t the only one that day. I didn’t see any other person who appeared distressed, nor did I see a single tear shed. I even met a Jewish lady who, after whispering a Hebrew prayer over the mass grave, walked away with me, smilingly animated and optimistic.


Recent History Comes Alive

The guide told us that after the camp had been liberated, it had been converted in the late 1940s to housing for ethnic German refugees who had fled Germany during the war and were returning home. For about a decade, the camp site developed into a regular village for those refugees, complete with soccer grounds, schools, shops, and restaurants. Camp survivors became outraged when they learned that people were living there and kids were playing soccer where such a massacre had occurred. So, they decided to turn the former camp into a memorial site in the mid-1960s. This history, along with the cheerful weather, seemed to explain in my mind why the camp did not have the look or feel I had expected. There had certainly been death here, but more recently, there had been life. A visit during winter or on a gloomy day with fewer visitors would likely leave one with a very different impression. But on this fine warm day, crowded with people in the good spirits of the season, it felt like we were looking at a bleached jawbone behind the protective glass of a bustling museum, and having only that to go on, we found it difficult to imagine the vicious beast that had once ruled and been destroyed here.

Toward the end of my visit, I reached the memorial wall that boldly proclaims the words “Never Again” in five different languages. Here I realized with a start that the beast had not been completely destroyed after all. We have all read our history books, and we have gone to see the historical sites of mass murders and genocide. We have soliloquized about the profound lessons we have learned, and we have promised the world that it will happen never again. But it is still happening. This was the most disturbing part for me, the realization that in spite of all the lessons and promises, mass human cruelty is still alive and well. It was the only part of the visit that struck real fear in my heart, and it had more to do with what was still happening outside of Dachau than what had happened inside it. The circumstances are not the same today, the perpetrators and victims are different, the scale and timeline and geography have been altered, but atrocities are still happening. We are still killing each other and witnessing unimaginable cruelty in our world. But unfortunately in today's story, unlike in the story of the concentration camp, we do not yet know what the ending will be or whether we will ever be liberated.


Looking Forward

Still, there is hope. If life and peacefulness can come to as gruesome a place as Dachau, then surely it can come in time to the rest of the world. We must each do our part, in whatever small way we can, to combat the fear of "the other," of unknown people and places. For me, that means traveling and sharing my experiences. It means talking to people who are different from me, and trying to understand the world from their perspective. It means remembering the promise of "Never Again," and making an effort to incorporate it into daily life.

To quote Khalil Gibran:

"Your neighbor is your other self dwelling behind a wall.

In understanding, all walls shall fall down.

Who knows but that your neighbor is your better self wearing another body?

See that you love him as you would love yourself."

Tags: concentration camp, dachau, germany, khalil gibran, kz dachau, sabbatical, solo, travel


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