When I got home from Germany this past Tuesday, I met up with many of my Scotland friends and recapped my four-day adventure. “Yes, we stayed in this crazy tent city,” “Oktoberfest was an amazing time,” and “we drank a lot of beer,” were frequent statements I made. However, there was one story I told that threw my friends off every time: “Then we visited the concentration camp at Dachau, and it was one of the most moving moments of my life.”
I think many of us remember the days in school when we first learned about the Holocaust. For me, it was sixth grade social studies class when my education seemed to be shifting. That was the first point where facts and figures no longer seemed to dominant the classroom; instead, we now focused on the history of our world and the frequent atrocities and mistakes that accompany it. I still vividly remember being thirteen and watching “A Beautiful Life” with my stepmother and not being able to sleep that night. I still remember all of the Holocaust Day of Remembrance ceremonies we would have at my high school, where the administration would bring in survivors with thick accents to tell their stories. I still remember going to the Holocaust museum in D.C. in eighth grade, and the pervasive ill feeling when walking through one of the authentic prisoner transport train cars. Yet it seems none of this “prepared” me for last Monday, when I walked on the exact same ground where an estimated 32,000 innocent persons had brutally lost their lives.
“Arbeit Mach Frei” is translated to “Work will set you free,” and is written tauntingly on the entrance gate to the camp, called the Jourhaus. Now in 2013, the Dachau Concentration Camp memorial includes the following: a museum in the old maintenance building, roll-call square, the bunker (essentially a prison inside the prison), one standing barrack, four religious monuments, and the crematorium area. The perimeter fences and guard towers are all still standing with their original barbed wire. My friend and I entered the camp memorial at 11AM, and took almost four hours to look through everything the space had to show us.
It is hard to provide an accurate summary of what the experience taught me, because all of these camps evoke different feelings in different people. Yet here is one thing I know to be true: I have never in my life been as deeply heartbroken as I was the moment I stood in the crematorium rooms of Dachau. We watch movies, we read books, and we hear stories, but to be in and see such a hallowed place overwhelmed me to tears. There is nothing like it.
However, probably the most surprising lesson I learned from the concentration camp was what happened on my journey back from the crematorium along the camp road: there was peace. I lay down on the rocks at the base of the artistic memorial while waiting for my friend, and just allowed myself to be in the space. It is then I realized that there was no longer any feeling of pain there; if you paid attention, you could feel the healing sense of light more distinctly than any other place I have been in the world; perhaps because it had been so dark for many years, but now had been set free. It sounds crazy, but I believe the rejuvenating hope each visitor brings into Dachau with the intent that it will never happen again, provides the energy that is the greatest lesson of all.
So, that is just one fragment of my trip to Germany (and most definitely the most contemplative bit…). A short blog does not do justice to the experience though, and I strongly urge any one who has the opportunity to visit one of the concentration camps from WWII. In addition to history really coming to life, you will have the chance to explore a place that has more to teach you than you’d ever expect.