A Sobering Visit to Dachau

Updated: May 18, 2019

Dachau was the first concentration camp that the Nazi’s established, and it wasn't technically an extermination camp because it had been built to house political prisoners rather than for the sole purpose of murder. However, when over 40,000 people are known to have died within its walls, I’m not so sure that distinction matters.

I have been interested in the Holocaust since I was a child. How could something so horrible, so inhumane, have happened EVER, much less in the lifetime of my grandparents? I devoured books on the subject once I was old enough to understand the concept, and when my first trip to Europe rolled around at age 16 I knew that I wanted to see one of the camps for myself.

Dachau is located just outside of Munich, an easy trek from the city. My father and I had a rental car, which made the journey even easier. Parking costs €3 during high season, while admission itself is free (as is parking during off-times). We paid and headed in. We walked around the buildings which included housing barracks, work rooms, and…the gas chamber and crematorium. I accidentally entered this building from the wrong direction, so I didn’t actually know it was until my eyes adjusted to the lighting and I found myself staring directly at two human-sized ovens. My stomach churning, I then moved left through several more rooms, then went back outside where there was a sign telling me that I had just walked through the gas chamber where thousands had been murdered. Once I had that information, I did not go back inside to “truly experience” what had before been a seemingly plain room. I didn’t think I needed to, for I was disturbed enough.

It was a necessary disturbed, though. It is vital that we never forget what can happen when we begin to dehumanize people. Even as a self-absorbed 16 year old, I felt that importance as we silently gazed at the various religious memorials that are strewn across the grounds. Now at 30, my career is in the promotion of fair and humane immigrant treatment (see my related Medium account if you’re interested). In the United States, we have already seen literal cages full of children who have been separated from their parents, while in Europe we have policies that actively prefer that people be sold into slavery in Libya rather than have safe arrival in the EU (with similar anti-safe arrival policies in the US and Australia). As humans, we can and must take the lessons our grandparents learned in the 1940s and ensure that these terrible decisions are never taken again.

Speaking of the lessons learned from the Holocaust, Dachau also has a museum that discusses the history of Nazism in Germany, as well as the greater Holocaust story. As I silently wandered through the exhibits, I found myself in the midst of a German school group of similar-aged teenagers. But they and I had very different reactions to the solemness of the room – while I was morose, many of my German counterparts were more interested in goofing off (and in the case of one couple, making out). It was clear that they had been there many times before and that the depth of the place had grown a bit stale.

A few years later, I studied abroad in Germany. One day, my German professor told us about how the Holocaust is taught in Germany. He said that following the war, the subject was completely taboo. If parents told their kids, fine, but it was not discussed in schools. There was a general vibe that something very bad had happened, but a lot of people didn’t know quite what. Then, keeping with the cultural revolutions happening across the world in the late 1960s, German university students staged protests in order to put the Holocaust on the education agenda. The government listened and thus began the next era of Holocaust education: inundation. Every year came intense studies, field trips to camps and museums, and with it the message that this was all their fault. It is the students who received this message who are now in leadership positions across the country – there is a reason that Germany is one of the only European countries that opened their arms to war victims during the immigration crisis.

My German roommates and friends had been educated in this environment, but they didn't seem to have the guilt that their parents did. As one friend put it, “our grandparents were children when it happened. It has nothing to do with us.” Perhaps us Millennials and the Gen Zers will change the German stances on things such as the country's military size and relationship with Israel as those who remember the Holocaust and the war fade from the Earth. I am no expert in German foreign policy, but it will be interesting to watch over the coming decades as to whether or not this population shift does indeed change things.

This is not to say that this Holocaust fatigue has faded the horrors of the event itself. In both the US and UK, we are taught exceptionalist narratives about our history and ourselves and very much linked to that is the fact that we treat outsiders horrendously. Simply put, we do not view them as our equals. In Germany, meanwhile, they are instead inundated with the consequences of nationalism. It is no coincidence that it was Germany that took in more than one million people who fleeing war. In fact, to bring this even more full circle, Germany housed some of these refugees at Dachau itself.

Dachau remains the only concentration camp I have seen. I did try to visit Auschwitz once, but I was…uh, a wee bit hungover the day I bought my plane tickets and may or may not have bought them for the wrong city (thankfully, I had a lovely time in Warsaw all the same). I have been to many Holocaust museums across Europe, as well as Washington DC, but there is something about seeing the ovens themselves that truly brings home the point that humanity is capable of terrible, terrible things. The German school kids might be bored of the message, but it worries me that other countries do not seem to teach the message at all.