Something from the Vault: Volume 7
Reader warning: the subject matter of this essay is dark. I’ve postponed writing it for a long time, but I feel a real responsibility to share this tale. I’m only now, nine years since the experience, able to write it, and only with great difficulty finding the right words.
While most of our friends traveled to sun-soaked beaches throughout California, Mexico, and the Caribbean, Lindsay and I decided to spend our college senior-year spring break in Munich and Salzburg. We didn’t quite realize the consequences of our decision until we walked from the train station to our hostel.
Munich is known for its outdoor beer gardens, it’s Bavarian relaxation, and its long afternoons loitering at cafes. On February 26th, during the absolute heart of winter, none of this was prevalent, but the aching, bone-chilling cold was. So as we often do with our adventures, we made the most of it. Even in winter, beer still flows into liter-deep steins in beer halls, sausage and krauts can be found in every corner restaurant, and the doors of Dachau remain open to visitors.
Unlike traveling to Europe in the middle of winter, we somewhat knew what we were getting into when we ventured outside of the city to the Dachau Concentration Camp. In 1933, under the auspices of Heinrich Himmler, the Third Reich opened the doors of Dachau, with a focus on locking-up political prisoners. In a few short years, Dachau became the testing site for all the evils that would happen at other concentration camps in Austria and Germany. Though the death toll at Dachau (32,000) is significantly smaller than at other camps, it was on these grounds that the Third Reich established their systems of mass killings which would obliterate a generation of innocent people.
As you walk through the gates of Dachau, you feel the ghosts of all six million lives lost to the genocide born on those grounds. To call the place haunted would deny the humanity of the human beings who died there, and it would make their killers into villains of a fictive horror film, instead of real live people. Unfortunately, places like Dachau can be found on every continent from every century of known human history. “While human beings are capable of the most profound acts of compassion and beauty,” I wrote in my journal that night after visiting Dachau, “we also carry in us the capacity for the nastiest acts of violence, cruelty, and hate.”
The rest of the visit is mostly a blur of foggy images: the tightly packed bunks and toilets, the rooms kept for tortures and mass killings, and the photos of what ally soldiers saw upon liberating the camp. The emotion of being at a ground zero like this is striking, and not difficult to remember. But the strongest memory I have of the day is from the wall at the exit where “Never Again” is translated into a dozen different languages.
Sadly, the human race has not yet reached a time of “Never Again.” It is a strong intention and declaration as we move forward and try to find peaceful solutions to our most dangerous issues, but as a global community we have not fully committed to the command. Standing in three feet of snow, turning my face from the fierce Northern wind and shivering, I ponder the rather depressing ugliness that people remain capable of enacting against other people.
For a split second, I think about my friends sipping margaritas, playing beach volleyball, and listening to Bob Marley on their versions of spring break. I don’t blame them in the least for I’ll surely enjoy those luxuries at a later occasion. For now, yes, we’re at Dachau in the winter, contemplating mankind’s darkest hour. As a wanderer, there are other places I would rather be, yet there’s no doubt that our frigid morning at Dachau was exactly where I needed to be.