Dachau was a first in many ways. It was the first concentration camp opened in Germany. It was one of the first symbols of the true evil that was about to be propagated by the Nazis. It was one of the first stops for SS guards in training. It was also the first truly moving travel experiences of my life.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Dachau, about 8 or 9 years now, but I can still remember exactly how it felt to step up to the gate and to see those infamous words “Arbeit Macht Frei” spelled out in black iron. I can still remember the sinking feeling that built up in the pit of my stomach as the reality of where I was and what had happened here settled on me. I can still remember the absolute silence of the place as everyone else there too recognized that something truly wrong had been carried out here.
I was young, still in college, and fresh out of celebrating Oktoberfest in Munich; still in the mindset that traveling Europe was just some endless party and, though there were some cool museums and all (I had been to the Louvre three times on that trip, and numerous other art museums), I still had that mentality of a kid on a backpacking trip. Not that there’s anything wrong with taking a sunny approach to life, but I think people in general – and long-term travelers and backpackers especially – should see these places. If you’re at all trying to be a ‘citizen of the world’ (though I really, really cringe at that term), I feel that you should be aware of the events in our past – some of which are not at all fun – that have really shaped the world today. Life isn’t all about lounging in hammocks or running on sandy beaches in Thailand, but I think it makes those sweet moments even sweeter to appreciate and understand the past.
WWII memorials have a special poignancy for me, as both my grandfathers were veterans, and one of my grandmothers even worked for the naval shipyards during the war. She was a tough old Swedish woman. And even though I don’t know much about their time in the service, as neither of my grandfathers really liked to bring up those memories, I have tremendous respect for them, and for all those who served.
And so, I spent the better part of a blustery September day going from place to place in Dachau, from exhibit to exhibit, from memorial to memorial, in complete silence as I tried to comprehend the idea of this camp and hundreds upon hundreds like it, stuffed completely to the gills with prisoners who were either going to be worked to death or just outright executed. With the recent anniversary of D-Day, and the anniversary of Dachau’s liberation not that long ago either (April 29th), I wanted to share those photos I took as I wandered the grounds of Dachau.