Author: Mitchell Hale
Dear Fellow Traveler,
When traveling, people tend to see the sites that are pleasing to the eye and have a light-hearted ambiance. After all, a vacation is a time to escape the daily grind and step inside a fantasy of beauty and relaxation. While traveling through Central Europe during the summer of 2010, I visited a place with the opposite ambiance of a traditional tourist attraction: Dachau Concentration Camp. Here I learned lessons that changed my life.
Built by the Nazis to imprison European Jews during World War II, Dachau is located 11 miles northwest of Munich, Germany. A 20 minute train ride from Munich's main train station takes you to Dachau's train station where busses will take you directly to the concentration camp. Upon arriving, get a free audio guide from the visitor's center. The personal narratives of Jews, Germans, and American soldiers intensify the experience.
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Upon walking through the gate I felt an immediate separation from the outside world. It was eerily quiet and the air was heavy. I immediately entered a vast empty space. Prisoners gathered here for roll call multiple times a day, sometimes in brutal weather. To the right there was a museum housing exhibits and additional information about the camp. To the left were two reconstructed barracks showing the living quarters of the prisoners. Privacy in any form did not exist; beds were massive bunks with no barriers to divide into single beds, and the bathrooms lacked individual stalls. There were thirty-four working barracks when the camp was in operation.
On the other side of camp, I visited the Jewish Memorial. It was humble, dark, and closed in, different from other memorials I had seen throughout Europe and in Washington D.C. I expected something more elaborate and grand, but this modest memorial simply acknowleged the prisoners' suffering. It was a good way to look at the atrocities that occurred here.
Next I crossed over a small ditch into the area which housed the crematorium. The tall chimney loomed over the dismal scene. This was the most difficult part of visiting Dachau. Attached to the crematorium was the disrobing room and gas chamber. I entered in the order a prisoner would have. When I arrived at the ovens, I felt a deep connection with the past and a resolution to do my part to prevent future atrocities. After leaving the crematorium, I walked around an undeveloped part of the camp. Its surprisingly lush and beautiful foliage seemed incongruent with its history. It was sobering to imagine that something so horrible could have occurred in such a beautiful part of the world.
Visiting Dauchau was a moving and powerful experience. Dachau reminded me that I must always defend those who cannot defend themselves. Turning a blind eye to others' problems can have devastating consequences for the world. Dachau also reminded me that a noble life, however short, is more desirable than a long ignoble life. It would have been better to have died a prisoner, than lived a Nazi. Finally, Dachau put my own problems in perspective, for at least I am free. I suggest that everyone visit Dachau for themselves and learn whatever lessons Dachau has in store for them. Yes, it is not the most pleasant destination, but the benefits of visiting are worth it.
P.S. After leaving Dachau I suggest doing something light-hearted. For me, the BMW World and Museum were a nice change-of-pace.