Dachau: Preserving the Past - My Family Travels

The cool breeze flickers in the air, momentarily relieving my skin from the scorching sun. As we follow our tour guide, I notice how perfectly the tree’s green leaves complement the blue sky. I snap a picture with one thought in my mind: this place is too peaceful to be a concentration camp. I try to imagine thousands of Jews, eyes full of apprehension and uncertainty, rounded up by the ruthless SS—but I can’t. Not when all I feel as we approach the entrance gate is calm. Walking into the actual concentration camp, I feel a trickle of bitterness lingering in the air and infiltrating that calmness. As I take in the surroundings, my imagination more easily recreates the place into what it might have looked like over half a century ago: thousands of prisoners in gray rags standing on the gray rocks that filled the large gray barren area, waiting with hollow, apathetic eyes to see who had perished that day. Slowly, that inkling of bitterness grows into a small stream.


Our tour guide leads us to the disrobing, gas, and death chambers. The moment I take a step up to the building, the strangest, most disturbing smell punctures my nose. Not once in my life had I smelled anything like it, so I can only guess that this was the smell of thousands of rotting human bodies, piled into heaps in the death chamber all those decades ago. The realness of the past starts to grow on me. Here I am, standing in the same place that 40,000 dead bodies had once been, smelling a fraction of the stench that the prisoners had to live with every day. The stream carries the bitterness and flows into a river.

With the documentary that concluded our tour, the river flooded the concentration camp, filling it with the bitter past. Pictures and video footage of its condition when the American forces liberated the camp consumed my mind for the rest of the day: victims literally stripped down to skin and bones, piles and piles of dead bodies, the overcrowded rooms filled with disease and hunger. Everything I had imagined in my head evaporated and was immediately replaced with the real images I just witnessed.

I had been taught by several different teachers the Holocaust: its beginnings, causes, and effects. Why, then, did these images send such a shock wave through me? I’ve read the books and watched the movies. Are they really that different from reality?

Yes. Common knowledge tells us that a picture is worth a thousand words. Reading about the gas chambers, death chambers, and crowded barracks merely informs. Having the pictures flash in front of my eyes, knowing that I was standing where those starving victims stood, and feeling wretched smell of dead bodies burn my nose hit me emotionally.

Before visiting Dachau, the Holocaust had always been another part of history in which humans were unnecessarily cruel to others. Wars and conflict over power, after all, is just a recurring theme in history. But as my mind processed the past two hours, I realized that it was something much more. Never before did such atrocities occur with such magnitude and scope; the terror of it is too great to ignore or simply brush aside as another section of a world history textbook.

It makes sense, then, that a German student is obligated to visit a preserved concentration camp like the one in Dachau. But it shouldn’t stop there. Every single student in our new generation needs to have the same experience that I had: one of realization and acceptance of the horrors of the past and resolution for it to never happen again.  

Soon, there won’t be any World War II or Holocaust survivors left. When that happens, the only things we’ll have left as reminders are preserved concentration camps. Through them, this dark patch of history, can continue to pieced into the present so that it remains a constant reminder as we embark on the future. 

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