To be completely honest, before this trip, I had never heard of Dachau. Of course, I knew of the horrors brought about by The Nazi party throughout Germany and Europe. I knew of the name Auschwitz and Birkenau but never had I heard of Dachau. Growing up, I used to be fascinated by world war 2, something I became somewhat embarrassed to admit as I grew older and began forming my own rather pacifistic beliefs and ideals. I spent my free time reading war books and watching movies about the war. I never saw much about the Holocaust in them, usually one scene or maybe half a short chapter. The books did not focus on that. They glorified war and the expertise of its commanders, the bravery of men on the frontline. I was aware of the holocaust, but I never thought of it first when discussing the second world war. It wasn’t till I was older that I realized I had missed so much.
The entire morning I felt ill. Maybe it was the crowd of about 250 students, maybe it was the heat that reminded me of back home, maybe it was one of the many minor ailments that have plagued my entire life, or maybe I was simply unlucky. Regardless, the trip to Dachau was admittedly beautiful. The scenic mountains and idyllic sunny weather couldn’t compare to anything I’d seen back home, but this was not to last. The mainly forested landscape with scattered villages turned to open farm fields with wispy wild golden grass before finally morphing into concrete landscapes with overcast grey skies. We had finally arrived.
As soon as I got off the bus, I needed some water to wake myself up and feel less like a walking corpse. When leaving a few minutes later, I only saw a few of my classmates walking down a trail. I followed them. Throughout my admittedly brief time in Europe, I’ve found that not being surrounded by loud English-speaking Americans has its perks. Many strangers are nervous around large crowds and tend to speak more quietly, especially when around ones composed of strangers. I ended up hearing many different languages that day: English, German, French, Hindi, Japanese, Mandarin, and multiple other languages I couldn’t hope to recognize. Of course, we weren’t the only English-speaking group there, and I’ve always had the habit of unintentionally eavesdropping. While waiting for our guide, I happened to overhear a short cheery exchange between a young blonde couple about their plans for after their visit. I saw them later that day again near the cremation furnaces. They were walking in silence.
A short time passed before the tour began in earnest. Our guide was a short energetic man who seemed genuinely invested in his work. When our group was later split in half, I decided to stay with him, something I’d later come to be incredibly thankful for. Throughout the tour, he carried around a blue-tattered folder. It must’ve been used thousands of times, there were stains on some pages, and others had small tears, but the main contents were still striking. It was full of photos and diagrams of the camp and the atrocities that happened there. We walked for quite some time, hearing about the political situation in Pre-War Germany, the rise of the Nazi party, and then the post-war period of the camp. Any talk of what happened there during the war waited until we walked through the large doors that said “Arbeit Macht Frei.” It roughly translates to “work will set you free.”
Never have I felt so strongly averse to a place in my life. While walking through the living quarters for the prisoners, what I was seeing and being told didn’t fully process in my mind yet. It was only after I walked out of the building that I was shown the photos taken by American GIs of the living conditions that I was able to begin that process. The bodies of prisoners, barely comprised of brittle skin and bone, propped up on the bodies of their dead fellows. Behind the blue folder being held up lay the seemingly endless foundations of more buildings that all housed the same atrocities. Until that moment, I hadn’t truly been able to fathom just how many people were put through this; such a large amount is hard for the mind of any man to process. At that moment, I think I began to fully understand just how widespread this was, just how many lives were ruined. Though I didn’t have much time to dwell on it, as afterward, we made our way to the crematoria.
Here, unlike most of the camp, the original buildings were still standing. Throughout most of the day, my illness had died down. But when I entered the crematorium, it began to come back. I took a long time to look at the ovens; I tried to understand something but couldn’t quite manage to put it into words. The ovens were used so often that there was still visible ash baked into them with cracks in their structures from the heat. Then to the storage room for the bodies. Then to what I thought was a second. As soon as I entered the room, I felt a pounding sensation in my head and the worst bout of nausea I’ve ever felt. I rushed out of the room, and only after turning around did I find out I had just passed through the gas chamber.
The tour was nearing its closing moments, so after a short farewell, I wandered towards the chapel. There I prayed for quite a while. The closing words of my guide still echoed. “Shortly after liberation, 32,000 (prisoners) came back for the last time to the area, for the last time, they were in front of the door with the inscription ‘Work sets one free.’ Then, one promise was given to the world, ‘Never again.’’