‘Say cheese’ is not something you hear when you visit Dachau.
Recently, I revisited my photos of the camp from our visit to the small town of Dachau last May. After I wrote an article for the East Coast Post about Philip Riteman, a Holocaust survivor who —now in his 90s— gives talks about his experience, I kept thinking about Dachau and why so many people are drawn to visit death camps.
I had no intention of writing a post about Dachau, I didn’t even feel comfortable taking pictures while I was there. The atmosphere is not touristy (except for the throngs of tour busses and obnoxious 14-year-olds on field trips) and it seemed flippant to view this place as a sightseeing destination.
But the reality is over 700,000 visitors walk through the roll-call square of Dachau every year. Auschwitz receives well over a million. It may feel odd to consider it this way, but as we waited for the bus at Dachau’s train station I realized Adam and I were surrounded by tourists from all over the world.
There are no lists, no ‘must sees’ or rules for being a ‘tourist’ in a place like this, nor should there be. You walk silently and you are there. Most people understand this, and the air is quiet and atmosphere reserved.
It was cold and grey when we got off the bus.
Reading those three words— Arbeit macht frei — cannot be described any other way: chilling. ‘Work makes you free’ has been engrained in world memory and I couldn’t help but think about how many people have walked through those gates, before and after the war. A juxtaposition of then and now, of horror and sorrow.
My interest in the Holocaust began in my fourth grade classroom, where my English teacher read aloud from The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. My world view was completely shifted and I became obsessed with learning about the Second World War. While other classmates wrote their fourth grade projects on pandas or the Montreal Canadiens, I did mine on Hitler.
Nightmares came along with this new interest.
Obviously, a nightmare cannot begin to compare to what was experienced during the most gruesome incarnations of human evil, but throughout my life, I have dreamt my friends and family were well all trapped in a small room waiting to die.
Going into the gas chambers, those dreams surrounded me. True horror emanates from those rooms.
In the past few years I became embarrassed of my passion for learning about the Holocaust. I thought it made me disrespectful or indifferent. Then I realized talking about experiences at Dachau —both past and present— are important for the world. It helps keep us grounded, connected to our past, and continually puts everything into perspective.
While I was at Dachau, I learned all school-aged children in Germany visit a concentration camp as part of their curriculum. At first I was irritated by the 14-year-olds holding hands, but then I realized they are kids.
At least they are there.
A human connection is made here that cannot exist anywhere else. The connection with place, with time, with pain, is unavoidable.
At the same time, it’s almost peaceful.
The religious memorials dedicated to Jews, Catholics, and Protestants are well-maintained. Walking through back pathways there is almost a sense of relief: Hope the worst is over and the world can be as one.
At the end of the afternoon, Adam and I caught the train back into Munich. We didn’t really know what to do with ourselves. How after a long day of trying to comprehend the world’s cruelty can you just have dinner and drinks and keep on being a tourist? The raw, somber heaviness had followed us, a small burden to bear.
But it was all we could do.