Last month, I had the opportunity to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp. It was the last stop on a long weekend in Munich before departing for Venice in the evening. It was a dismal day, frequently threatening rain. We took the train from Munich to Dachau and then a bus to the memorial site.
Our guide pointed out a series of white stone buildings along the road. They were the officers quarters, now serving as apartments. Flower boxes lined the windows. Neatly trimmed hedges ran along the sidewalk. Laundry hung on lines blowing in the breeze.
The bus dropped us at the visitor’s center. Bevies of schoolkids streamed passed as we walked towards the gates. Teaching about the Holocaust is mandated in German schools, and many opt to bring students here, to where it all began.
What became the Dachau concentration camp had initially been a munitions factory on the outskirts of the town of Dachau. After WWI, when the Versailles Treaty forced Germany to demilitarize, the factory closed. Fifteen years later, just six weeks after Hitler rose to power, it re-opened as a labor camp. For the most part, Dachau held political opponents, dissidents, and other non-Jewish populations. This was where Hitler sent his would-be assassin, Georg Elser.
Almost entirely men, the residents of the camp were sent out to do manual labor about the countryside. Twice a day they stood for roll call, often for hours, in wind and rain. The barracks which were designed to hold hundreds soon held thousands instead. In the beginning, the barracks were kept in pristine condition, or else. But as the camp grew more crowded, things deteriorated quickly.
The thing that struck me most was if you didn’t know better, you might think it was a summer camp. The bunk beds, the locker room, the table and chairs where they ate. In the sanitized reconstruction of the memorial site, it almost looked pleasant. You could imagine teenage boys in sleeping bags telling ghost stories after lights out.
And yet, we know what happened there. We know that people were beaten. They were tortured and killed. Untold numbers of people lost their lives within this place, and thousands of others lived with the memory of it.
We talk about the Holocaust, and we say we’ll always remember. But there is something about walking the paths, seeing the guard towers, that makes everything so much more real.
It also makes what is happening on the border that much more horrific. We are separating children from their families and keeping them in terrible conditions. We are taking rosaries away. We are locking people in cages. All for daring to seek asylum. Or to escape from violence and extreme poverty.
No historian or history buff throws around the words “concentration camps” without reason. The comparisons are apt and should be taken seriously. If we, as Americans, want to continue to be on the right side of history, we need to put an end to this atrocity. We brand ourselves as the heroes who saved Europe from fascism and then welcome it through the front door when it knocks.
America has a lot of history still to answer for, from the genocide of the Native Americans to slavery to internment camps. We don’t need to add to that legacy.
What can we do? Well, for starters, you can write to your elected officials. Most representatives and senators have email addresses or submission forms on their websites where you can write to them. They’ll also have their mailing address. Send a letter. Or a postcard. Visit their offices. Tell them that this is not acceptable.
And consider joining nationwide protests and vigil being held in the coming weeks. Lights for Liberty (https://www.lightsforliberty.org/) is holding vigils on July 12th, for example. Reach out to your local organizations and see where they need help.
As a nation, we are better than this. Let’s not repeat the horrors of the past. We know where this road leads. We owe it to our children and our grandchildren not to go down that path again.