Travelogue Part III: Dachau

This month marks 10 years since the big Columbia Seminary Jan Term in Geneva. A couple dozen of us went that year, along with a group of DMin students. It was a spectacular trip and thanks to that experience, I still get the urge to travel each January. Several years ago I wrote some memories of the experience. I'm posting them this week in the hopes that it will inspire some of the other Geneva folks to reminisce as well. Part III: Dachau

    First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me. -Reverend Martin Niemoller, Lutheran pastor and prisoner in Dachau

Would I have spoken out?

I’ve been trying to figure out what to say about Dachau. In a way it feels like a random side trip, a total non-sequitur—a museum of evil amid art galleries and cathedral tours. But we couldn’t not go.

For one thing, the camp was disturbingly easy to get to, which only adds to the horror of it. We took a short train and bus ride from Munich, then ambled down a pleasant side street, and there it was—a guard tower, squat, stupid and square, but tall enough for its purpose. I was not prepared to see the camp wedged right into the town itself.

How could such a place have existed in plain sight of so many?

The concentration camp site includes many of the original structures of course, but also a number of religious memorials, rich with symbolism, as well as a Carmelite convent. One of the former guard towers is now the entrance to the convent. A witness. A testimony: light out of darkness. Stubborn, defiant people of faith.

We say, “Never again.” How do we live it?

There is a vicious angularity to the place. The endless stretch of wire fence. The rebuilt barrack, long and lean, with row upon row of markers marking where other barracks had been. The iron bars on the gate, the spare block lettering on top: Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Makes You Free.

That Arbeit Macht Frei sign? That was someone’s job, to make that sign. Who was he? Did he know its final destination? Did he know what would happen on the other side of it? Did he appreciate the stark irony of prisoners being worked to death in the shadow of those words?

I drifted through the camp, aimless. I walked with the group, I left the group. I visited some places twice, three times. I was inefficient. I wish I could say this was an act of protest against the oppressiveness of all those right angles, but truly, I just felt disoriented.

Dachau is a place of questions, in the end, questions that swirl over the dusty gravel of the courtyard, questions that cower in the dank abyss of the Jewish memorial temple, questions etched on the face of the Statue of the Unknown Prisoner, questions that get tangled in the crown of thorns atop the Catholic chapel, questions that hover motionless in Barrack X, the one with the tall chimney, the one tucked behind the trees. Dachau is a place of questions, so my path followed the curvature of the questions.

In the end, that’s all I have from that day, questions and lamentations, and a few fading pictures.

The other night though, as I was drifting off to sleep, something clicked into place about the experience. It was the secret decoder ring for me, the key to this whole vault of questions in my head. It came to me, quick and sharp as an exclamation point. I fell asleep, relieved.

Whatever it was, it was gone the following morning. Perhaps it’s better that way.