A late fall morning, the kind where you can see your breath, where you need a scarf and a hat. Breakfast at the Hertie Department Store in Munich was beer, bread and a wurst—very Bavarian. Lots of shoppers heading here and there, watching for cars and the strassenbahn downtown. Nearing Christmas, and the holiday spirit was in the air. Germany—they invented Christmas as we know it (or so they said)
My wife and I wanted to see something new, do something different. I wanted to avoid another day of shopping; she wanted to avoid sightseeing at medieval churches where we needed to climb unsafe stairs to the top of a tower.
We settled on a spot to visit, a place we’d never been. It was hard to find—the people we asked looked at us as if we’d be better off anywhere else. But, seeing that we were determined to do this, we finally found someone who, with our Michelin guidebook and map, showed us a route.
Driving through fields dotted with cows wearing huge cowbells, we wound further into the hinterlands of southern Germany; stopping occasionally to check our bearings, look for a sign that might indicate where we were headed. The normally obsessive-compulsive German sign makers must have taken a day off for this place, since there appeared to be no location bearing the name.
Finally, in a small suburb we found someone of the age who might know where the place was. She took us to the curb, pointed, counted the number of streets with us, and sent us on our way.
It was not well marked. There was a marker there, and a small one at that. Not a place that folks wanted to be reminded of, I guess, especially these folks. Only a single barracks stood there, the first of what was row upon row of places built back then. The iron gate, the one with the rusted sign was still there, testament to the place and the minds that created it.
Inside the wooden building there were a few bunks, but mostly enlarged black and white photographs taken at the place, the facility, as they called it. The chatter of the few visitors stopped as we entered the small building, the silence deepened as we looked at the photos, understood their meaning. Many looked away, some cried softly, no one laughed.
We walked slowly, reading the small notations under each of the pictures. Most of them needed no words, we lingered at each. A guide told us that the local government and some of the citizens wanted to make the place go away—they did not want to be reminded of it and what happened here. From the back window we could see the cinder filled outlines of the rest of the barracks that once stood in this camp. There were plans to rebuild some of them, but didn’t happen.
My wife and I stood hand in hand at the back door to the wooden barracks, but no words came. I looked at the ground where those buildings were, the ovens in the distance, the rusted sign over the entrance, Arbeit Mach Frei, “Work Sets you Free.” What supreme arrogance, what supreme evil.
This was a sacred place; more sacred than any I’d visited. It is the concentration camp at Dachau, and if it were torn down it would still be a place where evil lived, where men lost their humanity, but still sacred ground.