17 years ago I had an opportunity to visit a friend of mine stationed in Germany. About a week into our trip we found ourselves in Munich, and since I’ve always been an avid reader of history I suggested we visit the concentration camp memorial at Dachau, just northwest of the city. We drove up to the camp on a warm, sunny spring day and pulled into the lot, only to discover that the memorial was closed on Mondays. A little disappointed, but with a beautiful day still in front of us, we headed back down into Munich and, with beer and bratwurst to be had, Dachau was soon all but forgotten.
Less than 2 years later, however, I was fortunate enough to be able to return to Germany to visit another friend who had recently been assigned to a small base near Nuremberg, about 60 miles north of Munich. My friend was an Army Chaplain Assistant working alongside a Catholic priest from Munich who had contracted with the military to perform Mass for soldiers in the area. I told the priest about my failed attempt to visit Dachau and he offered to escort us there as it wasn’t too far from the train station near his apartment. So, a few days after
Christmas, a group of us bundled up as best we could and took the train down to the Dachau station.
When the priest had told us the camp was near the station we should have asked just what he meant by “near”. We left the train station as dusk was falling and trudged down a sidewalk in a chilly, breezy mist, trying
our best to keep our feet out of the puddles of dirty, slushy snow. I remember us shuffling along quietly, each of us trying to pull our not-quite adequate coats around us to hold off the piercing damp, wondering just how much further we were going to have to walk and, as night fell, hoping that the gates would be still be open. With the miserable conditions it felt like one of the longest walks of my life, even though in reality it was only maybe 2 miles.
The gates were open when we arrived, but the memorial was closing shortly. Annoyed at being rushed after our slog through the snow, we took 20 minutes or so to look at some exhibits before stepping back out into the snow to look at the rows of barracks that housed the prisoners. I can still picture well the long rows of buildings stretching into the darkening sky, cloaked in a poorly-lit fog of despair hanging in the frigid night air. I remember feeling ashamed that I had only moments before been grumbling about wishing I’d worn a warmer coat and had been making plans to go find a hot meal, then feeling humbled by the knowledge that, unlike those who had been marched there against their will, possibly in the same sort of weather, I was free to go do just that.
We bent back into the wet wind and headed off into the night to seek some comfort, and as I shuffled through the slush it dawned on me that this, and not that sunny spring day, was how Dachau should be experienced.
15 years later I can still see it, still sense it, still remember feeling both the sense of horror and the sense of gratitude for having the freedom to leave.
Today, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the world pauses to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Pledges will be made to never forget, to never let this happen again in any corner of the world. I pray that these pledges are true, because, as Bodie Thoene once wrote, “apathy is the glove into which evil slips its hand.”
As dark as this may seem, though, I don’t believe we are meant to dwell in darkness. For me, what I carried away from this experience was a sense of hope, a belief that in spite of that terrible December day I could count on the reassurance that there would once again be a warm, sunny April morning. That, in the words of the Reverend Dale Turner, “we must be hopeful gardeners of the spirit, knowing that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers”.