What an answer.
While in Munich we visited Dachau. The camp (or what remains of it) isn’t nearly as large as I imagined it would be, though it is still many acres. Concrete and gravel foundations are all that remains of the original barracks, and the path that separates the barrack rows is lined with poplar trees. What was it like to visit? Honestly, at the time I was embarrassed by how I felt. Walking up and down the rows I felt detached and not nearly as sad as I thought I would be. I felt like I was a tourist (I guess you can say I was) and I was genuinely surprised by my lack of feeling. Something else struck me – Dachau, as Joel Lewenstein noted, is on the edge of a town (Dachau). There is a small subdivision just outside of one of the fences of the camp. There is a running track and soccer field right next to the visitors parking lot. There are shops and businesses just down the street. Besides the architectural style, it could’ve been suburban Atlanta and I felt like I do on most days in suburban Atlanta, other than the fact that I was concerned by the fact that I didn’t feel differently. I wondered if the people that lived outside the walls felt like I did that day – both presently and during the Holocaust.
A couple of days later we were in Prague, and my colleague took our group of about 30 students to the train station there. On one of the platforms there is a small memorial to the Kindertransport, and I think this is where things began to hit me. My colleague reminded our students of the story of Nicholas Winton and his efforts to aid Jewish children in Prague. I hadn’t heard the story before, but I could tell that it was a story important to our kids. To see our kids standing on that platform, invested in the story of those children who were saved from the Holocaust, provided that emotional connection I found missing at Dachau. The next day we went to the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, where the names of 80,000 victims of the Holocaust are written on the walls along with their deportation date (effectively, a date of death). Sadness crept in and stayed with me.
Two days later we were in Krakow. We visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz I, again, was much smaller than I expected, but is remarkably well preserved compared to Dachau. There are exhibits in one of the barracks that include a room that contains thousands of shoes from the victims. I was struck by the decay and grayness of all of the shoes, except for the red ones, which stood out and reminded me of the lives that had been taken. There are similar rooms containing luggage (with the names written on the outside), eyeglasses, canisters of Zyklon B, etc. But, nothing prepared me to walk into the room with enormous piles of hair cut from victims. It was overwhelming, and I couldn’t stay in the room very long.
We traveled a couple of miles to the camp at Birkenau, and we spent a couple of hours there. The scale of Birkenau is enormous. It’s the place that haunted me for months after returning from the trip. The remains of hundreds and hundreds of chimneys (all that is left of most of the barracks), the main gate, the train tracks, the ruins of the gas chambers, the ash ponds – I cannot forget those thing. I still think of them often. I felt uplifted at the same time, though, seeing hundreds of roses purposely placed throughout the complex by visitors. Small stones were placed on top of the rails, signifying that people remember and care. And I remember seeing my students, deep in thought, as they walked alone through the camp.
On our last day we were driving through Krakow, when we stopped our bus and took a short walk behind some apartment complexes. We’d been taken to a plot of land that was largely unremarkable – no large memorials or even many markers. We’re walking through the weeds, and look down to find grave stones lying flat on the ground forming a path. These were the grave markers depicted in Schindler’s List and we were standing in the middle of the Plaszow concentration camp. It was a site that could easily have been missed, and I’m sure it often is. Thinking back, it was an appropriate ending for our trip – a reminder that horrifying events can easily be forgotten, and we have to be ever vigilant to make sure they’re not.