It was a cold afternoon in November when I walked through the gates of Dachau, Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp.
And while many years have past since, the chill remains.
A cutting rain had just swept down from the nearby Bavarian Mountains, clattering across the gravel compound and driving what few visitors there were for cover.
I was left to wander the wide pathways that separated the outline of the barracks alone – to walk into the dimness of the crematorium, and into the silent stillness of the building reserved for “medical experiments.”
I took a picture of the metal gate with the wrought-iron words “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free).
Then I put my camera away; there was a knot in my throat, and an anger dulled by a deep sadness.
I had arrived by commuter train and transit bus from Munich where I was staying in a hostel. Over the objections of the bus driver (who suggested there were far better sights to see) I was dropped off on the residential street that borders the facility.
Dachau was opened in 1933 as Adolf Hitler and his henchmen consolidated their power. It was billed as a work camp for political dissidents, but quickly devolved into a place of suffering and death.
I was thinking about that visit last Friday as the world marked Holocaust Memorial Day. The day acknowledges the systematic killing of six million Jews, along with hundreds of thousands of Romanians, homosexuals and people with mental or physical disabilities.
The message is to never allow such industrialized murder to happen again.
Auschwitz, the largest of Hitler’s death camps, was liberated by Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945, beginning the slow revelation of the depravity of the Nazi regime and where such institutional bigotry can lead.
Dachau – which wasn’t liberated until four months later – was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz. However, death was never far. More than 33,000 people died at the camp (unofficial numbers are much higher). Inmates were worked to death, beaten, shot, starved and experimented on – all within a few hundred metres of the quaint and lovely medieval town that gave the camp its name.
That contrast was with me as I boarded the transit bus and rode back to Munich. Around me were students, commuters and the regular people of a modern, industrial city. They laughed and teased each other, read solemnly to themselves, or stared out the window, no doubt thinking of home.
The irony grew that evening as I found myself in a Munich beerhall, surrounded by strangers whose language I did not speak. With me was another bewildered traveller: a Japanese school teacher alone and on vacation.
As we drank beer by the litre, we laughed at our attempts to communicate and challenged each other to try the pickled herring. We all left as friends, knowing we’d never see each other again.
Later, as I lay in my hostel bunk, trying desperately to stop the room from spinning, I thought about how much the world had changed since my grandfather fought to break out from the Normandy beachhead near Caen in 1944. Enemies were now allies. But more, a victory had been won over intolerance, ignorance, oppression and state-sponsored hatred.
Or so I thought.
Years later came Rwanda, Kosovo, Syria, Iraq, Sudan. The list goes on.
On Jan. 27, Holocaust Memorial Day, Donald Trump used his executive power to bar people from select countries from entering the U.S., based primarily on their religion. In doing so, he further perpetrated the belief – so deep among his supporters – that the enemy can be found in one particular faith.
How unfortunate he cannot learn from the past; that the real enemy is intolerance. And pandering to that intolerance does not make a country strong. It makes it weak.