Germany is a country with a complicated past, we all know this. In my previous travels, I hadn’t had much interest in visiting Germany. I thought, “why would I want to see the places where all these horrors took place?” I felt like I had no connection to what happened. My family isn’t Jewish. I don’t personally know anyone who survived or had family members who experienced the Holocaust. Times have changed so much that surely that would never happen again. As a white person growing up in the midwest I had never faced discrimination. In fact, I was woefully ignorant of just how the world can treat the “other.”
So I returned home from my 2015-2016 year of travel without having set foot in Germany. The next few years at home in America would not go well, my government descending to chaos and fascism. In fact, in my personal life, things weren’t going so well either. I was more vocal about who I am and started to speak up for myself and others. Turns out they don’t like it when women, especially queer women, find their voice.
This year I finally decided to visit Germany. I discovered this great pass that covers entry into several castles and places around Germany for a great price. While adding last-minute alternatives to my travel plans I noticed there was a concentration camp near a place on the itinerary. The more I thought about it the more it became a stop rather than a backup.
In the morning we visited the remains of a lovely 12th-century palace with an ornate wooden ceiling in the main hall. The garden outside was picture perfect and overlooked the city. After a bit of a photo shoot, we headed down to explore the medieval town, with its shops and little cafes.
After a picnic lunch a la Aldi, we headed toward the Dachau Concentration Camp. Even on the way there, I felt uneasy. A heavy ball of anxiety began forming in my chest.
When we arrived we were greeted by a sign I wish was everywhere. The sign basically gave a history of the camp, and then went on to list things that were verboten. In German and English, it forbade any right-wing extremist symbols or the discrimination toward anyone on the basis of skin color or religion. We paused to look at the gates so many had entered and so few had exited.
Once inside we headed toward the museum, with plans to check out the barracks and memorials later. The museum outlined the fall of democracy in Germany and the rise of Hitler and his fascist state. So many of the newspaper headlines looked like they had been ripped from the news today. The “immigration reform,” Trump’s blaming of immigrants for our problems, literally banning entry to the country based on religion, and his idea to make Muslims self-identify with “badges.” It talked about how Hitler had used fear to turn a whole nation against those who were different.
I felt sick before I was even done with the first room. As I went on, room after room, display after display, my heart sank and became lead in my stomach. I thought about how I would have been rounded up with the people who died in the very place I was standing. My dark curly hair would have made me stand out from the Aryan crowd.
About halfway through the museum, there was a display about the gay people who had been at this very concentration camp. Two years before I had thought something like that would not happen again, but since November 2016, I wasn’t so sure anymore.
When I stood in from of the sign talking about how more 600 homosexuals had died in the place where this very gay lesbian now stood, I couldn’t help but experience fear. I don’t know where our nation is going, but the Vice President would be happier if I was no longer alive, and that scares me. I pray that America will not ever be in as dark a place as Nazi Germany was.
I had to leave the museum before I had finished looking at everything. I was exhausted. I couldn’t go on because what I was reading wasn’t a history lesson but a preview of what could come. That night I had a hard time sleeping. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since then.
I’m a white girl from Ohio. I’ll never know the kind of discrimination people of color have gone through in my country. I’ll never know what it feels like to have had my cultural heritage destroyed and my race almost wiped out. I have a lot of privilege, and I can’t ignore that. At the same time, I know things aren’t going to be weighed in my favor. Women have it better than we used to and we continue to fight for gay rights every day. Progress marches on and yet it isn’t guaranteed. Nothing is guaranteed.
Visiting Dachau was an emotional experience, and I’m the better for having had it. It is so easy to forget our past. To assume that things are moving forward, getting better, is dangerous. We have to keep it moving ourselves, because if we don’t they can take it away from us.
To me, this is one of the many reasons why travel is so important. While I intellectually already knew most of what I “discovered” that day, I hadn’t truly accepted it. To see humanity’s past mistakes is important. How else can we avoid doing it all over again?
Thanks, Germany for not shying away from your past. I hope we can all learn from you.
Sorry if this was long and rambly, but sometimes complex thoughts can’t escape in any other way.