I had just turned thirty-three and I was living in Germany. My friends asked what I wanted for my birthday. I loved to see the German countryside, and so traveling was always an option. One year we went to a one of the lesser-known walled cities.

But this year, my request was a little more bizarre.

I’d been reading the Diary of Anne Frank and I knew something of the horrors the Nazi’s had inflicted on the Jews residing in Europe. So I reckon my request was in keeping with that reading. “Look, I said. “Intellectually, I know things like the Holocaust and the persecution and killing of people the Nazi’s deemed undesirable happened. Trouble is, I need to get it into my soul. It’s no offense to you, but I need to go to a place where it happened and get it into my soul.”

A strange request, I’m sure. Rather than go party or visit some fancy castle, I was choosing to walk a graveyard.

Turns out one of the camps where the Nazi’s held people they deemed undesirable wasn’t far away. It was called Dachau Prison and while it wasn’t as infamous as the mass extermination camps, it was no less ruthless.

The trip was laid on and we went on a Saturday.

I took my trusty Pentax 1000 and several rolls of film. I choose black and white film because black and white film gives the world a reality that color film doesn’t. I figured if you’re going to take pictures of a site where a horror show occurred, then do it right.

One of the many bizarre iron sculptures around Dachau.

We arrived, parked, and I walked through the main gates. As I walked through the gates I looked up. Written in iron were the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” A horrible joke if ever there was one because it was a promise that a lot of the men and women who were sent there never lived to see. In English it means “Work sets you Free.” But it did define the mission of the place. A man or woman condemned into that place could expect to be worked to death. Some found themselves on the end of bizarre experiments. I recall a picture hanging that showed a man in a rubber suit. He’d been placed in freezing cold water and allowed to die of exposure simply so his captors could understand what happens to the human body in cold water.

But for some these people, death was the only escape. After all, you made it to a place even the Nazi’s couldn’t reach into.

One of the guard towers, now empty, that watched over the complex

The people who walked through the gates were the people the Nazi’s deemed as “undesirable.” They were a microcosm of the European society. Common everyday people were herded in there for offenses no greater than disagreeing with what those in power were saying. Homosexuals were paraded through because of their lifestyle. College professors became inmates simply because they were educated. There were Gypsy’s. There were Jehovah Witnesses. And the Jewish people would be well represented here. And there were common every day people there who wondered what they’d done to end up there.

There was one person I’d known who was condemned to Dachau who knew all too well what he’d been accused of. The accusation was 100% true. He was an old catholic priest I’d server under. He taught me a lot about God and now as I look back, I consider him one of my greatest mentors. He never spoke much about his time there, and the only way I knew he’d been there was whispered stories that said he along with others had tried to form what amounted to an underground railroad to get Jews out of Germany. I don’t know if they ever got any out, but they must have not been very good at it.

An interior shot of one of the remaining barracks at the camp.

After all, they got caught.

Something he always said was “To but our hope in Jesus Christ. Because one way or another, we will have hope to be delivered from whatever we’re going through. Jesus said he’ll never leave us which means whatever we’re going through, he’s going through it with us.”

I was pondering that while I walked along, checking out one the few remaining barracks. The bunks were more like shelves where people were stacked like loaves of bread. It was my understanding there were no mattresses and few blankets. All most of the inmates had to keep them warm was flimsy clothing and the body heat of the person next to them.

I walked through the crematory. Even after all those years, it still reeked of smoke and the smell of burnt flesh. I remember taking a picture but dumped it. Somehow the picture couldn’t capture the horror of the place.

I looked at the pictures of inmates and the monsters who had condemned them there. How anyone could do such things to another human being was beyond me.

Now, understand. I’m not a big believer in ghosts. I have a hard time believing that there are restless spirits among us and that they roam the Earth for whatever reason. But if they exist, surely, they roam at Dachau and places like it. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I felt the dead very near.

I walked the now peaceful grounds. From someplace, the laughter of a child echoed across the confined area. It seemed strangely out of place. I looked at the empty guard towers and my mind populated them with the ghosts of men in uniform with rifles ready. I imagined an army of shabbily dressed, undernourished men and women. An endless of the people who had died there standing in formation and stretching to the horizon. In my imagination, some of the inmates were sick, their lungs wheezing and their eyes vacant as their bodies shut down. Some carried the body of someone who had died during the night and only in the morning did those around him or her know they’d slept next to a dead person. They wondered if they would be next. They dreaded the thought of death, but it was also one way to escape from this Hell humans had created.

Maybe it was just the wind, but a shiver went through me as I heard a whisper in my ear. It was a warning that this is what happens when good people go bad. The people who created this place had begun serving something other than the God the Bible talked about. They subverted its teachings in the holy name of bowing to a false image that they tried to build that world view into what they believed. They forgot that God is about Love and Unity, not about domination.

And so they condemned people to Hell.

Where thousands once stood wondering if they would be alive the following day, a pretty girl walks unafraid. This picture was of one of the dozen memorials scattered about the complex.

But the difference between the Hell Jesus spoke of and this Hell people built was that at least in this Hell, there was hope.

So, what is Hope? It’s a hard word to define mostly because few of us have had our backs against the wall with nowhere to turn. One definition of hope I found is this, “To want something to happen or to be true, and usually have a good reason to think that it might.”

That puts hope in the context of the world.

What my old friend had wasn’t hope, but faith. Faith is a much bigger word than hope. The best definition of what he has is in Hebrew’s 11. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Someplace, somewhere there has to be a reason to believe something will happen. In the case of my old friend, he knew live or die, he won. He knew where his hope was, and it would never let him down.

And as I walked, I let the voices talk to me. some of the voices spoke of utter despair. They reached the end of their rope only to find nothing there. They’d never learned that there was something they had to have a hope in. Living without hope will kill you kill you as certainly as a bullet through the brain.

Don’t believe me? Look at the number of suicides. Why does a person kill themself? A young person can have the world by the tail and yet be empty. We have something in us that needs to have something this world doesn’t offer. A hole that we try to fill with material objects or learning or good times. But as King Solomon wrote, “It’s all just chasing after the wind.” Or as a singer asked, “Who can save your soul?”

I walked through wondering how some made it through while other’s didn’t. Did they just get lucky or what something else involved.

As I pondered these things, an answer came. I saw an old man leading a tour of young people. The guy looked like he was one day younger the Moses and walked with a limp. His hair was almost gone and what remained was mostly white. He was thin as a rail and except for clean and somewhat modern clothing, he could have easily passed for the living ghost of an inmate here.

I heard him talking and realized that supposition was true. He’d been one of the countless thousands who’d shuffled through this place. He was speaking from experience. The old man leading the group had been incarcerated and knew what he spoke of when he talked about hunger, the smell of death and decay, and the hopelessness that settled over so many.

Overwhelmed by what he was saying, one young person asked how they made it through it. He answered in a way that was unexpected. He explained that in his barracks, there was a young priest incarcerated with them. Every night, that young man would stand up and remind them that they weren’t going through this alone. That God was going through it with them, and he’d carry them through. He explained that he’d gave lip service to God at best and was sure most everyone in that room was the same way. But everyone there took the words and owned them. It was reminder that no matter how dark the night, there was still a single star to see by and to guide your path.

I asked him if he recalled the priests name and he said he couldn’t. I told him of my old friend and how he’d said the same thing. He said if it was him, then he owed him a huge debt of gratitude. He explained that most everyone who listened to the young priest, thought their chances of getting out alive was slim at best. But slim was better than nothing.

One of the few color pictures I took that day. A young woman prays for the souls of people she never knew.

It says something about the German people that they left places like Dachau as a stark reminder of what can happen when we start living in hate. Everyone should visit places like Dachau, Wounded Knee, Gettysburg, and the like.

They need to stand and hear the ghostly warnings that are still carried by the winds.

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