Just as music is the perfect accompainment for writing, it also serves as a key – nay - vital ingredient for the road trip. But what happens when the recipe is spoiled?
My first road trip in my Mini – my very own Mini adventure - would take me on a path through some of the worlds most beautiful scenery, but not before a pit stop at a place where some of modern men worst atrocities occurred.
So much has been written about the holocaust, the Nazi’s and the Jews that I am certain my voice contains neither the prose, nor the writing experience to fully convey the humanity and the echo of evil that Dachau near Munich conveys. I will not attempt to do it justice in this short article as there are many books that can assist you in that. But as a newly world traveller, seeing this prior to driving down to a short stay in the alps made an indelible scar on me.
We pack the car with a couple of days worth of clothes and essentials heading down to the well known ski resort of Fieberbrunn in Austria. Setting off on a Friday with a playlist full of music and podcasts we set our sights on a small diversion to Dachau, near Munich. This is of the first Concentration camps built by the Nazis initially constructed as a prison or camp for political prisoners, it developed into part of the Nazi’s final solution. All in all through its existence it held 225’000 prisoners of which more than 40’000 were to die there.
Getting out of the car in the car park taking the short walk to camp, there is an immediate change of mental pace. After the 100’s of Km covered accompanied by music picked specifically to sing a long with during the trip is silenced. Out of a form of respect for the place the laughter stops and curiosity takes its place. Not the kind of curiosity that a child might have for exploration or knowing, but a curiosity of how one might feel about what one is about to experience. What will what I am going to see and understand mean to me? How might I react? For some reason the air feels heavier, like if you were to shout, the sound would not travel.
“Arbeit Macht Frei” the gates that mark the entrance to the camp are in themselves fairly unremarkable. What is more remarkable are the remains of the train platform behind where many of the arrivals and prisoners of the camp arrived before solemnly trudging through the gates of the camp. As I pass through the gates I feel a kind of trepidation again that uncertainty of how I will feel about this.
Initially, visually, the place is underwhelming. Your eyes move quickly to the two remaining huts that would have housed prisoners and to the large concrete structure at the other end of the grounds, a looming grey concrete building that looks like a torture chamber dominate your seeing eyes. Unsure where to start, curiosity moves your feet along the fences with the sinister watch towers looking over a guided tour. Eavesdropping I can hear that they are discussing the neutral zone between the camp grounds and the electrified fence. A zone where should inmates be found, they would be fired upon from the guard towers. A death some would actually opt for during the camps terrible history in order to end their own internal torture.
As we carry on towards the looming grey building, it emerges that this place is actually a church, built to commemorate the dead, as opposed to a torture device, which it clearly reflects - the sentiment is there, but the design only adds to the foreboding feeling in the camp air. Exit to the left over the small stream which, unbeknownst to us led to the cremation house, the site upon which many of the execution’s occurred in the camp. The house has been restored and cleaned, almost clinical in its appearance now, it contains pictures within and the descriptions of the rooms leave you in no doubt as to the evil that was perpetuated by the guards and the regime at the time.
If you are blessed with an active imagination, then placing yourself into these situations is soon a curse. The seeing and the feeling of the rooms leaves you tormented with images of horror in your mind’s eye. Bodies stacked high, corpses hanging from their ropes prior to being loaded some times 2-3 at a time into the ovens for incineration. It is a place where thoughts of anything outside of what you are seeing, imagining and feeling are impossible; you are only consumed by the horror that happened here.
A short walk around the gardens will allow you to see execution pits, graves where ashes were buried and places where bodies were stored prior to incineration. It is where you find yourself asking how this could really have happened, how could this have been able to take place?
Upon returning to the main camp grounds where the prisoners were held, we walk through the open hut that gives you an example of how hundreds of prisoners would have been kept, either up until their deaths, or until liberation - if they were lucky. Some prisoners were experimented on in the hospital huts next to the accommodation, cruel and unusual experiments, it appears no matter what was in store for you at the camp, nothing good, or anything like normal was ever likely. This was not even the worst part.
It is late in the evening before we enter “the bunker” - the camp prison. We are one of the last people left in the camp and the only people in this area, the light is dimming and this dark single story, single corridor building sits unassuming behind the main administration block. Entering through the main door, as would many of the prisoners, you are met by a variety of images and notices about past prisoners, some of their fates, some of the conditions they experienced including; isolation, standing cells and savage beatings, even death.
Staring down the long, dark corridors in the silence a wash of ice filled my body causing me to shiver to my core. The evil that the walls seem to have absorbed radiates back out to you in the echoes of every footstep.
It got under my skin, my breathing shallowed as my pupils struggled for light down the dim corridors, in my imagination the place was alive again, the pain, the suffering; the anguish was reverberating through the structure. It was enough for my partner and she left the building, leaving me alone with my morbid curiosity, my body soaking in the unusual feelings, and sounds that were not there, but I could hear.
Tiptoeing along the dark corridor as if not to disturb the air with my own presence less it awaken repressed energy from the walls, investigating the small cells that remained open with text projected onto the walls from ex-prisoners, true quotes and stories from inmates adding flame to the fire of unease. Exiting at the end of the long corridor into the dim twilight my unconscious mind makes involuntary shudders, ridding myself of the energy absorbed from this evil feeling place.
We soon leave the camp in silence, the toll of our new understanding making us feel heavier in some way. An overwhelming sense of loss and helplessness brings up questions such as how, who and why. Knowing that these atrocities occurred within living memory of some is the hardest part for me to comprehend - billions of years of evolution and this happened within just a few generations.
Continuing our journey in silence, we both look out of the windows before reaching back for some music to help distract us, but now it feels like playing dance music at a funeral and nothing seems suitable. We plunge back into silence again. The next words are from my wife around an hour later when she points out the Alps. “Fucking Hell” is my actual response. I have never seen the Alps and just as nothing can prepare you for the feeling of experiencing a Nazi death camp, nor can anything prepare you for the breathtaking beauty of the alps in Autumn for the first time.
After our weekend and on the way back home I am exhausted from what I have seen, the pendulum of emotion swings on its spectrum; from the worst of humanity, to the best of nature. A new symphony of powerlessness and insignificance has been added to my life’s soundtrack.