The lesson of Dachau

Lamentations 1:12 King James Version: Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow, which is done to me, with which the Lord has afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.

On our several tours to Germany, we singers in United Voices of Praise, a multiracial gospel choir, were housed in the homes of parishioners of host churches. When we visited the beautiful city of Cologne, my bride and I were guests in the home of Hartmut and Edda Linsel, musicians and teachers.

Our acquaintance with the Linsels swiftly blossomed into friendship that led to multiple shared travel adventures together through the years, both in Europe and in the United States. Once a choir tour officially ended, and the singers headed to the airport to return to their homes in the States, the Linsels loaded us into their car for a week of travel together to sites across Germany, Belgium and France. All were memorable, but none lingers in my memory more clearly than our visit to Munich and its small neighboring community called Dachau.

An American tourist might expect to assume that Germans of older generations remain somewhat sensitive to their nation’s history of the Holocaust and its horrors. But Hartmut and Edda understood Americans’ fascination with that period and generously suggested that we visit the notorious concentration camp together.

Edda had booked us into a comfortable pension where we would spent the night before touring the concentration camp. Our second-story bedroom window looked down on railroad tracks curving through a wooded area. I couldn’t help but wonder where they led.

The next morning, we visited the camp. We saw high fences topped with rusty barbed wire, row upon row of long buildings that housed thousands of prisoners. Barred windows and an abandoned watch tower reminded one that the only escape was death. In one of the buildings, I was brought up short when I saw a crude wooden table to which prisoners were manacled for whipping. Its image is burned into my memory.

We spent a couple of hours touring the place solemnly on foot, then silently trudged back to the Linsels’ car to search for lunch. The town of Dachau on that sunny summer day in the mid-1990s offered us a charming, peaceful appearance. Many of its residents these days enjoy low-stress suburban living a short commute from their jobs in the larger city of Munich, an easy drive of a few kilometers. During World War II, we were told, Dachau’s residents went about their lives blissfully unaware of what was happening in that large camp just outside of town. If they knew, no one talked about it. Life goes on.

Today, as we remember the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for reasons I can’t explain, I am drawn back to that visit to Dachau. Dr. King taught us what it means to take that next step, to go beyond noticing and acknowledging what is happening to ourselves and others. He — and our visit to Dachau — taught us to summon the courage to go further to do what we can to fix what is broken and to heal ourselves and others.





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