Our Town: A Return To Dachau

8 min readNov 1, 2020

It was Christmas time in Munich and it was an amazing visit. The region feels as if it is as close to the source of Santa’s workshop as one can be, because the Christmas spirit with all of the trappings of Christmas are so beautiful, friends laughing over mulled wine their breath visible in the cold, the ringing of the cathedral bells, the snow peacefully falling on the Christmas markets…

In addition to visiting the beautiful city of Munich, we took a day trip to the memorial site of the Dachau Concentration Camp. I was last there in 2000…19 1/2 years ago. It was a must-see on my European summer travels and even now, 19 years later I remembered most of what I learned as if it were yesterday. I remembered the portable Catholic Alter in a suitcase, the execution area, where sometimes they had 3 people in every bed… but this time my visit was totally different.

When I was here in 2000, I was fresh out of university with a degree in Psychology and Literature so the holocaust loomed large in my studies… I was amazed, flabbergasted by a historic event that I processed as an aberration in history, something that other people did, it was in the past, all of the images were black and white, I constantly wondered what were THEY thinking

The propaganda was blatantly racist and hateful and they just believed it, THEY must have been a gullible and hateful people to believe Hitler and the rhetoric he spewed.

But, this time was very different. Given the resurgence of nationalism and racism in our Unites States politics today, the past and the present seemed to merge or at the very least begin to overlap. The propaganda no longer seemed ridiculous, not once did I think, “how could they believe that bullshit!”, as I did 19 years ago. The slippery slope from hateful words and beliefs into hateful actions, torture and murder no longer seemed shocking. I didn’t once look at those black and white images throughout the memorial and relegate them to the past. I could no longer put all of the victims in the same faceless jar for my pity, like faces in a dream.

The faces were now everywhere, human faces fraught with fear and tears. Fathers, mothers, brothers, best friends, lovers… I recognized them not as other or solely from the past, but as familiar as anyone I knew from football practice, supermarket trips and school meetings, coworkers, and neighbors. As I looked at their belongings taken from them upon their arrival which were displayed and encased in glass (photos of their children. wallets, ID), I couldn’t help but see the faces, the lives of my friends of color, my DACA friends, my immigrant friends, my gay friends and think about the rhetoric that echoes through today.

When I think about the SS troops, I was struck by the thought that every one of them went home to dinner after their shifts. They shed their swastica for a tie and went to church on Sundays, washed the blood from thier hands and prayed, and they walked unashamed through the streets in and out of their local grocery store, proud with a paycheck in hand and bread on the table while the camps overflowed with feces, violence, murder and the smoke of human remains…

Arbeit macht frei is a German phrase meaning “Work sets you free.”

But, this time, what hit me the hardest wasn’t even the SS, the organizers or the cruelty of the camp leaders… what hit me is that what I considered as Dachau the camp is in reality Dachau the town. It wasn’t in some remote wilderness hidden from sight, it was a part of the actual town, the community, of Dachau. Dachau wasn’t a random name specific to the camp…it was the town.

While watching the documentary film created by the memorial site, I was so deeply saddened to watch and listen to the words of the residents of Dachau, that the town residents were allowed to act surprised, to be given a pass as if their inaction was any less inhumane than the actual perpetrators of the torture…by all accounts the smell of shit and burning human flesh from the overflowing camp was noticeable for tens of miles.

The nonstop burning and smoke of human remains from a furnace running most hours of the day was clearly visible for miles! Part of what led the Allied troops to it was the putridity of the smell and smoke rising from incineration stacks! Dachau was in operation for over 13 years… nearly twice the lifetime of my son when we visitied. It was allowed to be a part of the town and the local community, brick by brick, delivery by delivery, prisoner by prisoner, load by load into the inferno.

This time, It wasn’t hard for me to imagine at all. Murder and the loss of humanity isn’t the start of the holocaust, loss of human rights isn’t in the act of violation. No, they are first stripped in the hearts and minds of a culture. When we allow the children of asylum seekers to be caged, abused, neglected, separated, operated upon, sterilized and whatever other atrocities that will slowly make it out of the facilities with time…

They are stripped when “those people” need to learn how to act….when unarmed young black boys can be gunned down with protection for the murderers written into government gun laws, when police can walk into a black household and gun down the residents without repercussion and claim the castle doctrine, when a man can be choked to death for nearly 9 minutes of heart wrenching video in the streets for an alleged counterfeit $20 bill, or hunted and shot in the street for looking in a window to an abandoned home under construction… when “bad hombres” are invading our minds. They are stripped when “what-about-ism” masks the real differences of truth, intent and severity and fatigues our capacity to have an open dialogue.

The holocaust happened over years, for more than a decade. Dachau was operating from 1933–1945! It started small and with people who “deserved it”, the lazy, the “deviants”, the “others”, the immigrants. Legitimacy was gained day by day, justification by justification slowly callousing the moral fibers that bound them to their humanity. We believe little by little, that — It’s not me or you, “you’re one of the good ones.” It’s only for “them because they are lazy, addicts, deviants, law breakers, dangerous, don’t listen, becuase they are invading, illegal, and “those people” are taking more than their fair share. They are changing “our” culture, our way of life. “Speak English!!”

Reading the propaganda and legislative records that document the growing nationalism sounded like so many of the conversations I have witnessed at dinner tables and conference rooms when it was safe and white. The hardest thing for me to process is the sadness of these realizations. I was sad to see that people I know walk in the shadow of proud SS troops and apathetic townfolk, just doing their jobs for their families so their kids could go to a “good” school, and they can come home to dinner at night and sing at church on Sunday, only to wake up to their alarm, return back to work, and continue to look the other way.

The Old Crematorium

My final thought is this if you take delight in retorting that “All Lives Matter,” If you profess a “right to life”, if you believe in the preamble of our constitution…and inalienable rights (in — alien — able) …then the color of skin, religion, legal status, and origin are not even part of of the consideration of how a human being is treated… The moment we suggest, excuse or justify that another human isn’t worthy of our decency, of humanity we are laying the foundation of a new Dachau and we will all smell of its smoke.

To see more of my imagery and photography journey visit my new site www.aaronjean.com




Husband, Father, Photographer, Director, Reader, Writer, Fundraiser, Good Cook, Knowledge Addicted — Sold everything in 2017 & moved to Madrid with my family.