This summer, my wife was transferred to her company’s Munich branch and I, being the dutiful, occupationally-challenged high school teacher on my first summer vacation, followed her. The German people are amazing, their way of life makes sense, social rules and norms are rational and seem designed to decrease conflicts between its people. The food is phenomenal, the beer is breathtaking, and the city is magical.
While my wife worked in her accounting firm’s Munich office, I had the pleasant opportunity of playing Jack Kerouac through Europe for an entire six weeks. I hopped on trains, wandered through European city and village streets, met amazing people and had the best human interactions with strangers who did not share the same language as myself.
It was, in no doubt, the most amazing experience of my life in the most beautiful city I have ever seen.
Of all my European pilgrimages, one stands out above the rest: Dachau Concentration Camp.
As a bibliophiliac child and teenager I would pilfer my father’s bookshelves. Ever the World War II buff, his stacks were filled with biographies, wartime chronologies, and historical texts of the war. But I was always drawn to those of the Holocaust. The photos haunted me. The stories riveted me. I couldn’t fathom the levels of degradation that one group could impose upon another.
If there is an epicenter of human suffering and sorrow, if there is a apogee of murderous inhumanity, it is the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. They stand as testaments of what we become when fear leads to either blind faith in government or religion, or when hateful rhetoric becomes our prime motivator. They are living gravestones memorializing, not just the victims, but also the sins of those who pulled triggers, locked gas chamber doors, or, perhaps more appallingly, turned blind eyes.
To paranormal investigators, nothing stands more savory, but perfectly sacrilegious, than an investigation at these camps. Many investigators believe that paranormal activity occurs when human events have connected emotional investments — whenever there is confusion on top of sadness on top of hate on top of pain, you will find activity. The status and histories of the camps cause our inner-investigator to salivate, and, if it were any place but a concentration camp, groups would be lining up at the doors for a single night in such a charged arena. But, while death camps possess all of the ingredients for a haunting, many investigators respectfully decline or turn away from the opportunity to set up inside these hallowed grounds.
The paranormal experiences at these camps dangle before us like some ghostly carrots, and none more than those at Auschwitz in Poland. Consistently referred to as one of the world’s most haunted locations, people report feelings multiple cold spots while wandering the fields, a sense of dread and sadness overcomes them as they enter the gates. Some even claim to feel the hands of apparitions hold onto their own as they walk through what was once the children’s centers or the gas chamber. People burst into tears upon entering and cannot contain themselves until hours after they leave. Some claim that birds do not enter the camp, and in the rare times that they do, they do not sing.
And yet, to this day, no professional paranormal group has ever conducted an investigation at any of the camps from World War II. Despite Auschwitz and other camps being the wet dream of a paranormal investigators, we stand back out of respect for all the lives destroyed, the people who survived and the families still reeling from loss.
My most important solitary pilgrimage while in Europe was to walk the grounds of a concentration camp. The city of Dachau is only 16 km away from downtown Munich, just on the outskirts of the city. And, although not considered a “death camp” as Auschwitz is known, the land that once housed over a 200,000 prisoners and absorbed the blood of approximately 25,000 people still echoed with the atrocities and horrors afflicted by human being upon human being.
The liberating American troops were so appalled by what they witnessed at KZ Dachau, the state of its prisoners and unethical treatments, that many Nazi guards were lined up along the “death walls” of the camp and executed in the same manner as thousands of Jews: a single bullet into the head.
Once again, hate trumps morality.
I took the S-Baun train out of Munich and into Dachau. Dachau is, and has been, for nearly a thousand years before it hosted the infamous concentration camp, an artists’ town. Paintings containing images of sorrow and guilt hang in local shops. The town redesigned itself with a “running water” theme; man-made waterfalls and streams pass through town in a symbolic effort of cleaning itself of its sin and recent history. Dachau is in a constant state of attempted redemption.
Upon exiting the train station, the first thing a passenger will notice is a large memorial to the thousands of prisoners who were unloaded at the same station that he or she stands in, a nod to the hundreds of thousands who were shipped to Dachau or other camps throughout Europe. To get to the camp, you must walk the same pathways that the prisoners walked, and within every 500 feet you come to a marker with a tragic and historic footnote.
The site where the deathwagon would await the two prisoners allowed to wheelbarrow the dead bodies no incinerated inside the camp to be taken away. The site where the original gate was located, a place where families wept behind while their loved ones disintegrated inside. The wall where a city billboard was in place just before arriving at the gate — the billboard was full of anti-Semitic rhetoric — one last slap in the face before you entered the camp. All are marked.
By the time I reached the camp and walked through the outer gates that kept thousands of prisoners locked until their deaths, my heart was melting. Walking into the camp may have been one of the most horrific experiences in my life. My sunglasses did nothing to hide the streams of tears that ran down my cheeks, my iPod’s shuffle of Explosions in the Sky/Mogwai did nothing to stop me from hearing the cries of the people standing next to me, and, even though it was a warm day, my jacket did nothing to stop the shivering down my spine at each mass grave, or the decrepit foundations of the uncountable number of barracks that each held hundreds of humans.
Out of respect, I removed my earphones yet found it difficult to listen to the intended silence. Nobody talks here. Nobody answers cell phones here. No cars honk their horns in the neighboring streets. No one does anything besides think and mourn.
My paranormal mind never turned on or attempted to tune in to anything that could be documented. There is no need to search for ghosts at Dachau or the other concentration camps throughout, not just Europe, but the world. I didn’t analyze my photographs for shadow people or anything of the sort, nor did I consider turning on my digital recorder to preserve some long but not-forgotten voice from our past.
It is in these places that the dead speak to everyone who is willing to listen. They speak through bullet holes in camp walls, they speak through smoke stained crematory chimneys stretching high into the air like gravestones, they speak to us through stained wooden slabs that were once beds, and piles of dirt shoved into corners as the only markers of the thousands of people who were buried there.
At Auschwitz and other concentration camps as Dachau, there is no need for a paranormal investigation. In these locations, it is not a matter of seeing if ghosts can communicate with the living; it is matter of deciphering what they are already trying to say.