My time at Dachau and the stolen entrance gate

By Rich Harwood

Just last week, the infamous main gate through which prisoners were herded into the Nazi death camp Dachau—with the words, “Work will set you free” inscribed on it—was found in Norway after being stolen back in 2013. This was the same entrance gate that I once gently pushed on early one morning, only for it to open, and for me to find myself alone for hours inside this vast site of despair.

I had gone to Germany back in 2011 on a trek with my then 21-year old daughter Emily. As part of that trip, we had traveled to Munich and from there went to Dachau, where we would spend hours together. The scenes were horrific and chilling. Back in Munich for dinner that night, Emily could see that I was deeply unsettled from the Dachau visit. I told her that I was still drawn to the camp; that somehow I still had something more to find there. I was being pulled back to the scene of the inexplicable.

She then gave to me the greatest gift a daughter could ever give her dad. She looked up from her plate, and in her quiet, but firm voice, instructed me to go back to Dachau the next day. This, despite all the plans we had laid out many weeks before for our joyous trip to Germany; this, despite having only a short time in the country. That evening, she told me to take as much time as I needed the next day. She told me not to worry about our plans. She implored me not to consider what she would do to occupy her time.

She just told me to go.

That night I slept in fits and starts, and rose at dawn to catch the earliest train possible back to the death camp. I arrived at the camp by 7 a.m., only to find that it was closed. No one was there. Just stillness. And the sight of the buildings where prisoners were processed and stripped of their dignity and barracks where they would warehouse their lives.

I sat on a stone wall outside the camp and contemplated what to expect that day and struggled with my overwhelming emotions. I wrote for an hour in my journal. But then all of a sudden something came over me and moved me to stand up and then walk down the long path toward the main gate—the gate that read, “Work will set you free.” The gate was shut closed. It appeared locked. But for some reason, I went up to it, and put my hands on it—and then I gently pushed.

It opened. I walked in.

No person was there; just the souls of those who had perished. I made my way to the vast courtyard, where prisoners were once forced to line up each morning and be counted; then again each evening. We know the story: inevitably, the numbers would be fewer from one line-up to the next.

The courtyard was maybe a football field or two large. All dirt. A huge expanse. I slowly made my way to the middle of it, and there, alone, I stood. I just looked out for over an hour, remaining still. At one point, I shut my eyes, I began to chant Hebrew prayers, and tears rolled down my face.

That day, I was in the camp alone for hours before anyone else living appeared. I had many experiences in those first hours alone, and during the ones that followed them, which I will write about at another time. But this week, upon hearing about the return of the gate, I immediately could feel once more my hands upon it as I pushed it open.