A few years ago, following a family visit to the joyful sites and decadent beer halls of Munich, we decided to take the half-hour journey to Dachau Concentration Camp. Walking through the eerie edifices of the longest-running “camp” of The Third Reich was a sobering experience. Every turn told of unspeakable horror. There seemed a shared sadness in the eyes of my fellow visitors: an odd mixture of guilt and grief somehow bestowed upon on us at the thought of the tens of thousands of innocent people who had died in this very place.
It was hard to think clearly. In particular, I was hoping that “the lessons of history” were having an impact on my two sons. The older boy, an avid student of history, was quiet, thoughtful, sombre. But the younger one seemed to be taking the tour in his stride. Even as we walked past extermination ovens and haunting images of humanity brutalised, I could sense that, to him, this was just another museum. After a while, he wandered off on his own, excitedly moving from one ghastly room to another.
Standing outside the gas chambers, I tried to make sense of the spectral horrors that had taken place here. I was reminded of the words of the American poet, Jack Gilbert, who wrote: “The women at Dachau knew they were about to be gassed when they pushed back the Nazi guard who wanted to die with them, saying he must live. And sang for a little while after the doors closed.” It was no wonder my son could not take it all in. Who could?
But, just then, my younger boy returned, wild-eyed with the beginnings of an understanding forming in his expression. He had wandered through the museum alone and made a discovery. “An Irishman died here.” And with that connection to his own country, to a real person – a little like the girl in red who briefly appears in the monochrome world of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List – the horror of Dachau had come home to my son.
An epiphany in Dachau, among the memorials and sadness. All learning is like this. Students need to make personal meaning in order to learn deeply. We shouldn’t tell them what they need to learn – (how often are field trip learnings pre-ordained by the teacher?) – but provide them with the opportunities to discover and make meaning for themselves. To even begin to understand the enormity of 32,000 people being systematically murdered, you need, as in all learning, to start with a powerful connection.