Dachau

I probably should have looked at the map.

For some reason though, I was feeling overconfident, thinking that I could intuit the route to my destination, that there might be signs or something, or flocks of people to follow. There weren’t, and as I got farther and farther from the train station, I became indifferently lost, in no rush at all. So I wandered around this sleepy suburb, wondering what it would be like to live there, looking for the humanity in it all.

Dachau, if I recall correctly, is an ordinary town, a generic suburb like any other. There are restaurants and schools, churches and homes, most of which are not particularly interesting, or even charming, at least for an outsider like myself. Parts of it felt incredibly familiar, reminiscent of my own hometown, a feeling that intensified when two children joined me on my route. Like my brother and I walking home from school when we were young, these kids had overly heavy backpacks and not much concern for getting anywhere quickly. At times they’d run ahead, as if racing one another, but suddenly stopping to pick up a rock or a stick or to simply entertain the world around them. It caught me off guard – how normal it all felt.

Did they know what those train rails had once been used for?
Did they notice how all the tourists never smile?
Did they realize how exceptional their quiet hometown is?

There were two things that I learned that day, while I tried to find my way around Dachau. First, life goes on – it has to. There comes a time when the bravest thing to do is to let life happen again. This in itself is a kind of resistance against this world’s darkness.

But I also learned that humankind’s worst moments can happen in the most ordinary of places. Sometimes atrocities happen with very little fanfare, while the normal people – the onlookers in plain sight – pay little attention to what’s happening behind those gates.

I remembered this again the other day – five years later – as I walked from the train platform to the arrivals entrance at Philadelphia International Airport, to protest the ban on refugees. There was a man in a suit walking the opposite direction of the protestors, rolling a suitcase behind him. Of course, this is an airport, and he just happened to have booked a flight on a weird day. While we had signs and banners, all this man had was a legal pad, probably pulled from his bag, upon which he had hastily scrawled “never forget.”

It’s been said before, but it should be said over and over again: there are people – moms and dads, grandparents and children, students and workers, who are fleeing violence that the United States has often exacerbated. They’ve given up everything that they have, everything that’s familiar to them, and years of their lives, with the hope that one day they will be safe in a new home. There are dozens of economic, legal, political, and practical reasons why this ban is problematic, but when all is said and done, it’s quite simple: there is no conscionable way to deny these refugees entrance to this land of the free and home of the brave.

And when our administration tells us that they’ll prioritize Christians, we can never forget. When they say that this is for our safety, for the good of the whole, we can never forget. When the numbers show that it really doesn’t affect that many people anyway, only a few – we can never forget. History has taught us that what starts as a few can quickly escalate, and little edicts like this one can pave the way for grander changes.

Because atrocities don’t happen with fanfare – they start with rhetoric and excuses. We cannot be mere onlookers. This is our time to never forget.

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