I was flipping through a stack of old black-and-white photographs this weekend at a local scrap store, when this photo stopped me cold. All of the other photos were of architectural landmarks, obviously in Europe. All were clearly taken by the same person with the same camera and the same good eye for detail. None had any identifying marks of any kind. But this building looked familiar.
If you hadn’t seen this building before, you’d think it was unremarkable. Its purpose is unclear—it looks like any outbuilding might on any old estate in Europe. It even vaguely resembles a horse stable. Until you see the chimney. At first I thought I was mistaken at my recognition, until I saw the next photo.
This photo was unmistakable. If you look behind the three poles, you can see the cement marker numbering 21. That long rectangular plot of ground was where barracks number 21 once stood in the Dachau concentration camp. There were 31 other barracks just like it, each designed to hold 200 prisoners. One of the four remaining guard towers still stands in the photo, silently testifying as to what happened there. The barracks may be gone, but the past lingers here. The museum exhibits tell the story of the people and the inhumanity that occurred at the camp. The prison cells feel evil. The crematorium seems small for the outsized task it executed.
The photographer also captured the Catholic and Protestant memorials erected at the camp. If they photographed the Jewish memorial, that photo has been lost to time.
Dachau opened to the public in 1965, the Protestant memorial was consecrated in 1967 (the Catholic one in 1960), and color photography became widely available in the 1970s, so it seems likely the unknown photographer visited the camp in the late 1960s. There were no people in the other dozens of photos I left behind, so their origin will remain a mystery. While I took my own photos of the camp, it didn’t seem right to leave these photos unknown and unmarked in a shoebox in a secondhand store, so I brought them home for 45 cents apiece. I have no idea what I’ll do with them. I don’t think they should be displayed. But at least they’re no longer abandoned and forgotten. We must never forget what happened there, and we must vow, “Never again.”
“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” —Elie Wiesel