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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

As we stood at the wrought-iron gate to the Dachau Concentration Camp and Memorial Site, my wife and I exchanged nods. Our two daughters, nine and 10 years old, peered into the sunlit grounds. We took the girls’ hands and walked through the shadowed arch together.

Earlier that morning at our dive hotel in Munich, the girls watched an episode of German-dubbed Peppa Pig, excited to feel a semblance of home after four months backpacking with their crazy parents. They’d been to giant Buddha statues in the jungles of Sri Lanka, toured the crowded Vatican museum and been coerced into hikes through the Julian Alps of Slovenia. Now they’d been told that, on this particular day, they’d be visiting an important war site. A solemn one.

Visiting Dachau was my real reason for putting Munich on the itinerary. It was the first and longest-running concentration camp, used as a training centre for SS guards. From its opening in 1933 to its liberation in 1945, over 200,000 people were incarcerated there, many of them dying within its walls. Dachau was the template for the thousands of other camps opened during the Second World War. My urge to visit – to stand witness – was strong.

But what about our kids? Should we expose them to this experience? My wife and I knew the memorial site recommended children under 12 take a pass, warning that “the display material could disturb them.” We had many whispered post-bedtime discussions while the girls slept beside us. Ultimately, we decided to go and make a decision at the entrance.

This was our reasoning: Both girls had recently read the diary of Anne Frank, a book that had them buzzing with questions. Why was Anne hiding? Where did she go when she was arrested? What is a concentration camp? Why did she and most of her family die before the war ended? With their curiosity driving family conversation, my wife and I found they were able to handle darker subject matter. But, like with any parenting decision, we knew there were risks. What if something they saw at Dachau traumatized them?

Two long rectangular barracks drew us across the gravel expanse. Behind them stood a series of 30 identical concrete foundations running back to a wall topped with coiled barbed wire. These were the blocks where political prisoners lived. I walked ahead to have a quick look. Inside, a group of teenagers listened intently to their tour guide. I stood hushed as they craned their necks to see the rows of cramped bunks. The girls can handle this, I thought.

I came back out into the throngs of students and gave a thumbs up. We crowded in and found a spot to read about conditions in the barracks, which the girls noticed were set up in three distinct ways. The first room replicates conditions from 1933 to 1937, before the expansion of 1938, shown in the second. The third room – the most powerful – stopped us in our tracks. Disastrous overcrowding in 1944 led to a three-tiered, inhumane wooden bunk box design. It exuded suffering. The girls looked on wide-eyed, incredulous that human beings, hundreds of them, had once been forced to live there.

We all took deep drafts of fresh air as we left the barracks and ambled down the poplar-lined path between foundations. Our youngest daughter pointed at a guard tower and asked what it was. The concept of being held against one’s will, trapped without the hope of escape, seemed to grab her. It made no sense. “Why?” she asked.

“Why” was the question of the day, and it was the terrifying walls of Dachau that provided clues, cryptic as they were. Being there, feeling the helplessness, walking the same gravel the prisoners walked – this would be the lasting imprint of our family visit.

We knew immediately that the crematorium would be off-limits to the girls. This disturbing area my wife and I toured separately, saying little to each other afterward. The museum, too, was rife with graphic imagery, so we limited the girls to the main lobby, where we stood dumbstruck in front of an enormous map of Europe. The girls quickly found Dachau amongst the 44,000 dots that stood in for the camps and subcamps of the Third Reich. The sheer scope shocked us all.

A dark oily cloud slid across the sky as we approached the statue that dominates the Roll Call Square where prisoners were forced to stand each morning. The girls understood the symbolism immediately. In the tangle of thick black barbed wire are human figures, twisted and caught, unable to move. This piece of artwork, installed years after Dachau’s liberation, seemed to drive our experience home. We hugged the girls and felt the sadness together, sharing a visceral need to get away.

Did we do the right thing? Was this a parenting no-no? I’m not sure of much, but I am sure that a decision like this should be grounded in full agreement. Parents know their kids best. When there’s open dialogue at home – and let me tell you, backpacking leads to 24-hour dialogue, for better or worse – with an onus on curiosity, where discussion is open and honest, where learning lessons from history is encouraged, risks like touring a concentration camp can be calculated. Even still, doubt lingers.

We found another group of students gathered around their teacher outside the entrance gate. In Germany, every student visits a place like this. It’s in their national curriculum. They face history head-on because they have to, if only to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. I thought about the lessons both girls have learned about residential schools back in Canada, even at their ripe young ages. Education is about shining light, especially in the darkest places.

On our walk back to the train station, the girls found a riverside playground and ran for it. A minute later they started yelling, calling us over with frantic excitement. They’d found an in-ground trampoline, some cool German contraption we’d never see at home. There was room for the four of us, so we got on and got busy. Soon we were all blissfully airborne, jumping for pure joy. No words were necessary – we were free. Thankfully free.

RC Shaw lives in Cow Bay, N.S.

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