Arbeit macht frei. 

Three simple words. Separate, harmless. Together, lethal.

These three words are why I’ll never stop traveling.

It means work makes you free, but it was a mockery. A cruel irony.

These words haunted prisoners as they entered the gates of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

“What does it mean? Free from what?” they must have wondered.

But then from inside, behind the gates and the barbed wire enclosures, beneath the imposing guard towers, the crushing answer came as the words continued to taunt their victims, whose bodies grew weaker from exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease with each passing day.

For most, it was not freedom, but rather death — torturous death — that awaited them. When all was said and done, over 10 million people — the majority Jews — had been exterminated in the world’s largest act of genocide.

Heidelberg Schloss, Germany

Ellen, age 15, at the Schloss Heidelberg (Heidelberg Castle) in Germany.

It was the summer after my freshman year and like any high school student would, I was looking forward to being on my own, making my own decisions for a few weeks, and exploring a world outside my laid-back, mid-western hometown. Of course I was never really on my own. My high school German teacher and a few classmates were traveling with me. Nonetheless, I had never traveled independently of my parents before, and I was feeling quite grown-up.

Little did I know, but this trip would bring me face-to-face with a very adult reality that I wasn’t sure I was ready for.

If you’ve been following this site for awhile, you’re probably aware that I hold my father responsible for my addiction — ahem, love — for travel. The summer after my freshman year of high school, he insisted on sending me on a trip to Europe — Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein — through the German program at my school. I had been studying German for three years at that point, and we felt it would be a good opportunity for me to see a bit of the world while also getting to use my German language skills. 

The tour explored various parts of southern Germany, including the Alps, the Black Forest, and the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, as well as locations throughout Switzerland and Austria. The final leg of our journey, however, involved a visit to Dachau, one of the Nazi concentration camps outside of Munich.

It’s not like I had never heard of the Holocaust. I watched countless videos in school documenting its horrors. It was awful. I knew that.

But yet, somehow, it never quite seemed real to me; I felt so disconnected from it.

That is, until I arrived at Dachau.

Suddenly I found myself standing on the very ground where such unthinkable atrocities occurred. And what once seemed like only history now seemed like the harsh reality that it truly was.

I slowly made my way through the museum, where Dachau’s history was documented in detail.  The most shocking artifact was the clothing worn by the prisoners.

It was sobering to wonder, “To whom did those exact clothes belong? Did they live, or did they die?” I tried hard not to think about it.

I continued on, touring the re-constructed barracks where prisoners piled on top of one another to keep warm at night. I strolled the grounds where prisoners would have been worked literally to death, some falling down in the very places I passed over.

“How could anyone ever kill someone — let alone kill millions — on the basis of perceived ethnic superiority?” I wondered.

As I soberly strolled the grounds of Dachau, I felt as though the Holocaust had only just happened, though it ended more than sixty years earlier.

But the blood spilled on this ground still smelled fresh, and I knew now that I could never stop traveling.

It was at Dachau that I learned travel is the most powerful history lesson one can experience.

Travel brings history to life. It contextualizes events that seem so distant. Travel makes history personal.

And when history becomes personal, it has the power to influence our actions.

It has the power to affect change.

Since my visit to Dachau, I have had dozens of life-changing experiences through travel.

I have worked with orphaned children in Uganda whose communities were destroyed by years of rebel fighting and kidnapping.

I have held children with HIV.

I have befriended Muslim women in Egypt whose faces beamed with joy as they removed their veil and their true personalities shone through.

I have stood before the freshly fallen rubble of the World Trade Center towers and watched as rescue workers desperately searched for survivors amid the destruction.

I have climbed to the tops of Mayan temples throughout Central America and gazed out over miles of dense, impenetrable jungle.

I have seen buildings destroyed by mortars in Bosnia Herzegovina.

I have walked through tent cities filled with peace demonstrators in London, Madrid, and Washington, D.C.

And as I write this, I am sitting in China, gazing out the window at one of the world’s most ancient and powerful civilizations, steeped in history, culture, and significance.

Each of these experiences has helped me to understand the world just a little bit more and to recognize my own small place in it.

I don’t travel just because it is fun.

I don’t travel to cross experiences off a list or to give myself something to talk about in social settings.

I travel to meet people who are nothing like me.

I travel to learn how the rest of the world lives.

I travel to be challenged.

I travel to be changed.

And as long as it still has that effect on me, I will never stop traveling.


What is one experience you have had while traveling that left you forever changed?



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