I’d gone back and forth when planning this trip about whether to even go to Dachau (about a half-hour by train/bus from Munich), and in the end we decided that we’d go. I have to say I think it was the right decision, however depressing the entire thing was.
The guided tour left at 9:30am – it was a group of about 10 people and the guide, a Scotsman from Glasgow called Joseph. He was really great – striking an admittedly difficult balance between hitting you over the head with awful statistics and also personalizing the trauma that each individual who went through the camp must have experienced. (He ended up asking me if I was okay a couple of times, and saying he could “tone it down” a bit, but I told him not to – that I didn’t think it should be sanitized.)
Dachau was the first concentration camp, opened in 1933, and primarily not an execution destination but rather a work camp. Certainly, thousands died there – but it was from being worked or tortured to death rather than herded into gas chambers as was the case at places like Auschwitz. (It was a relatively few 32,000 who perished at Dachau, compared to more than a million people who were murdered at Auschwitz.) Interestingly, the reason that the execution camps weren’t in Germany is that Hitler’s government had made it illegal to commit euthanasia within the country after the German people loudly declared they were opposed to euthanasia. (Of course, it was hardly euthanasia that was being committed, but that’s how the Nazis were billing what they were doing – killing those who were unfit to work or who were too ill. How they got to be unfit to work or that ill was entirely beside the point.) Dachau was also the map upon which all other concentration camps were built, and where everyone who worked in one was trained.
It’s hard to describe the place and accurately the feeling of it – it’s a museum, it’s a learning experience, and it’s a gravesite. As our guidebook points out, the lovely garden area around the crematorium is fertile because of the ash that poured out of the chimneys for years. I suppose one could walk through the museum or around the grounds and not be paying attention, in which case it wouldn’t be a difficult experience. But why would you go if you were just going to treat it like a place to stroll around? I was somber when we arrived (walking through the gate marked, “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work will make you free” – which the guide pointed out was only readable from the outside – it was backwards to the people who were prisoners there), and it wasn’t until we reached the point in the museum with the actual whipping bench used on prisoners that it felt real to me. Sure, the pictures were horrible, and the buildings had seen atrocities, but to see this otherwise un-noteworthy piece of furniture with the whip marks on one side just brought everything into focus. We were standing in the room that was used as the bathing room, and also as a place for punishments (including the whipping bench). There are photographs there depicting the room as it was in the years during Dachau’s operation, so you could see the shallow-faced emaciated prisoners standing in the place you were standing. It was chilling.
The entry gate, reading "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Will Make You Free"), as seen from the outside of the camp. The fact that it read backwards from the inside is testament to the lies being told to outsiders about what was really happening inside these gates.
It was in front of this punishment bench that I started crying. The punishments here were psychological as well as physical - prisoners were forced to count out the blows themselves, and if they stopped or miscounted the captors would start over again at one.
The barracks were all destroyed by the Allied forces, as disease (particularly typhus) ran rampant through the camp, but two barracks have been built on the footprints of two original barracks and they have examples of what the beds would have been like in the different periods. The crematoriums are both still intact, and the ovens still there – with the doors open. There’s a room next to one of the oven rooms where bodies were piled up when the Allied forces arrived, because the death rate had increased so much they had run out of coal to burn the bodies. Local farmers carted the bodies away and buried them in mass graves in the town of Dachau.
The new crematorium and its ovens - the old one, across the courtyard, had only two ovens and the deaths soon outpaced the captors' ability to burn the bodies. This new crematorium also contained a gas chamber.
There are mixed reports about whether the gas chambers at Dachau were ever put into use. Most accounts say they were not, and the one account that says they were isn’t reliable enough to be counted on as fact. Either way, they were certainly exactly like every other gas chamber at every other concentration camp, and no doubt served an intimidation purpose even if they never killed a single human being.
The camp was surrounded by electrified barbed wire, and within that was a deep ditch and then a strip of land called the “death strip,” where prisoners would be shot dead by guards in the six lookout towers. The guide told us there were many prisoners who would run into the death strip on purpose, as that was one of the surest ways to commit suicide. He also said there was a slang term for prisoners who would sneak out of their barracks in the middle of the night to get to the electrified fence and commit suicide that way – they called it “going to the wire.”
I’m re-reading what I’ve written here so far, and it isn’t coming close to conveying the oppressive air, the ashy smell near the crematorium, the knowledge that the trees lining the main “road” between the barracks were much smaller in 1933, the feeling that there are thousands of eyes watching – and hoping their message is clear. It was a cold, damp and rainy day, and it was appropriate. I can’t imagine that any summer day – or any other day – spent at Dachau was happy.
The motto of the museum is “Never Again” – the idea being that by continuing to acknowledge and learn about what happened that we won’t let it happen again. But as the guide pointed out, it has happened again – Cambodia, Rwanda, Serbia, and now Darfur. It raises the sad but necessary question – what on earth will it take for this to truly never happen again?
A tip if you plan a trip to a concentration camp – keep in mind it’s not a “fun” thing, and ought to be treated with the respect afforded to any cemetery. And even though my eyes are still a wee bit red, I’m glad we went. I picked up a pebble from the pathway outside the crematorium that I plan to put on a grave in the Jewish cemetery in Prague next week.
After the tour we came back to Munich and while we were at the train station we got our reservations for our Monday trip to Prague (only two direct trains – 6:44am and 2:30pm… We’re taking the early one…), and found out the schedule for trains to Salzburg on Sunday. Walking back we got absolutely soaked in a torrential downpour. It had been drizzly on and off all day, but this was serious rain – the kind where the drops look like they’re made of milk, they’re so big. Got back to the hotel and out of drenched clothes. We relaxed for a bit, I posted to the blog (until the wireless connection went away), and napped. Then we had dinner at the place our Munich friends said would have been their “Plan B” if it’d been raining – Weisses Brauhaus, a place that Hitler and his fascist cronies apparently hung out in 1920. The food was good, though the portions were much larger than I could handle. I did finally have some veggies (side salad with dinner), though, which was a nice change of pace. I don’t mind not having salad in places like Italy and France where the meals include veggies, but I’m finally starting to understand Mom’s craving for “something green” on our trip last year…
Chris plans to do laundry early in the morning on Sunday, and then we’ll take a day-trip to Salzburg around 11am. And then we’ll repack and drag our behinds to the train early on Monday for the 7-hour trip to Prague…