Thursday, July 2, 2015

Munich: Dachau

Ever since I was a school girl and first heard about the Concentration Camps of WW2 I have been interested in visiting the site of one of these Hells on earth, if only in an attempt to understand how such a place could come into existence. As Munich was the last stop on our trip, and Dachau a 20 minute train ride from Munich, it seemed like it would be, well, easy, for lack of a better word.
And so I planned and looked up timetables and read accounts of visits. I told myself that we would only see the parts of the camp where we felt comfortable and could, of course, skip the really horrific parts, if need be.


On the train there we passed through perfect little German suburbs where all the houses looked like Playmobil pieces. Women pushed strollers, men in suits walked and talked on the their mobiles, a delivery truck rolled by with its cargo of lumber organized in perfect stacks in the back. As we got closer to Dachau, leafy trees, green through the sunlight stood peacefully around manicured gardens while flocks of birds lined up neatly on power lines. Restaurants and banks, post offices and apartment building – it was all so normal. I don’t know what I expected – it’s a bustling town with a population of 40000. Still, I felt apprehension about going.

The train pulled into the station and we crossed the road to board a bus. Through the trees I could see a barbed wire fence. 10 feet high and topped with something nasty, it ran down the length of the road separating us from another area of manicured lawns and white painted buildings. I could just make out a sign saying something or other was ‘verboten’ (forbidden); I was confused. What was this? It looked like a restricted area, but I could also see men in uniforms walking down pathways. My stomach turned again as I tried to figure out what I was seeing. More on that later.


10 minutes later, just past the kindergarten and the dentist office, and around the corner from the supermarket and a hair salon, the bus pulled up to the entrance to the memorial site. By now I was really feeling some anxiety about what I might be seeing over the next couple of hours, feelings which were amplified by the arrival of several tour buses of school children. Here in Bavaria, all school children are required to visit a concentration camp at least once. I think half of them were here on this Tuesday morning, their teachers obviously having waited until the end of the school year to fit this trip in. I tried to ignore their giggles and swaggers and went into the visitor centre where we picked up our audio guides and were also handed maps with an aerial photo of the entire site. Turns out the prisoner area at Dachau comprised only a small percentage of the overall camp, with the majority of the site taken up by what was then SS and Gestapo officer quarters and facilities, and now belongs to the German Riot Police. There is some irony there but in my state of anxiety I couldn’t  put my finger on why that disturbed me except to say that clearly, German efficiency did not die with the fall of the Third Reich. Why let a good set of buildings go to waste, no matter what actually went on there…


The day was hot – already close to 30 degrees by 11am – which did nothing to calm my nerves as we set out past the first watchtower to follow the pre-determined path of signboards, and audio listening points.


Prisoners arriving at Dachau arrived mostly by train. The original station has been torn down but tracks are still present and part of the original road.


I could feel the weight of all those souls who arrived here, terrified and unsure of their surroundings and their future, literally torn from their families, pressing down on me as I walked toward the gate. I was also starting to wonder if I should be there at all: was I just some middle class white chick from thousands of miles and decades away trying to placate some sick sense of curiosity? Or was it responding to something else: a sense of obligation to walk where they walked, and pay some respect to lives lost during what was truly one of the horrors of the 20th century? The sensation of being out of touch with my own motivation mixed with the growing feeling of discomfort and distress at what I was seeing was not a good one but I carried on to the gate at the entrance to the prisoner confinement area.


Work will set you free.

I could only imagine the depth of pain and suffering felt by the prisoners once they realized where they were, and how untrue this statement actually was. I tried to do a check in with the girls and my mum to see how everyone was managing, but for them, the heat was the main problem so we walked across the roll call area – a huge square where prisoners were made to stand in all manner of weather and conditions, often for hours at a time - to the entrance to the museum. There is a rare photo here of a group of men taken during roll call while the prison was still open.


Such is the humiliation on their faces.

Degradation was one of the main tactics employed by the guards here at Dachau, a practice that soon spread to other camps as well. As one of the first concentration camps to be set up, Dachau soon became a model for the running of the other camps in the Regime and the technique of imposing strict rules, using humiliation, degradation and physical torture became trademark methods of maintaining complete rule over the prisoners.

We crossed to the museum, which is held in the original prisoner centre. This building housed the bathhouses and intake areas where prisoners were processed. I hard a hard time getting past my understanding of what had actually taken place within these walls let alone browse exhibits with the hordes of other tourists, but I did find these maps interesting. The first one depicts the number of prisoner camps in the immediate vicinity of Dachau, in case we were all under the misconception that there was just the one.


The second map shows the total number of Camps that could be found all over Europe. The Nazis imprisoned citizens from 30 different countries for ‘crimes’ ranging from being gay, to being Roma, Sinti, a political activist, or, of course, Jewish. It’s mind-blowing to see the shear number of camps. Most of us can name three or four if we really think about it, but there were thousands of work camps all over Germany and occupied countries.


It was about this time that I started to feel irrationally suspicious of some of the Germans working at the site. Who were their grandparents? What had they known about what was going on? How could they walk around with smiles on their faces? And what about those cars and trucks driving down the road on the other side of the barbed wire fence? Had it become normal for them to pass by this place everyday? It was another unpleasant emotion to add to the growing number I was feeling, and not one I was proud of either.

We left the museum without seeing all of it (I was really starting to get the picture and I was also conscious of how much two young teenage girls could handle) and walked across the roll call area to the prisoner barracks. We’ve likely all seen pictures of them before and they were as devoid and barren as could be expected.


Most of the barracks have been destroyed: only two remain today, but the site of where the others stood stretches back the length of the remaining area. We walked to the end in the blistering heat, seeking shade from the row of poplar trees that lines the road down the middle. Concrete blocks bearing the number of the barracks are still there, as is a section of the barbed wire perimeter wall that lines the entire enclosure.


There are a number of chapels and religious buildings down at this far end of the site and we spent a few minutes in one of them to escape the heat and catch our thoughts. We had one area left to visit and that was the crematorium. We could have left the site at this point without going in to this final part of the memorial and I was feeling sick enough that I would have done so, but a group discussion was in order and it was decided that we should at least walk down the path in that direction. It seemed that everyone else had the same idea as us as German schoolchildren swarmed the pathway, laughing and giggling, fiddling with their hair and hats, shoving each other into trees and off the path.

The Memorial Site signage claims that these crematoriums were rarely, if ever used, but first-hand prisoner accounts tell a different story. It was these voices I could hear as we approached the site



I was, by now, quite nauseous and could feel myself break out into a cold sweat. Posters on the wall in the first room I entered showed hundreds of corpses piled up in that very room. Images were taken by the US army shortly after liberation and one of the posters is of residents of Dachau being forced to view the dead bodies by members of the US Army. The girls were interested in this: why would they make them look? We had a good discussion later on about how most of the German population at the time had no idea and this was the only way for the US army to make them understand what had happened under their noses.


Already feeling quite ill, I should have skipped the next room but I didn’t really even understand that I was about to enter an actual gas chamber until it was too late. I stood in the door way and could feel the throngs of people pushing behind me. I stepped in, and looked up.

It was too much. At which point did it become ok to tramp through a murder site? It makes me feel ill just to look at the blurry picture I accidentally took while trying to get out and which I am definitely not posting here. I could see a young family wandering around behind me, a little girl of 7 or 8 counting the ‘shower heads’ in the ceiling, her mother and father consulting a map. I wanted to rip it out of their hands and slap them with it, then yell at all the teenagers who were too busy being teenagers to have some respect. Could we at least all be quiet? How about not letting people into this space at all? If we must, then we can all stand outside and look in but walking through this place of such horror should be, in my humble opinion, forbidden.

I really didn’t want to be sick in there either and it was becoming a real possibility, so I got myself out, gathered my family and told them it was time to go. White faces confirmed this and we all walked back to the visitor centre in silence.

It was harrowing, and I was still not sure why I had gone, until I saw this.


And that, of course, is why we went.

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