Confronting Dachau - "It Isn't Good"


 

How does an American Jew go to visit the infamous death camp at Dachau?   If one asks "why" the answer is easy - if you can, you have to.  I could.  My yearly trip to Israel would be via Lufthansa with a stopover in Munich.  And Munich is just 45 minutes from Dachau.

The mechanics of the trip are simple.   From Munich, a subway and a bus take you right to the death camp entrance.   But how do you cope psychologically with being in a site which murdered thousands of people, the first of the camps which murdered millions, and which would have murdered you if you had been there 50 years ago.    How could I go, especially alone (my wife couldn't come this year)?  But, I would probably never be in Munich again.  How could I not go?

Though airlines usually help tourists plan their trips, Lufthansa had no information to offer on the subject of Dachau.  But the internet did.  After finding--of all things --web pages about flower and music festivals at the town of Dachau, I finally located the web page for the camp memorial.

I am not a religious person by Israeli standards, but the morning of the visit I put on a kippa (skull cap).  Reactions were interesting.  The concierge at the hotel wouldn't look me in the eye, and brushed off my questions about the subway with a brusque statement that signs at the train station had instructions in English (they didn't).  A few other people looked at me with frank hostility.  

But some Germans were extraordinarily friendly.  One young woman helped me use the subway, and another solicitously showed me how to find the train I needed.

The town of Dachau looked innocent enough, except for that name on the train station signs. The very word--Dachau--evokes memories of torture and death.   How can people live there? The bus station had a sign with the name of the town - Dachau--with McDonald's Golden Arches flanking the town's name--McDonald's Dachau. It sounds like a bad joke.   Does not McDonald's feel embarrassment at its trademark adjoining the name of a Nazi concentration camp?

 

On the bus ride to the concentration camp I felt silent.  The bus was full, mostly with teenagers on a school trip to the camp evidently there as part of their schooling.   Apparently the Germans do try to teach their children about the Shoah, the Holocaust.   I asked one youth what he thought.  "It isn't good" he answered.  Well, maybe he couldn't express himself in English, but I had hoped for a stronger response than that.

They talked and joked. I didn't.

At the bus stop for the memorial, I walked heavily, my legs carrying me as if reluctantly to the campsite.  Inside the campground I felt, not fear or nervousness, but only a weighty solemnity.

 

  The first "attraction" was a U shaped building - originally kitchen, laundry, and one of the locations where prisoners were tortured.  Now it contains offices, an exhibition of photographs with German captions, and a small movie theater.  No trace of the original functions remains.

I didn't stay for the movie.  I've seen enough movies.

 

 

 

From the museum I walked down the left side of the camp. To my right lay rows of elongated rectangles, where the prisoners' barracks had stood - now filled with pebbles.  In front of me stood a guard tower.  To my left stood barbed wire which bordered a ditch which bordered a stretch of grass.  Walking onto that grass was a capitol offense -- the guards would shoot anyone who dared to so trespass. ,

 

 On the left side of the camp stood the gate house by which the prisoners entered the camp fifty years ago.  The wrought iron gate with the infamous sign - Arbeit Macht Frei  (work makes freedom), the same words as on the entrance to the camp at Auschwitz, had survived the decades.  Few signs are as well known.  I took a picture.  How strange to see that sign in actuality.

 The sign was recently stolen, apparently by neo-Nazis, but was returned in February 2017. 

 

 

Crematorium-gas chamber building

 

The gas chamber and cremation ovens, at the far left corner of the campsite, were in a red brick building which looked a little like a standard duplex house.  Inside were three ovens with pallets at the entrance to each.  I could imagine the remains of murdered people placed on those pallets, the last human contact they would have before annihilation, but could not feel any emotion to the thought.  A sign mentions that the rafters above the ovens were used to hang prisoners.   Interesting, but again I could not react.

 

To the left of the ovens a green door led to the inside of the gas chamber.

The Nazi gas chambers were supposedly designed to look like showers so as to avoid frightening prisoners, who would be more difficult to manage than unsuspecting ones.  But this one had minimal resemblance to any shower.   The ceiling was low, and contained several black holes about five inches diameter -- nothing resembling a shower nozzle.  The floor, rectangular dark bricks, had several grates, presumably drains used by the Nazis to wash the "showers" after a batch of murders had been completed.   The walls were of brown stones.  Two small barred rectangular openings close to the floor connected one wall to the outside through about two feet of the stone.  Presumably there was thick glass on both sides of the wall when it was used to kill people.  
                                                               People came and went. I sat down, but couldn't feel anything. At one point I was alone in the gas chamber, thinking that I should react to this horror.  50 years ago, I would not be sitting calmly there.  But I could feel nothing.

I said Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, for the father of a friend who had died in Dachau, but still I could feel nothing.

It is generally accepted that this particular gas chamber was never used.  A sign inside the chamber states just that.   How can one know?  Does one trust the Nazis, that they would tell us?  

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

 

Near the gas chamber was a grave for the "unknown prisoner." I met am elderly man who had been incarcerated in Dachau and came every day to the camp, but that he would not be a teacher for the Germans.  We said Kaddish together for those who had died there.

Nearby is a church.  Dachau has three churches on its grounds. Some think a former Nazi concentration camp is an appropriate place for a church.  I don't.

Church in Dachau

I walked down the right side of the camp, past the remains of the barracks, to one which had been reconstructed - several rooms of sterile wooden bunks which cannot bear any resemblance to the filth and agony of the years when the camp was in use.

Finally, I left the campground, walking slowly back to the bus-stop.  Later that afternoon I visited the Englisher Garten, a huge, exquisite park with streams, meadows, and wooded glades.  I strolled around the old city, with it's promenades, picturesque shops, and Gothic architecture.  Munich presents a beautiful face to its visitors.

Exactly one week later, safely in Israel, I was listening to a choir singing lively folk songs. (One was "Peace will Come to Israel" sung to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.) Suddenly images of the cremation ovens came to my mind.  I started thinking of the gas chambers, and the fact that everyone in the auditorium -- singers, audience -- and me -- would have been fodder for the gas chamber.  I was afraid.

How does an American Jewish boy visit a Nazi death camp?   By numbing out.   That's how I did it.


Click here to see what can palliate to some extent the horrors of the Shoah.

Other links to Dachau include Dachau Memorial Site The Nizkor Project , and the Museum of Tolerance .

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