Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"...the significance of this name will never be erased from German history."

[I'm taking a turn posting this time. -Dayne]
"Dachau - the significance of this name will never be erased from German history. It stands for all concentration camps which the Nazis established in their territory." -- Eugen Kogon
Twenty-eight or so years ago I traveled to Germany with my family and visited the Dachau concentration camp. Even at the age of 13, it made a large impact on me. I can remember several years later writing about my visit for more than one writing assignment in high school (those writings seem to have not survived; too bad, I would like to re-read them).

My memory of the place was almost all black and white, no doubt due to faulty memories significantly influenced by WWII newsreels and movies. Still, it came as somewhat of a surprise when Wendy, Della, Greg and I arrive via train on a sunny September day to see the verdant green trees lining the camp; I was half-expecting nothing but shades of grey.

Actually, I was even surprised by the town. I knew intellectually that Dachau was located in a town of the same name, and that the townspeople have been highly criticized for their apparently-willful ignorance during the war, but I had no slightest recollection of seeing Dacha-the-town before, having edited that out in the post-production of my earlier memories. It turns out that Dacha is now a small, attractive and modern Bavarian city, but we had to wonder what it's like to live there. For better or worse, Dachau will never really be known for anything except the camp, and I have to believe that casts a pall over living there.

From the train station we took a short bus to the camp and memorial. It turns out that almost every aspect of the modern visitor experience is pretty new; with few exceptions, the plaques, visitor center, and museum displays mostly built in the past decade or so. Whatever remnants I had of the post-war additions were completely irrelevant, but I was glad to see that there continues to be funding for significant updates to the facilities.

One thing that hasn't changed at all is the grim greeting above the front gate through which so many passed on the final journey of their lives. Arbeit macht frei ("work liberates", or "work will make you free") -- the last cruel joke of Heinrich Himmler's "Final Solution".

Very few buildings at Dachau still stand. Only a few of the former barracks, including one where some of the most heinous human medical experiments were conducted, remain in the grid where thirty-four once stood. The crematorium -- surprisingly small for the volume of grim work that went on there -- has been kept intact, and the former administration building is now the on-site museum.

The barracks themselves, once the site of suffering and inhumanly cramped living conditions, are weirdly sterile and empty. The bunks are all recreations, which accounts for some of that; I think the other part is that the suffering of Dachau was deeply personal, even though carried out with Teutonic efficiency; without those that were affected, ultimately the buildings mostly revert to simple wood, iron and glass, devoid of human emotion.

We spent a fair amount of time in the museum, but in all honesty it's a bit overwhelming after a while. The history of the place is well-documented, and the modernity and thoroughness of the displays lend a somewhat clinical feel to the whole operation. On the other hand, the sculptures that have been commissioned for the memorial are much better ay conveying what actually happened in the minds of the inmates.

Would I recommend a visit to others in the area? Absolutely. However, we did overhear one family whose children (maybe about 10 and 11?) had no interest in seeing more after a while, because of the nightmares it was going to give them.

A good map of Dachau can be found at http://www.scrapbookpages.com/Dachauscrapbook/DachauCampMap.html and http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/memorial/topography.html -- the official visitor site is at http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/english.html

The full set of our pictures from our visit is here.

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