The Dichotomies of Dachau
commuovere n. (Italian) A story that moved you to tears.
Preface: This post is about my visit to Dachau Concentration camp and thus parts of it are going to be dark and graphic. There is no way around that and while I will try to be sensitive, I am also devoted to complete and utter honesty on this blog. I won’t present the truth through rose-colored glasses. That said, I understand if you want to skip this post, but I hope you won’t. Travel is not all about seeing pretty buildings and fancy tourist attractions. Travel is also about seeing the dark sides of the world, the shameful parts whose memories are tainted by regret. The world is beautiful but it is also terrible and unfortunately people tend to avoid the terrible parts even though those memories are just as important, if not more so, than the rest. It is from those places where we can see our mistakes, look our flaws in the eye, and learn from them so as not to repeat the mistakes again.
Eugen Kogon said, “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.” Dachau Concentration Camp is widely regarded as Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp. There is always the question as to how such a horrible regime came to power. How could Germany allow the national socialist party to gain control? After the defeat of Germany in WWI and the November Revolution of 1918 leading to the fall of the monarchy, Germany was a young republic jeopardized from the start bearing not only the instability of a new political and economic system but also the reparations demanded form them by the Treaty of Versailles from the war. Because of all this, unrest grew high in Germany and democratic forces lost their influence and radical nationalists gained control of a country weak in both political power and opinion. Desperation drove people to support the radical ideologies that eventually yielded the horrors we know as Nazi Germany. Dachau symbolically marks the beginning of that reign of terror. Established in 1933, it served as a model for all subsequent concentration camps. During its 12 years of existence, over 200,000 people from all over Europe were incarcerated there and in its subcamps. Of these prisoners, 43,000 died.
When I arrived in Dachau on Thursday, I saw that I could take a guided tour for a pretty reasonable price, but I honestly felt as though this was something I needed to experience alone. I knew there would be plenty of informational signs to read to educate me about the history of the camp and thus I decided the emotional aspect of experiencing Dachau alone would be more valuable than any additional information I might get from a guide. Walking into the camp itself, I was greeted by the gates of Dachau ironically bearing the phrase “arbeit macht frei” ironically meaning “work brings freedom” from the camp’s early days when it was disguised as a “work and re-reeducation camp” for prisoners. We all know what that was a euphemism for. Interestingly enough, the original gates were actually stolen in November of 2014, a huge insult to the memorial because it was one of the key symbols to the suffering of the inmates and the insulting attitude of the regime who put them there. The gates that now stand are simply a reconstructed installed in April 2015, but the effect is still strong.
As I walked into the roll call yard, I was not instantly struck with any sense of grave sobriety. Hearing about peoples’ experience at Auschwitz, which I regrettably did not get to see while in Poland, I think I was expecting something a bit more instantaneously shocking. But as I looked out across the large gravel yard, I didn’t feel much. Maybe it was the fact that most of the originally housing buildings were torn down when the Americans occupied the camp and repurposed it for their own internment purposes after they liberated it, leaving only rows upon rows of foundational squares to mark where they stood. Maybe it was the fact that the sky was blue, something that seemed to be just wrong for a concentration camp. Maybe it’s just our tendency of humans to veer toward the pathetic fallacy, but I had this image in my head that a place, which had held so much death and sorrow, would be equally as gloomy and grey, and the fact that it wasn’t was almost insulting to those who suffered there.
But that lack of emotional impact didn’t last for very long once I entered into the long cement buildings just on the right side of the gate, the camp prison. It was there in which a great number of the camp’s sadistic horrors took place, such as pole hangings (eventually made more cruel by subtracting the pole), standing cells, starvation, and even staged suicides. The Bunker, as it was called, was the center of terror at Dachau, where prisoners were punished for weeks or months with Draconian punishments imposed for the slightest reasons. Among the Gestapo’s long and often impulsive list of punishable offenses included: an imperfectly made bed, fingerprints on the lockers, dried water drops on surfaces, cigarette butts or tobacco crumbles in pockets, missing buttons, and even placing hands in one’s pockets. Many of these prisoners became subjects in human medical experiments as part of Reich research program, including malaria treatments, bio-chemical and sulfonamide experiments in the treatment of infected wounds, experiments regarding survival at great altitudes and in marine distress.
I couldn’t image perpetuating such a system of cruelty and brutality. Storm Jameson writes in a forward to Anne Frank’s Diary of Young Girl (which I read while in Munich), “The question becomes not: How could they do it? but: What moved them to do it? What moves men today to justify the concentration camps still existing in Russia and parts of Europe? In short, what moved a man to feel such contempt for his fellow human beings that he comes to believe that a Jew or a political opponent may, must, be treated as vermin and stamped out? A doctrine moved him. Men learned early how to press a doctrine over ears and eyes, so they can torture without being distracted by the victim’s agony.”
The camp prison consisted on one long hallway, only half of which was open to walk along, lined with 137 cells, lit only by small barred windows and covered with chipping pastel paint. I found it strikingly ironic that such a place of darkness and death was actually painted with fairly optimistic colors, as if the bright teal paint could disguise the metaphorical blood splattered on the walls. As I paced down the dark hallway, illuminated only by the occasional dirty glass skylight and sickly orange bulbs, listening to my shuffling footsteps echo in the haunting quiet, I felt the heaviness of Dachau crash down on me.
From the prison cell, I entered the central kitchen building, where not only the food for prisoners was prepared but where they were brought into the camp and numbered. It was, essentially, the place where they surrendered their possessions and identities. This building now acts as the memorial’s information museum. Through it’s long U-Shaped corridors, one can walk and read sign upon sign of information about the camp and testimonials from its prisoners. Prisoner Stane Šinkovec said, “Along the block road lay a lot of dead prisoners who had died on the same day and were yet to be taken to the crematorium…Everywhere the stench of rotting corpses and excrement. This stench mixed into the smell of burnt human flesh from the nearby crematorium.” These informational boards were at the same time fascinating and horrifying. I consumed the information like candy, all the while grimacing at the bitter images of piles of bodies and skeletally malnourished prisoners.
From these signs, I traced the history of Dachau from its beginnings to its end. Murder and terror in Dachau really began in 1941-42, when starvation and disease, specifically a typhus epidemic, swept through the camp. Those who were still able to work were sent mainly to Dachau’s subcamps and Dachau itself became essentially a death camp for weak and infirm. A further increase in population pushed the deteriorating conditions over the edge. At the end of 1942, 10,000 prisoners were held in Dachau and its surrounding camps and by the end of 1944, the numbers had increased to 63,000.
From the museum, I walked through the reconstructed bunkhouse, filled with layer upon layer of bunk beds that crammed bodied in like sardines, then looped around the yard where the rest of the bunkhouses used to be. Behind this area lies various memorials dedicated to different ethnicities persecuted by the Nazis and several churches for different religions, like the protestant Church of Reconciliation, that now stand in honor of the people imprisoned there.
My final stop on my self-guided tour was the crematorium. I had intentionally left this place for last as I was unsure of the effect it might have on me. Two crematoriums still stand, the old one and the new one. Walking into the new crematorium and seeing the four brick furnaces, I was hit with the sudden reality of exactly what had happened there. At any given time, those furnaces once held two to three corpses at once, charring the flesh into ash and pouring the smell of flesh into the air over the camp. As I looked into the hungry mouths of furnaces, I felt a bit sick. It didn’t help to see the iron rings suspended from the ceiling that also served to hang prisoners, from which their bodies went directly into the burning ovens. There was also, of course, the death chamber, that was essentially a storage room for bodies waiting to be burned, the fumigation cubicles, and the gas chamber disguised a shower. In just 15-20 minutes, 150 people could be suffocated to death through prussic acid poison gas, all without even knowing what was happening to them.
Behind the crematorium was a lovely little forest path, overgrown with ivy and other sprawling plants. With the soundtrack of singing birds, it was almost peaceful until I came across stone plaques that read, “Grave of many thousands unknown”, and “Execution range with blood ditch”, effectively shattering the illusion. Dachau was not as visceral as I had heard Auschwitz was. There were no piles of shoes or gobs of hair, but make no mistake, it was still not an easy place to be. Dachau represented the horrible potential of humanity, the darkness that lies within all of us, and the precarious line we walk between freedom and death.
So how did Dachau finally fall? In 1945, the concentration camp system began to crumble and instability in Germany’s economy didn’t help the matter. In February of that year, Dachau actually had to shut down its crematorium due to coal shortages, leaving them to bury the bodies of dead prisoners in mass graves. In the last days of the concentration camp’s life, Dachau forced 7,000 of its prisoners on a death march toward the Alps. Just two days later, on April 29, 1945, U.S. troops liberated the camp’s survivors. In the years following, the Dachau trials began, headed by the U.S. and the other Allies, prosecuting those who participated in the camp’s socialist crimes. Unfortunately, however, with the onset of the Cold War, American interest shifted away from socialist atonement and the West German justice system took control of the trials in the1949. Yet, this only resulted in a few prosecutions and direct provable murder became the only offense not placed under amnesty or a statue of limitations. As such, many of the crimes committed at Dachau remain entirely unpunished. If that isn’t direct proof at the flaws of the world’s concept of justice and their implementation of it, then I’m not sure what is.
After U.S. troops finally abandoned the camp in 1955, its was left unattended and unused. Little of the original camp structures remained save for the gatehouse, the camp prison, the walls and guard towers, and the crematorium. Despite the “repress and forget” attitude of much of west German society, many people pushed to turn the camp into a memorial site, and after ten years, finally in 1965 it was made into a made into a memorial site, open for the public to visit and remember what happened there. Some alterations needed to be made over the following years in order to try to restore the camp to its original form, including the removal of post war paint layers in the camp prison in 1999 and the construction of two example bunk houses so visitors could at least see what living conditions were like.
Yugoslav artist Nandor Glid was commissioned to create a memorial sculpture for the yard of Dachau. During WWII, Glid’s own family was sent to Auschwitz, but Glid himself was deported to Szeged, Hungary where he worked at a labor camp before managing to escape and joining Tito’s Yugoslav Partisans, partly responsible for ridding Nazi occupation in Yugoslavia. It wasn’t until after the war that he began studying sculpture. Today, despite his many awards and achievements, his “International Monument” standing at Dachau as “a monument within a monument” and reconstructed on smaller scales all across the world still stands as his magnum opus. This monument is actually a series of statues in the Dachau yard, in which one symbolically descends down a slope below the ground level to be surrounded by concrete walls, giving viewers the impression of concentration camp life. At the central lowest point of this monument is a large sculpture of seven human figures contorted and twisted together to make a barbed wire fence. To look upon it was beautiful and horrifying all at the same time, but Glid himself said, “I know of course that a work alone can never depict what happened.” In all, these sculptures and the words printed on them in many languages show both solidarity and suffering, the innocence of the victims and the brutality of the oppressors, sorrow at what happened and hope for what may come.
The final installment of the piece, after one has ascended once again to the yard itself, is a simple square slab of metal bearing the words, “Never again” in Yiddish, French, English, German, and Russian. In front of it lies a buried urn filled with unknown ashes. A small panel on the next to it reads, “This monument was erected in honor of the tens of thousands of martyrs, who died here as victims of National Socialist tyranny and was dedicated on September 8, 1968 by the Comité International de Dachau." Even walking through that memorial is haunting. I found myself disturbed by the sheer possibility that I was able to think the monument was so beautiful despite the horrible things it represented, but then again, maybe that’s the true beauty of it, that it is able to mimic the purely human ability to make diamonds from coal, to turn horrible realities into beautiful reminders. The world will always make mistakes and do terrible things, but with the creation of such monuments to strike at the hearts of those who view it, maybe there will be just a few less in the future.