Friday, July 3, 2009

Arbeit macht frei: Experiencing Dachau

I have a historical confession to make. I have been living in Central Europe for nearly a year and have not taken the time or opportunity to visit a Nazi concentration camp. It's not for lack of education. In sixth grade I read The Diary of Anne Frank and learned about the atrocities committed in the camps at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s impossible to go through the history of the 20th century without reflecting on one of its greatest tragedies and vowing to never forget (while learning ethnic cleansing and mass political executions continue to punctuate history and headlines). But, I had never physically visited a camp.

Tim and Mike had actually suggested the visit, so in the wee hours of the morning we were up and riding the train out to the suburb of Munich that now carries some serious historical baggage with its name: Dachau.

Admittedly, making a visit to Dachau your first side trip in Germany might not make you well disposed towards the country, but Mike and Tim were up for the challenge.

We followed a marked trail from the train station to the camp, weaving through parks and neighborhoods with occasional signs marking the route prisoners took to the camp. The signs also provided some of the historical background necessary for understanding the site we were about to witness.
A section of track once used by a special spur line that brought thousands of prisoners to Dachau, the SS-training ground and concentration camp.

The camp was established in 1933, soon after Hitler was made chancellor. The idea was to keep all political enemies and dissenters in one place. The barracks and the techniques used by the SS guards at Dachau would become the model for all other concentration camps and the word Dachau would generate fear and silence a decade before it was finally closed. Dachau was not strictly a “Death Camp” like Auswitz where prisoners were essentially retained for execution. At Dachau people were theoretically in a labor camp. Of course the prisoners were exposed to harsh punishments, meager rations, medical experiments, and rampant disease. It might as well have been a death camp.
A view from the cramped bunkhouse across the grounds. All of the grey gravel was once the foundation of a bunkhouse.
Another view of the grounds and the dozens of barrack foundations. The guard tower marks the perimeter of the massive complex.

With an audio guide in hand to contextualize the empty bunks and ominous chimney we crossed through the small gate with the ironic and cruel camp motto “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes one free) and began our tour of the grounds.

The buildings were destroyed decades ago, and empty foundations now mark where thousands of prisoners went through their routine of survival. Near the back of the complex are three chapels to the victims of the camps. One for the Protestants, one for the Catholics (especially for the Polish prisoners who where brought to the site after 1939), and one for the Jews. Michael pointedly asked why they couldn’t share worship space. Why indeed.
The Jewish Chapel.

We followed the path through the barbed wire perimeter fence and found the incinerator. Originally the facility was used to dispose of the bodies of people that died of disease. But, near the end of the war, some of the rooms were fitted with new pipes that would carry Zyklon B, the cyanide gas used to execute prisoners by the millions in Auswitz and in other, smaller camps.

There is some historical debate about the use of these chambers. We know they were never used in a systematic way. The liberation of the camp prevented the implementation of mass execution by this method (though bullets, ropes, malnutrition, disease, and starvation were used from the time of the camp’s opening to kill thousands). But, the pipes had to be tested, and several political prisoners were killed in the chamber. We entered as a noisy German high school group received a lecture about the cramped space. We could only linger for a few moments.

In that time I examined the spigots in the ceiling. Someone designed their grid-like distribution. Someone sat down at a drafting table and thought about how to space the cyanide spray. They thought about how much pipe would be necessary and how to clear the air after the victims had suffocated. Then someone else (or a group of someones) placed the pipes in the ceiling and connected them to a canister of poison. This construction crew was likely composed of prisoners, but they were directed by someone who thought about all of this. Hundreds of hours and people were committed to the meticulous engineering of millions of deaths. There are many words for people who would lay such plans, but none of them quite seem adequate.

It was time to visit the museum.
A memorial and the current museum building.

Dachau is arguably one of the most accessible concentration camps in the former Third Reich. A lot of people stop by Munich to see the beer halls and castles, then take a trip to the earliest camp, so as the museum tells the story of Dachau, it tells the story of all the camps. It starts with the rise of the NASDP and moves on to the stories of the victims. We watched a documentary (in German because we missed the English showing) on the camp and the liberation.

After the Americans discovered the camp and arrested the guards (some of the guards were executed in the controversial “Dachau Massacre”) they forced people from the nearby town to tour the grounds where emaciated corpses still lined the fences. These shocked Germans were then drafted to clean the grounds. The video showed their disbelief and the tortured bodies of the prisoners who were suddenly free. The video was necessary to populate the site that today stands empty and barren. It makes the humanity and horror more tangible, even if I still imagine that time period in stark black and white images with occasional film scratches.

We didn’t discuss the experience very much as we searched for a cheap place to grab lunch and avoid the crowds of bored school groups whose colorful t-shirts and babbling chatter made the site even more difficult to fully process.

I’m glad I finally made it to a camp. I am a person who needs to make history experiential and tactile. That’s part of what has made this last year so fascinating. Staid images in text books and library books have come to life in vivid color and 3-D. That said, I don’t think I need to go back. I don’t need to be reminded that I should never forget. I can’t.

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