Wednesday, March 08, 2017

A German Resort

This is Part 3 of our year-ago Europe trip. It's less fun than Part 1, and not as pretty as Part 2, but I think worthwhile.

We headed out of Munich on the excellent transportation system to an old tourist town. (Side note: I highly recommend the website and DB Navigator app.) I probably have relatives there, who my parents actually visited about 40 years ago, but I didn’t find that out until I was already back in the states so I didn't try to look them up. We didn't spend much time in town anyway - we were there for the museum.

The locals are not entirely thrilled to be hosting an international museum of Nazi atrocities, but such is the fate of Dachau. We got weather more fitting for visiting a concentration camp than a resort day - solid gray overcast, cold breeze and lots of crows. Although we were aware of the camp in a general sense, nothing really compares to visiting in person. There's a psychological weight to the place that doesn't come through in a book. Obviously I can't do it justice in this little post either, but I want to put up a few of our photos anyway. I would encourage anyone to go visit - it's not a fun experience, but I think it's worthwhile.

The camp had psychological tricks right from the start. The words in the front gates (above), “Arbeit Macht Frei”, translates as “Work Will Make You Free”. The camp was initially billed as a work camp for slackers and deficients, so the implied promise was to set them free if they worked. That was, of course, a complete lie. It was never a straightforward extermination camp like Treblinka or Auschwitz, but neither did they set anyone free. Around 40,000 people died there, mostly from a combination of maltreatment, overwork or disease.

Inside the gates is the main assembly area of the camp. Here the inmates would stand at the end of each day for roll call. If somebody was missing, or the guards were just feeling malicious, they would keep them standing there for hours. In some cases they would stand there all through the night, during winter, in thin clothes. It was not uncommon for inmates to drop dead while standing there.

This is an aerial view of the camp after the war, showing some of the 32 barracks. In the aftermath of the war so much of the country had been devastated that it was used to house families for a time. They were all torn down eventually, but there are two replicas there now. Each building was originally designed to house two hundred prisoners. When the camp was liberated it was massively overcrowded, with some building holding up to ten times that amount – two thousand people living in one of those buildings.

Naturally the camp was surrounded by guard towers, barbed wire, and ditches. The grassy area outside of the path was considered off limits – stepping off that side of the path was would get an inmate shot. Suicide by guard was not unheard of, though less popular than I would have guessed given the conditions.

When the camp first opened they would send the dead inmates to be cremated in the nearby town. But as the number of inmates increased and the treatment deteriorated they had a growing number of bodies. During the early years it was supposed to be just a work camp, so they had to come up with excuses for the number of dead bodies. Eventually they couldn’t do it anymore, so they built their own crematorium. The ashes were buried on site. They don’t know how many people were buried here, but probably in the thousands.

They would also sometimes execute prisoners by firing squad, typically in a few places like this execution wall.

Memorials have been built for most of the major religions.
I don’t have photos for it, but I was surprised to learn that the SS jailers lived right outside the camp. In fact many of them moved their families into a small town that was within site of the fences. I cannot even fathom how you could walk home from that to your family. I suppose it shows that humans are amazingly flexible - not always in the most best of ways.
Visiting the Dachau museum was a powerful experience. Not fun by any means, but worthwhile. It’s one thing to read a book or watch a documentary about what happened there. It’s quite another to stand in the same room where they piled the dead to the ceiling, see the ash pits, and walk the grounds where such things were allowed.

A map of Nazi concentration camps. All the dots are camps, even the little ones. They just called out the larger ones with larger labels. Dachau was the first of them, and served as a model for the other work camps.

They have since installed a sculpture in the yard, a stark thing depicting broken bodies stuck in barbed wire.

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