Sunday, November 6, 2011

Visit to Dachau

      Okay, I wasn't going to post today, but I've been staring at my homework for about two hours now and still nothing's been done. This calls for a diversionary tactic. (And yes, I did have all last week to do it. The homework, I mean. Shh. The night before is the mark of a true student.)

      My mother complained that I never talk about Kilian and Cliona anymore, which is sort of true, mainly because I do most of my posting about the weekends, when I don't see them much. They're good. I promise you a blog completely and entirely about them, replete with photos: it just won't be this one. Have to do this explaining before it becomes too long ago.

      Warning: the venture I'm going to dedicate probably all of this blog to is not a very cheery one, so if you're into that, wait a few days and I'll have a fun kiddy one! For the rest of you, read on. I confess I feel sort of weird writing about this; is it the kind of thing that should be kept to one's self? Not sure, but in the interest of keeping people informed:

      Spurred by a talk with Nate about getting the most out of living in Europe, I decided, on a whim, to join a tour to Dachau on Saturday morning. (For those of you not familiar, Dachau was one of the more well-known concentration camps during WWII.) For most of my life, I was under the impression that there were only five concentration camps in the war, but in reality there were over twenty, along with the five extermination camps and many other prison camps and collection points. Dachau is one of the largest and most well-known in Germany, and it was actually the first to be founded, and was subsequently used as a model for the camps built later.

      After consulting my trusty Rick Steves guidebook, I headed down to the Hauptbahnof to purchase a ticket for the tour. 21 Euros gets you the tour with all transportation included. It was rather like being back in the states, with my fellow tour-mates consisting mostly of middle-aged American couples, with a few Aussies and Brits thrown in there. Our tour guide was a cheery, very gay native Seattle-ite named Keith. The train ride there is about 20 minutes, followed by a ten-minute bus ride to the camp itself.

      I apologize. This blog seems to be reading more as a history lesson than anything else, but that's just the way it's coming out.

      Dachau the city is actually not bad. The tourism works really hard to promote the cuteness of the town and the beauty of its castle, because, let's face it, it's probably a little hard to get out from under the shadow of one of the most famous concentration camps.

     The camp itself was opened in 1933, when it was used to house political prisoners, mainly Communists and criminals. During its time in operation (1933-1945), it housed 206,000 prisoners, and at least 43,000 were killed there (an impressively high number considering this was not an extermination camp).

      Today the camp is all open to visitors. Of the original 34 barracks, only one row remains, and that a reconstruction. Many of the guard towers still stand and the barriers and barbed wire have been recreated. Today is also a Catholic chapel, a Russian Orthodox church, a Protestant church, and a Jewish memorial. Part of the tour included a grisly 20-minute video about what actually happened in the camp.

      You can read about it yourself on Wikipedia if you'd like more info. Here are some photos:

"Work makes you free." Entrance to the camp.
Tour guide Keith
Central courtyard, where roll was taken. 
"May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men."
Interesting that German is the third language on here.
Artsy modern art memorial

More modern art memorial. This different colors represent the designations people got in the camps. The yellow star obviously denotes Judaism. Red triangles were for political prisoners, blue triangles for immigrants, purple for "Bible students," generally Jehovah's Witness, brown for Gypsies, and the orange bar for those who were repeat offenders and visiting the camps again.
The memorial was made in the 60s and thus does not include as recognized "victims" the pink triangles (homosexual men), the green triangles (common criminals), and the black triangles (alcoholics, beggars, prostitutes). Interesting.

Eerie plane pattern in sky. The gentleman behind me helpfully pointed out to everyone that "That's the Star of David, you know. Like the Jews." Err...not quite?

Central path through the barracks, leading to the chapel
Barracks room, originally designed for 50 but by the end of the war were holding as many as 500.
Does this need a caption?
Where the barracks stood, with guard tower in background
Catholic chapel, designed to look like a wine press.

Protestant church. Clearly evident the differing religions' views of what is most appropriate here, beauty-wise.
Russian Orthodox church
Jewish memorial

"The dead to honor, the living to warn."

Crematorium. Actually the only almost completely original building at the camp. It was built by the Catholic priests imprisoned there, who kept making mistakes to delay its being ready.
"They died for freedom, righteousness, and honor."

Gas chamber. Never used as intended but probably tested on individual prisoners and small groups. The slots in the wall are like mailboxes where they could dump in the pellets of Zyklon B, killing up to 150 people in about twenty minutes.

Ovens in the crematorium. Dachau had six, which over the years of its operation killed 43,000. Toward the end of the war they ran out of coal to operate the ovens so resorted to mass graves instead.

Upper sign reads "Do not forget."  Lower sign reads "Grave of unknown thousands." One of the spots where they dumped the ashes of  the dead.
Shooting range, complete with trench to catch the blood. 

Exiting the Jewish memorial.

      Though it certainly wasn't a fun day by any means, I'm really glad I went. I'm fairly certain I know a lot more about the Holocaust than the Average Joe, due to a lot of reading and German classes in college, but actually seeing it is really completely different. It was honestly sort of terrifying. I was freezing cold the entire time, even in the sun, and I chalk some of that up to the plain eeriness of the place. It's not a happy feeling there, by any stretch of the imagination. 

      It definitely made me think though. The treaty after the war mandated that all concentration camps be made into memorials. In Bavaria, schoolchildren are required by law to visit Dachau as a part of their curriculum. It's illegal to purchase "Mein Kampf" in Germany.  I just finished a book that talked about the immense amount of guilt that Germans carry around in regards to the Holocaust. To quote, "How many Spaniards flay themselves for the horrors inflicted by their forefathers during the Spanish Inquisition? How many Americans walk on thorns to atone for their ancestors' treatment of the Indian population?" (These Strange German Ways, by Susan Stern).  I'm not trying to say what the right approach is, but this one is incredibly interesting to me. The idea is with information about the Holocaust, it can be directly linked to today's Neo Nazi activities and used to stamp that out. 

      The book also talks about the period when the knowledge of the Holocaust really began to come out. I don't mean right after the war, I mean in 1978, when the American television miniseries Holocaust came out. German youth, on seeing these unspeakable horrors, confronted their parents and grandparents for the first time about a war whose bloody history had been ignored as much as possible. To quote again, Stern says she "can remember realizing clearly for the first time how much easier it was to be the child/descendant of survivors than the child/descendant of perpetrators. Many of my students refused or were unable to distinguish between the hardcore perpetrators and the bystander perpetrators--they were merciless with their fights broke out; kids left home in hysterics."  Since then, Germany is probably the best-educated country on its recent history. Do we teach our schoolchildren about how many Japanese we killed during the atom bombing in the 40s? Of course not. If a quarter of today's schoolchildren even know it happened, I'll be impressed.

      It was weird to look at the typical little houses surrounding the concentration camps and think about the people living there in the 30s and 40s. They had no idea what was going on. It's terrifying to think how easy it is for your government to commit such atrocities right under your nose. 

     I feel like I'm writing a scholarly something-or-other, rather than a blog. I apologize for how deep this got. Whoops! I promise next one will be cheery. I will say, if you have plans to be in Europe, visit a concentration camp. It's like taking your medicine, I think. Living in Germany, I'm faced every day by things of the war. Munich was the second-most destroyed city in Germany, with only four original buildings remaining. Hitler came to power in Munich, marched his Brown Shirts up and down the same street I walk nearly every day. He made his most famous speeches on the stage where I sit and drink beer in Odeonsplatz. It's unavoidable. 
      Thanks for putting up with this. Not that anyone necessarily made it this far. High five to you if you're here to get it!

1 comment:

  1. Dad here: Thanks for the warnings about what the reader could expect from this dour blog entry. You wrote it sensitively and informatively. I want to drink a beer with you in the Odeonsplatz and burn a brown shirt.