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Difficult Site to See

May 2, 2011

This is the blog post that I have put off the longest writing on our trip.  Most likely because there simply are not words to accurately describe what we saw, let alone what took place starting over 75 years ago in a concentration camp just outside of Dachau, Germany.

Work will set you free

We (Kim, Jen, Brian, and Steven) had been staying in Munich for the weekend and decided to tour the Dachau Concentration Camp as we left town.  Each of us knew it would be a difficult visit but something that we all wanted to see first-hand.  It was the first time for each of us to visit a camp used by the Third Reich during World War II.

Along the Fence

A little bit of historic background for you about the Dachau camp.  It was founded in 1933 by the coalition government in Germany (Nazis).  At the time, the grounds were the remnants of an old munitions dump and originally intended to house German political dissenters.  Dachau was the prototype camp and its design and regimentation was used throughout the other camps established by the Reich.  There is no accurate way to know how many people were held at Dachau – or even how many perished there.  Estimated figures put these numbers at over 200,000 persons hailing from all over Europe were imprisoned there and at subsidiary camps, with over 40,000 murdered.

Beds inside the Prisoner Barracks

Liberation occurred in 1945 (we visited on the 66th anniversary) when American troops accepted the surrender of the Nazi troops that had decided to stick around.  They subsequently found about 32,000 prisoners, of which many still perished due to typhus or malnutrition.  The camp was then converted into an internment camp by US troops to hold Nazis and convene the Dachau Trials.  Local residents of the town were taken to view and clean the camp before it was converted – many claimed they had no idea what had been taking place there (apparently locals had no noses to smell the burning flesh, none had eyes to see the cattle cars full of people coming into town, and none had ears to hear the thousands of innocent prisoners cries).

Eventually a large portion of the camp was turned into a memorial site and museum, which is what we saw.  Additionally, other areas are still actively used today.  For example, the buildings that once housed the primary headquarters for SS staff and administration is now used by the City of Dachau for police and an old guard tower as a homeless shelter.

Along the path of barracks and a guard booth

One of the first things you see as you enter is the iron gate with the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei” or translated, “Work Shall Set You Free”.  Our tour that day consisted of the four of us going around to each placard with a headset and listening to the history via audio tour.  In-between stops, we were able to listen to audio from survivors and liberators who told their heart wrenching stories of what they witnessed.  We visited every spot that we were allowed to enter.  This included such places as the barracks, which were designed to hold 250 prisoners each but towards the end held around 1,600.  They had all been demolished but recreations were built on the old foundations that included what beds, toilets, and water basins looked like at the time.  As well, we visited each memorial site on the compound and a huge, information-filled museum that was located in the former kitchen, offices, etc space.

Looking inside the crematorium

Obviously the hardest areas to visit on the grounds were the crematoriums.  There were two at Dachau.  The first one, which housed two ovens, was not big enough and eventually another site with five was built.  This new building also housed areas such as a decontamination room for clothes, waiting area, gas chamber, and room for bodies yet to be burned.  Once again, I have no words to describe the brutalities that once took place where we stood.  Behind those buildings were memorial areas where the workers would deposit the ash of thousands of victims.  In addition to that was an area used as a shooting range, particularly for Soviet prisoners once their country was brought into the war.

While it is hard to see such things, it is also good.  The mistakes and atrocities of the past should not be repeated and by seeing where they took place and learning even more about them it helps to avoid them.  Do not run from history, simply learn from it.  Not to mention it drives me crazy when crackpots like Iran’s Ahmadinejad say that it never happened.  As well, by visitors going to the grounds of the concentration camps, it aids in memorializing those that lost their lives or had to endure the torment that was life at this place.  I am sure we will visit another camp someday, in particular Auschwitz is one I would like to learn more about.

Flowers placed for the anniversary of liberation

I will also leave you with this quote that I saw on a placard at Yad Veshem in Israel, “A country is not just what it does – it is what it tolerates.”  Kurt Tucholsky, a German Essayist.

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