October 3, 2009
I was going to be heading to Nurnberg today, but I was making a stop off in Dachau to visit the former Concentration Camp first. Honestly, if you just spent a couple days drinking at Oktoberfest and you need to sober up, skip the bloody mary and head to Dachau. It will be one of the most sobering and worthwhile experiences of your life. You start off by walking from the library to the front gate. The magnitude of where I was really didn’t hit me until I got to the gate. There, I saw the infamous words “Arbeit Macht Frie” or “Work shall set you free.” It wasn’t the easiest of steps to take.
Dachau is set up not only as a museum, but also as a memorial to those that were imprisoned there. A walk-through takes you along the path of the new prisoners/arrivals at the Camp. Through the gate you come into the courtyard. To your right is the old maintenance building, now a museum. Once inside you are taken through the history of the camp, certain artifacts, names and faces of the various groups imprisoned. I took a good hour and a half walking through the museum, which ends with a room holding various memorials donated to the memory of specific ethnic groups and people. I walked along the perimeter fence, stared at the watch tower and then headed over to the barracks. Two have been rebuilt as models, while the rest are clearly shown on a detailed map and by the concrete slabs on the ground. In addition to the camp, there are now 4 churches/chapels on the grounds. I especially liked the Catholic Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel. It was the poignant of the 4 for me.
There were plenty of visitors walking around while I was there. The two that struck me the most was the little boy, maybe 2 or 3, that sat outside the old maintenance building playing in the rocks. For a place that held such tragedy it brought a smile to my face to see someone have fun with the innocence of not knowing the horrors the place once held. Then there was the little old man with the cane. He was walking along by himself across the grounds. When he stopped against a tree to take a rock out of his shoe, those of us around had that look on our faces like we knew he was going to fall. When he didn’t we must have switched over to our shocked but glad faces. He would walk for awhile, stop in front of nothing and stare for a couple minutes. I wish I knew his story and what he had been reflecting on.
While Dachau didn’t house a gas chamber, there was a crematorium. It was the one place I couldn’t bring myself to go into. While I’m a history buff and read as much as I can on WWII, especially on the German front, it’s a different story to see the history in front of your face, rather than as words on a page. It may have been over 60 years ago, but to me the history came alive the moment I walked through the front gate, and there were parts I wasn’t ready accept. Over 200,000 prisoners walked through this “model camp,” while another 25,000+ lost their lives there.
The most we can do now is remember and never forget. Dachau remains to bring a voice to those that it unwillingly suppressed.