Day Trip to Dachau

The sound of local traffic could be heard nearby. Tires on concrete, exhaust from small European cars accelerating, they were all reassuring sounds that reminded me I could leave at any time. It was a visit just a visit, so why then was I so upset. Why was I so tense? I could leave at any moments notice, just by stepping out of the gates. Those brought here against their will decades ago could not. They didn’t have any comfort or assurance that things would be ok and for 36,000 of them, their worst fears were realized. So many perished here. What was striking to me was the anxiety they must have had. They didn’t just die, they were pulled from there communities without any knowledge of the future. Held by people that looked at them as something beneath an animal. Many died.

At the front there was an information center. I grabbed a mobile audio headset but found the voice in my ears unnerving. I needed to experience this raw I reasoned. I had a map for tours, this was a tourist site for goodness sake. I ditched that too. I walked from the information center to the opening of the camp. Above the opening was elaborate iron fashioned with words. I couldn’t read the German but I knew what it said “Arbeit Macht Frei” translated “Work sets you free”. This was awful and I had a heaviness in the pit of my stomach. The place was massive and it had paths for visitors to follow. I ditched those too.

I was taking this place on, on my own terms; no headset, no map no walking paths. I needed to see this place from every angle I could. Somehow perhaps I could decipher (I reasoned) the humanity from both sides; German guards and camp prisoner. I walked the entire perimeter of the camp, as close to those barbed wire concrete barriers as I could. Off the walking paths, I walked on the grass. The grass – it wasn’t mowed like a golf course. The caretakers had masterfully cut it too look rough but not too rough.

I wanted to be angry at the Germans. Angry at their rigid, authoritarian based culture (residual portions of it remaining to this day) that drove an entire society to do this. It was not a spontaneous decision. They planned and built infrastructure. Recruited labor to govern these camps. Resources from their industrial base were tapped to build the ovens and housing. I was getting angrier and angrier. I closed my eyes and reminded myself that I had some German in me too. Heck, I had some Jewish ancestry in me as well. Blood from both sides running through me. I wasn’t going to be able to experience this from afar.

Some Christian church organizations built monuments and sanctuaries near the back of the property. I headed in that direction, walking past some other visitors. I wasn’t able to give them eye contact as the emotions were building up within me. No one was really speaking to each other I noticed, because the place was so horrible. I started to break down. Head in hands upset in the middle of the camp. It was a beautiful summer day, the sun warming my back a gentle wind to cool my face – I wished I could be anywhere else at that moment. I pulled out my cell phone and called my wife back home in the states out of desperation. She knew not where I was calling from and her voice sounded so cheerful, so happy so full of promise. The disparity with her melodic reassuring voice contrasted so sharply with the realities of where I stood, it made me dizzy. She calmed me down and I continued.

The ovens were located off to the side of the camp, just out of view but within easy walking distance. I approached the building, bracing myself. The chimney was stocky and low. The smell from the burning bodies had to be horrid. The odor pushed out to the town located immediately outside the camp walls was a constant reminder of the horror taking place.

I walked right into the room with two ovens. This was the focal point, the bowels of evil stood right before me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the ramps leading to the ovens. The ashes accumulated quickly and the workers had to dispose of them by cart. The designers of this room took the time to craft well placed smooth sloping ramps from the ovens to the back door. There was careful attention paid obviously to the working conditions and efficiency for those that labored here. The ash cart was designed to be moved with minimal effort out the door. They had a focus on ergonomics and I couldn’t shake the mental chill. I moved into the infamous “showers” and was taken with how low the ceiling was. Fake shower heads protruded from the ceiling but any prisoner pushed into this room had to have suspicions something wasn’t right. Heart rates had to be racing, tensions were high. I moved to the next room. It was largely empty as it was used for prisoners to disrobe. I could see daylight and three openings for me to exit the building. I walked through them and later came to regret it. The opening were short tunnels, fully encased in steel. There were hooks on the ceiling.

They didn’t just gas prisoners, some were tortured. Hung up on the hooks with their arms tied behind them, they died left in these dark cold tunnels.

I continued my irregular tour by walking around to the back of the building. It was here that I could see the path taken for the ash cart, pushed out the back doors. Again, every effort taken to make that cart and the worker assigned to it, to be as ergonomic and efficient as possible.

I left the brick building with the ovens and walked the perimeter of the camp. The guard tower was imposing and I couldn’t imagine that hanging over me everyday. Not knowing if the soldiers in it would shoot me for sport. There were several barriers preventing escape. One looked like a moat or trench, getting out without detection would be a real challenge.

I stepped right next to one guard shack that seemed to oversee a service drive. This would have been heavily guarded as it would have taken just a few steps and you were back in town. In fact, you stepped right out onto a neighborhood sidewalk and traffic.

I stepped into the living quarters and was struck with how sterile and hostile it seemed. Most of the buildings were torn down. Only a few remained and those had actually been rebuilt to demonstrate what they looked like for the prisoners. The walls seemed thin and the winters had to be miserable. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if you were a parent trying to take care of a child in these conditions. Surrounded by strangers, death, hardship and suffering.

I learned later that the guards demanded prisoners remove their shoes when inside the housing structure. This was a cruel attempt to make the prisoners believe their was value to their home.

The wooden “beds” were highly engineered to accommodate many without any considerations for comfort. What haunted me however were the bathrooms. No privacy, the toilets looked like something for an animal. There weren’t even showers. Apparently the prisoners would try to utilize the “fountains of water” to maintain hygiene.

Time has moved on. World War II seems more and more distant. Most of us are removed from it, connected perhaps with pictures of relatives in uniform. Still the very evil that started the fighting and justified the horrors remains in the world today. Evil is perpetuated by the darkness and we have to fight to keep it at bay.

The holocaust was so horrific that we are naturally inclined to compartmentalize it as something that happened to a culture different from our own, by people that no longer exist, in a far away place. I firmly believe that we need to keep a light on the holocaust. We need to always remember this tragedy and the people that it took before their time – so that it never happens again.

Dachau was liberated by American forces on April 29, 1945

One Comment

Leave a Reply