Postcard from Southern Europe
Visit to Dachau Provides a Grim Reminder of Horrors of the Holocaust
Copyright Paradise Post: Saturday, February 1, 1997. All Rights Reserved.
[Thanks to the Paradise Post for allowing us to reprint this article.]
(Editor’s Note: Post co-owners Rowland and Pat Rebele spent the 12 days of Christmas in Munich, Germany, and Interlaken, Switzerland. During the Munich part, the Rebeles had the sobering experience of visiting the site of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, near Munich. Their report follows)
By Rowland Rebele
(Original photo by Gudrun Fehrer Dunn)
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
“May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted Naziism help to unite the living in the defence of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow man.”
–inscription in eight languages on a memorial to those who died at the Dachau, Germany concentration camp.
No visit to Munich, Germany’s second largest city and the capital of her Bavarian province, makes any sense without a visit to the former Nazi concentration camp in the suburb of Dachau, just outside the city. Fortunately, over a million visit Dachau every year.
A visit to Dachau is hardly a “visit” in the normal sense. It is a shocking, sobering experience, and one comes away from two hours there almost voiceless. The horror depicted there, of man’s utter inhumanity to man in this, the 20th Century, is that stark and almost unbelievable. But of course you know it is true.
Dachau was the Nazis’ first concentration camp, opened in 1933 just after Hitler came to power.
In part, Dachau was used to train the prison guards and officials who staffed the hundreds of other camps and sub-camps scattered throughout Germany, France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and other Eastern European countries …. camps which contributed to the death of at least six million Jews (historians now think the figure was closer to seven million) and hundreds of thousands of other political, ideological, military, clerical and homosexual prisoners of all faiths and non-faiths: the people Hitler and his demented followers considered less than human.
Dachau alone had 34 sub-camps spotted in different locations close to the main camp. The same was true for Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and many of the other main camps.
On a huge board as you enter the camp’s museum is a map locating these hundreds of death camps and their sub camps. When you look at it, and realize that each of these places housed innocent men, women and children who were marked for probable death or, at the very least, deprivation, starvation and illness just for having a contrary opinion, or a different race, or a different lifestyle–it is enough to turn the most hardened stomach.
Nazi records detail the death of 32,000 prisoners during the 12 years of Dachau’s existence, but historians agree tens of thousands more were interned there and then sent elsewhere to be eradicated, while many more were executed at Dachau and their names never recorded.
The poison gas-jet “showers”, the kind the Nazis used to kill millions of “undesirables” in many of the camps, were somehow never made operational at Dachau. Pat and I visited their grisly interiors–walked through their low-ceilinged cement rooms and looked up at the rows or deadly nozzles pointed downward–straight at us.
Had we been born German Jews, as Post co-owner Lowell Blankfort’s first wife was, we could have been certain candidates for the showers. (Fortunately, Blankfort’s first wife–now author Alice Marquis–got out of Germany just in time–in 1938. She was just eight years old. The story of how her family was put aboard a train in Munich, their home city, for supposed “deportation” to Poland, and how the train unaccountably turned around and came back to Munich, then how her father desparately arranged train tickets to the port city of Hamburg and sailed to the U. S. “just in time”–is a harrowing one. Needless to say, it brought the whole Dachau experience close to home, partly because Alice is exactly my same age. “Yes,” we had to say, “there but for the grace of God go we…”).
For unexplained reasons, those Dachau, and sub-camp, prisoners who were judged too weak to work any more, or too “subversive” to remain among the living, were shipped to other camps nearby to be herded into the euphemistic “showers” and then gassed to death. Their deaths really “belong” to Dachau.
In fact, the main concentration camp at nearby Linz, Austria, which had its “showers” operational early on, was the Nazis’ favorite destination for the condemned of Dachau.
When we visited Dachau this past Christmas, it was 8 degrees below zero, centigrade. An icy wind was blowing, which reduced the chill factor to at least 20 below.
As we left the camp’s museum, with its film documenting the calculated way the Nazis went about their killing business, with its blown-up pictures of inmates being whipped to death while strapped to poles, and with its photos of the emaciated bodies of prisoners liberated by our American forces in May, 1945 (Dachau was the last of the camps to be liberated) — we hit the icy winds and walkways of Dachau’s “parade ground”, the bleak open field where prisoners had to “muster” early every morning, winter and summer. On this day it was a frozen snowfield.
It wasn’t too difficult imagining them shivering there in their meager prison garb, then spending the day working in the strip mines nearby, or building roads, or pushing hand carts on frozen rails, their hands frozen to their shovels and their bodies aching from the constant strain.
“Arbeit macht Frei” (“work makes you free”) is what the Nazis inscribed above the entrance gate to Dachau in fancy curved letters–and the letters are still there (at Auschwitz also) to remind later generations of the sick Nazi attempt to euphemize camp life … luring prisoners with the promise of some kind of “freedom.” The reality was cruelly the opposite.
Fortunately, today’s German people seem resolved to nip any future Naziism in the bud. When the neo-fascist skinheads act up, thousands of lawabiding, human rights-conscious Germans hit the streets to demonstrate against their hate-filled agendas. It has happened many times since the war’s end.
A middle-aged Munchner told us his parents were too frightened of the Nazis to protest, too scared of any kind of authority-figure. “But I always question it (authority),” he told us. “My generation will never allow such a thing to happen again.”
Older Munich residents, those who probably voted for Hitler, are not as resolute. “He was a very charming, charismatic man, that Hitler,” one septugenarian woman told us over lunch at a museum. Which is all she would say about “Der Fuhrer.” At least she was honest. (We failed to ask her if she’d ever visited the Dachau camp. We should have).
The mayor of Dachau speaks about his city being a center for landscape painters in the last century, and how his fellow townspeople voted against Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party in the 1933 election.
“The citizens of Dachau were not consulted when the concentration camp was built here,” he adds. “The Dachau Concentration Camp is part of the overall German responsibility for that time.
“Today’s Dachau citizens bow their heads before the victims of this camp. The horrors (of the concentration camps) must never be repeated!”
Of the more than one million tourists who visit Dachau each year, most walk past the parade ground, past the replicas of the stark wooden barracks that housed the inmates, then down the long road to the crematorium and the gas chambers.
When they reach the end of that long road they see the Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox memorials to those who suffered and died here. (Many Russian prisoners of war were executed at Dachau–many whose names were never recorded).
In one chapel is the following inscription, placed there by the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, Darmstadt, (then West) Germany:
“We humble ourselves beneath the serious crime our nation committed at this place, which inflicted such great suffering upon the Jewish people and members of many other nations.”
The expressions of contrition, sorrow and commitment, and of the resolve never to forget–to never let it happen again–are vitally important. They are why the Dachau Memorial exists today, and one good reason Germany, as a nation, has taken in 300,000 refugees from the Bosnian War, that second-worst example of ethnic cleansing–after Hitler–in this century.
Such resolutions “never to forget” are why everyone who goes to Munich to visit her great museums, her huge churches and Olympic Sports Center, her grand architecture and spacious “English Garden Park” (actually built by an American in the late 18th century!)–ought to go to Dachau first.
For nothing truly grand and glorious in this world can long endure without man’s respect for the human rights and human dignity of his fellow man. Dachau sends that primal message, and sends it loud and clear.
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