December 11, 2014

Dachau: Empty Rooms Full of Memories

Despite the fact that we were in Munich to see Christmas Markets and festivities, we wanted to stop and see Dachau Concentration Camp that is just outside the city in the suburb of Dachau. It was depressing, but I am glad that we went.

Dachau village is a quaint little place and the Concentration Camp was easy to find. The admission is free so we joined some others to tour the place for a few hours. The main gate to the Camp remains unchanged from the days when the Camp was built to be a prison for “political prisoners” and under the Nazi SS rule, it developed into the flagship Concentration Camp for Jews during Hitler’s reign. All of the other Concentration Camps were designed around Dachau.

One of the main features of Dachau at the time was working. Those held at the Camp were expected to work until they couldn’t work anymore. The main iron clad gate read: Work will set you free. Sadly, that gate was stolen this November in the first vandalism on the Camp since the liberation after the war. We walked through the entrance (minus the gate) and stopped to survey the large camp. As our tour of the area continued, I could feel the heavy burden of emotions build. The cold wet air also contributed to the solemn feel of the experience.

The main gate into Dachau with the newly stolen gate gone

Old photo of morning roll call
Current view of the same area

The Museum was really well done. They represented what happened in the Camp, and other camps throughout the Nazi controlled Europe, in raw honesty. Walking through the displays of photos and stories it was apparent how easily, and scarily, a political propaganda agenda can become a horrific event that stains the history of humanity. We stood in the rooms where prisoners were beaten, tortured, showered, fed, slept and died. Photos from those eras were hung to show what it looked like then compared to now. Many of the rooms were unchanged minus the missing Spartan furniture that was once there. I noticed that the farther into the exhibit the crowds of people went, then more silent and solemn we all became. I was overcome with the sorrow that we could, as fellow humans, ever get to the point that we dehumanize another. The cruel, unmasked truth was there staring at us in the face in the form of black and white photos and black boards captioned with white writing. The stories, their stories—all of the people involved—came to life.
Bath house
Modern day bathouse, now part of the museum

We toured the offices where the guards worked and living spaces where the prisoners lived. Although these rooms are empty now, imagine the stories and memories these walls hold. The cries, the screams, the shouting and the prayers etched into remembrance on the cement walls covered with a flaky white paint. The atrocities were unbelievably cruel and violent.

The bunker where there were tortures and executions that happened both inside and out

Where the "special" prisoners lived

As we walked the perimeter of the compound and visited the gas chambers and crematorium, I found myself wondering what it must have been like for the people inside the Camp to be so close to normal life outside the walls and to even hear those sounds daily, but to be suffering in their own version of hell. To know that when they walked through the iron gates, they may never leave alive. Likewise, I wondered what the people of Dachau thought about the Camp in their community. Did they know what was going on? Did they hear the screams or the gun shots? Why did they not do anything? Were they, too, blinded by the propaganda of hatred? I was touched by the people, as small of acts as they had, that did what they could to maintain the humanity and kindness amid the cruelty and hatred—the girl who smuggled notes and letters out to families, the man who took illegal photos, the people who snuck in food or the group of doctors and lawyers from Dachau who, once they knew of the problems, tried to fight back and lost their lives in a bloody revolt.

The "new" crematorium

One of the ovens. They built it bigger than others to hold 2-4 bodies at a time

The room to hold all of the corpses before they were creamated

The Gas chamber with fake shower heads

Fake shower head

Door into gas chamber labeled "Showers"

The slot to pour in more poison pellets into the gas chamber
rooms where the clothes were disinfected after the people were killed

The old crematorium

My thoughts then turned to the question of,  “What would I have done…?” What would I have done if I was a citizen of Dachau during that time? Would I have known what was going on? Would I have participated in the revolt? What would I have done if I was a member of the military overseeing the Camp? Would I have bought into the cruelty? Would my heart have been hardened? Or what if I was the prisoner forced to work, starve and be subject to cruelty, what would I do? Would I fight back? Would I run at the fence in an attempt to end my suffering? Would I get lost in the cruelty and unknown? 

Before photo of the barracks

These were hard questions to ask. I know that all of us hope that we would do the right thing, and I hope we are never faced with a similar situation where we have to make that type of decision. However, if anything resulted from our trip to Dachau Concentration Camp, it was the reality that love, peace and joy bridge some amazing divides. And when we rid ourselves of those, we begin to let hate seep in and lose sight of right and wrong.

To end the day we went into Dachau village to their Christmas market. It was fun, similar to the Munich market, but it was smaller and more intimate because it was a smaller town. Tau’aho wanted to ride the train, but did NOT want to get on himself, so I scrunched in with him…quite comically I may add.

I didn't quite fit


We went back to Munich and found some more Christmas Markets…they were everywhere. One was nutcracker themed, another Christmas trees, another was Medieval themed with dancing and costumes included—all of which had GREAT food to sample! 

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