On my last trip to Germany in ‘15, while in Munich I had the opportunity to tour the Nazi concentration camp Dachau and passed, feeling that the site of such horrors and man’s inhumanity to man shouldn’t be treated as a tourist attraction.
However, on my return trip to Germany in March of this year, when again my tour group had a scheduled visit to Dachau, I changed my mind and went to see what I could learn.
During our visit, our Munich-born tour director portrayed the place of infamy in great detail. He also spoke of his mom and dad, who lived during the Nazi era as two who did not align themselves whatsoever with Hitler’s platforms yet feared so much that there would be a knock on their door in the middle of the night from the SS looking to incarcerate perceived enemies of the state.
Before I went, I really didn’t know much about the town of Dachau, an Upper Bavarian suburb of Munich and, at 45,000 citizens, similar in size to my own town. Lima, however, doesn’t have an 18th century castle in the center of an historical district, nor does it have the remnants of such a place of horror as the former camp site. Despite the fact that it’s also a city with so much history that has nothing to do with the Nazi camp, the name of the town conjures images of torture and death to the rest of the world.
Dachau, known locally for its arts and culture, ironically derives its name from the Celts who were in the region a thousand years before Christ. The Celtic word “Dahauua” means “loamy meadow,” such a bucolic image far from what “Dachau” has come to represent.
Listening to the tour director’s lesson on the city of Dachau, I wondered about whether residents felt a sense of inherited guilt over what the name of their city has come to represent.
Certainly that wasn’t the case with one of our earlier visited cities, Weimar. Just five miles from the center of the city once stood Buchenwald, the concentration camp that specialized in slave labor so inhumane that many historians feel it was the most brutal of all the camps. Yet because the camp didn’t carry the name of the town, I’m guessing that residents of Weimar are relieved.
Dachau’s main gate bore the inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which translates to, “Work makes one free.” Forced-labor prisoners passed through that gate often on the way to advance the Nazi plan by building roads or trenching and then again after 10 hours of grueling work. Surely, they must have felt the inscription so sadly laughable.
We stood in 27-degree temperatures that day on the large crushed gravel prisoner convocation area outside where barracks once stood (now, there are only two, both reconstructions, to show how the living quarters once stood) in the very spot where so many prisoners once stood in paper-thin pajama-type garments on even colder days for hours on end until every prisoner was accounted.
The most somber stop was at the gas chamber and the two crematoriums. My group along with many others went through without uttering a word.
The guard houses remain, as do stretches of the fencing, once electrified, as well as the actual administration building, called the Wirtschaftsgebäude, which is now the museum. That was the building that once housed the infamous shower baths, where the SS often administered the most severe floggings and hanged prisoners at the stake. Then it was on to another actual building, The Bunker, once a prison inside a prison, where those who resisted in any fashion once occupied the small cells and were subjected to unspeakable physical and psychological torment.
While some buildings remain, others have been razed over time after the camp’s liberation by U.S. forces on April 29, 1945, like the actual barracks and the notorious Block 5, where heinous medical experimentation was conducted on defenseless prisoners, such as immersions in freezing water to study how long a human could remain alive until he froze to death and infecting others with malaria to study the effects.
We were there for almost three hours, and during that time, it was the oddest experience I have ever had while traveling. From school-age groups to senior-dominated groups such as mine, as we walked the grounds and went through the buildings, there was a palpable absence of laughter and chatter and few of the smiles so pervasive at other tourist sites filled with visitors thrilled to be on vacation. However, in this place, all grasp the notion that any jocularity would be so inappropriate.
Despite my original aversion to seeing Dachau in 2015, I’m glad I went this time, as a reminder as to what’s on the other side of humanity’s coin, the side opposite the one that shows mankind’s compassion and good will. And, of course, that other side bears the inscription of the inscrutable and profound evil that somehow permeates our world.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.