Munich Part I: A Reluctant Visit to Dachau

About Munich: Munich is the third largest city in Germany and the largest city in the region of Bavaria. It’s said (often as a joke) that Bavaria is not part of Germany, but close to it. In fact, Bavaria is to Germany what Catalonia is to Spain: a region with its own particular identity, history and language. Unlike the rest of Germany, in Bavaria the majority of the population is Catholic, and the current pope, Benedict XVI was born in the region. Bavaria is home to Oktoberfest, and the Neuschwanstein Castle (you know, the one that inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle) among other wonders.
Even though Munich is grey, chilly and bare of Barcelona’s palm trees, cheap and tasty food is worth shivering on the street for. It’s after 10pm, late for Germans, but early for traveling Mediterraneans like my husband and I, so we settle on a quick bite from one of many sausage carts. A white sausage with spicy mustard on a hard roll and it’s off to bed. Tomorrow, to my intense displeasure, I’m being forced to make an exchange of sorts: for my husband: one day in Dachau, home to the first Nazi Concentration Camp, the model for all others and the so-called “school of violence” for the S.S. For me: one day in the village of Schwangau, indulging in my continuing fascination with not-so-fairy tales and castles
at the Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein Castles.
Reluctantly I allow my husband to lace his fingers through mine and pull me by the hand towards the train station first thing the next day. I’m more than reluctant; I’m terrified of my feelings.  I’m deeply affected by these types of monuments, so in my cowardice, I tend to avoid them. The early train is spotlessly clean and nearly empty. While I try to appreciate the scenery and not dread the day ahead, I’m having some trouble. My thoughts are splattered with images from Schindler’s List.

Photo of the gate at Dachau, taken from, reads “Work will make you free.”

After a short bus ride, we approach the camp. The entryway reads “Arbeit macht frei” –Work will make you free. Off to one side there’s information about how the camp was liberated by the Rainbow division of the American Army.  The grey sky, the colorless cold of this place is seeping into my skin. Where are rainbows and castles when you need them?
We trek the path that the new arrivals once followed, passing through the gatehouse to face an iron nest of stylized skeletal figures and barbed wire masterfully woven together. Dedicated in 1968, the sculpture was designed by Yugoslavian artist and concentration camp survivor Nandor Glid. The inscription in front of it reads “May the example of those who were exterminated here…. unite the living in their defense of peace and freedom and in reverence of human dignity.”
We find our way to the Shunt Room, where prisoners were forced to undress and give up all of their personal possessions before being issued identification numbers. While I try not to frown, or even worse, cry, my husband pulls me along to the next area. The baths. Here prisoners had their heads shaved, were “disinfected”, showered. Some were sent to the barracks in their uniforms and some were sent to the bunker, because apparently the Nazis needed a prison within a prison for further punishment and torture. We step softly, progressing from cell to cell listening to first hand accounts of the prisoners detained here. I’m not proud of myself, but I’m upset and jumping out of my skin, and my first instinct is to flee. I breathe deep, accompany my husband to the barracks and do my best to compose myself. Only two of the 34 barracks have been reconstructed and they demonstrate how the camp became excessively overfilled, showing the progression from the original barrack model, designed to hold 200 prisoners, to the final design, holding somewhere in the area of 1,600 prisoners per barrack, prisoners stacked upon prisoners with no spaces between the progressively smaller and taller bunks.
Already chilled, the tour of the crematorium is beyond my limits and I’m turning on my heel after mere moments inside. I’m done. I suddenly understand why the American troops insisted on dragging Dachau’s residents to the camp to physically see the piles of bodies, to see the state of the prisoners that survived, to see what had been going on right on their doorsteps. The story goes that many couldn’t believe their eyes and convincingly seemed to have no idea. Maybe somethings we do have to see to believe. Who would want to believe human beings were capable of such atrocities?
Dachau stands not only as a tribute to the lives maimed and lost in concentration camps, but a reminder, lest we forget the incredible evil man is capable of.
While “glad” I went is a stretch, and I wouldn’t go back for seconds, I would recommend visiting at least one concentration camp. That said, I prefer a lighter, fluffier tourism: landscapes, architecture, and food, these are the things that upbeat travel make.

First Published in the Tipton Times. Chris Ciolli, Copyright 2011. All Rights Reserved. 

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