By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
The announcement first came in German, then English: Next stop Dachau.
It was a beautiful sunny day in September. It was unseasonably warm; 80 degrees or so.
I stepped off the train and looked for the bus to take me to the KZ Dachau. I was in a hurry. I had to catch a night train to Rome that evening, and I wanted to get back to Munich to ‘flaneur’ around. Luckily, there was a bus waiting. It was slowly filling with tourists. I was one of them. We had come to see the first Nazi Concentration Camp. I hopped on the bus, and sat down. As the bus pulled out, I was struck with a sense of discordance. Dachua is not just a camp. It is a surburban enclave. It is….quaint. It is beautiful.
My imagination had not prepared me for what lay outside the bus window. Here was a supermarket, there was a small restaurant. People were walking dogs, enjoying the sun on patios and drinking coffee at the local Starbucks. The sun and blue sky made the suburb feel alive. The colorful houses and buildings of green, red, blue seemed incongruous with the black and white photos of the camp stuck indelibly in my mind from countless history books.
As the bus made turn after turn, I wondered how far outside this little German suburb filled with gemütlichkeit we would travel. Surely, the camp must be far removed in distance from the pleasant scenes I just passed. There must be woods to cross through; perhaps some empty fields? But no. Here a park, there an electronics’ store, and the next stop was the ‘KZ’ (Konzentrationslager).
I stepped off the bus, back into the sunny warmth. There are tourists everywhere, slowly walking through a twisting wooded pass. Before entering there was a sign of notices=. No dogs, no Neo-Nazi clothing….be serious. This is hallowed ground. Respect the over 30,000 dead of Dachau. Remember that they faced murder, torture, malnutrition, illness. Forget about all that world you passed through to get here. Throw your Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte away.
The camp is large. People walk around in a daze. Student groups mill around teachers. Religious pilgrims go to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish memorial chapels. I really don’t want to take pictures, but I can’t not. ‘Click’…the barbwire fence. ‘Click’…. the crematorium. Glance at the ovens. Walk inside the gas chamber. Don’t worry though, it was never used. Look, over there! ‘Click’….a meandering path into the shady woods. Escape the sun. But there is no escape from this place. The woods hold a plaque informing the visitor that the dilapidated wall to the left was the pistol execution range. The human nightmare scars nature. The remnants of a ‘blood-ditch’ used to easily clean up the aftermath of the executions makes that clear.
Need to get out of these woods. Back into that sun. It is beating down. The sky is perfect. I am sure a couple hundred yards away, some teenagers are sitting in that park enjoying the last chance for a summer tan.
As I walk out, I get a distasteful moment of shock. A young woman wearing heels and sunglasses asks her father or older boyfriend to take a photo of her leaning against the front gate that says ‘Arbeit Macht Frei‘. She poses. It looks as though she is concerned about her best side. All I can do is raise an eyebrow.
I walk back to the bus stop. I need to get to Munich. The bus is crowded for the ride back to the bahnhof. I look out the window again, and life is going on as if all is normal. I wonder how these people out for walks to enjoy the sun can live in a place like this? How do you say you live in Dachau? ‘I grew up in Dachau’, ‘I go to school in Dachau’, ‘I work in Dachau’. The identity of these people is connected to a name that means cruelty and death. The KZ is central to their town. When it was built in 1933 it was an economic opportunity. Hundreds of jobs for the local populace; you need KZ guards after-all. And who is going to feed all those prisoners and guards? Bakeries, restaurants, markets saw the opportunity.
No longer do prisoners and guards need nourishment. Now it is I and my fellow tourists. Stop for a bite at a local cafe after seeing the barracks. Grab a coffee, and try to erase your memories. If you need to, reserve a room at a local inn and find some local Bavarian fare. A little beer never hurts.
The people of Dachau must just get acclimatized. They are desensitized to the horror that is right next door. Or, maybe they just turn away and ignore it. If the Nazi period taught us anything, it is that people are really good at doing that.