A month ago, in April 2011, I took a trip to Munich, Germany and the surrounding area. One of the must-see sights there is the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, just outside of Munich and near the village of Dachau.
The Dachau concentration camp is one of the more well-known of the Nazi’s concentration camp system, primarily because it was the first concentration camp built by the Nazi’s and it was used as a model for all the others in the system.
Today, the memorial at Dachau is a beautiful place. In fact, it seems too beautiful, pristine, and graceful compared to the horrors that took place there. It is quite difficult to appreciate what the prisoners lived through by seeing it today.
The original prisoner barracks of the camp do not exist. The two buildings that can be seen today are a reconstruction, and the interior is much more pristine and museum-like than what people experienced during the camp’s operation.
[caption id=”” align=”alignright” width=”180” caption=”The gas chamber of the new crematorium building, disguised as a shower room”] [/caption]
Where the horrors of Dachau do become very real is when you visited the crematorium area towards the rear of the camp. Along the way, you pass the foundation footprints of the original barracks, as well as several religious memorials for various faiths that have been built at the camp since the site was converted into a memorial. And then, you come to the crematoriums.
The original crematorium was small and grisly looking, but nothing compared to the new crematorium complex. This building was a model for the mass-murder machines the Nazi used at bigger camps such as Auschwitz. In a single structure were areas for delousing clothes, a room for prisoners to disrobe, a gas chamber disguised as a shower room, and a larger crematorium area designed to keep up with the heavy body load the gas chamber was capable of producing.
[caption id=”” align=”alignleft” width=”240” caption=”Grave of Thousands Unknown”] [/caption]
Behind the new crematorium building the character of Dachau changes again. Here we have some of the most sacred ground on the memorial site - the locations where much of the cremated remains were buried, along with pistol execution ranges. These areas are memorialized by nature gardens today, and are really quite beautiful during the spring time - in some respects, visiting Dachau in the middle of winter when it’s raining might have seemed more appropriate for the nature of the place.
If you’d like to see the rest of my pictures from my visit to Dachau, you can find them here, on Flickr.
If you’re visiting Munich, I highly recommend Radius Tours as a way to visit sights such as Dachau. All of the guides I experienced while there were fantastic sources of knowledge and really added to the experience.
The Passage of Time
World War II has always been ancient history for me - not much more real than the American Revolution or the Norman Conquest. I’ve met several people who fought in the war, or lived through some of the battles as civillians, and several survivors of the Holocaust. But, the events still do not exist in my actual memory, so it’s hard to have a true appreciation of what happened.
And yet, I began to fully appreciate just how recently World War II really was during my visit to Dachau.
Before this trip to Europe, my last trip out of North America was just over 32 years ago when my parents took me home to Texas after living a couple of years in Saudi Arabia. We went home via the Far East and visited Bahrain, Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. I remember this trip like it was yesterday. I was only 8 years old at the time, but my memories of the trip and its impact on my life remain a strong part of who I am. Quite frankly, 32 years ago just doesn’t seem that long to me. I would imagine the same can be said for most people who have reached middle-age and beyond.
The US Army liberated the Dachau concentration camp on April 29th, 1945 - 66 years ago. In a coincidence (at least for the purposes of this blog post, so bear with me), this is just under 34 years before my trip mentioned above, and only 25 years before I was born. This quick little bit of date math gave me much more appreciation of how just how recently in history the war was. Being physically at such a place as Dachau no doubt contributed - I would have expected the same thoughts to have occurred had I visited Normandy or any other significant historical place of the war.
World War II of course will always just be history to me - I didn’t live through it. The same is true for my parents and their generation. My grandparents did live through, but it’s hard to appreciate their experiences and memories, especially if they are reluctant to share. Listening to the stories and interviews of those who lived through it all, and especially those who survived the Holocaust, can be appreciated so much more when you can connect it to your own experiences of time.
Yes, 66 years ago is a really long time ago, and the world was such a different place, and yet, it really just was not that long ago.