Friday, July 10, 2009

July 7: Dachau and Downtown Munich

This morning we had the honor of visiting Dachau Concentration Camp. This was the number one reason I wanted to visit Munich, and it was well worth it. Words to describe my experience there escape me. It is easy to describe the tangible aspects - where things were, what was in each building and how it looked, etc. However, I am not sure that words exist in any language to fully describe the feel or emotion of Dachau. Certain words or emotions repeatedly popped into my consciousness several times and the first one was ghost town. It was like visiting a ghost town, and when I would stop and think about what occurred there, I couldn’t help but get choked up.

After exiting the bus, I looked around at the beautiful landscape with a babbling brook running through and had I not known where I was headed, I would never have guessed that a concentration camp lurked right around the corner. As we made our way to the gate into Dachau, we noticed the crumbling remains of a train platform and train tracks. It was easy to imagine the SS yelling and guard dogs barking at the prisoners being unloaded there. I walked through the black iron gate and was surprised to see that the gate to Dachau was, like Auschwitz, marked with infamous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes One Free.”

Once you walk through the gate, you stand on the Appelplatz – the open courtyard where the infamous role call took place. To the right was the maintenance house, and to the left were rows of barracks. We were able to tour one of the two barracks that are still standing - the rest have been leveled - and view the bunks and workroom inside (the bunks were not the originals, but as you progressed it showed how over the years the bunks evolved to accommodate beyond their original capacity). The word/feel that perpetually ran through my mind in the barracks area was graveyard.

Perhaps the most emotional part of the tour was going through the crematorium. We took the path that a prisoner would have followed - fumigation/disinfection chamber, registration room, waiting area, gas chamber (marked "shower"), death chamber 1, oven room, and death chamber 2. Standing in the darkness of gas chamber was chilling to say the least. In both the gas chamber and the fumigation rooms (where they would disinfect prisoners belongings), I immediately noticed the metal grates and when I went outside I looked for and immediately found the metal chutes where they would drop down the Zyklon B pellets in order to emit the poisonous gas through the metal grates.

Dachau never used its gas chamber like the death camps did for mass killings. Instead, prisoners there - who were predominately political dissidents, (such as Communists), clergy who opposed Hitler, and of course, Jews and Gypsies - were worked or tortured to death or simply executed. One of the main forms of execution was to hang them from the rafters right in front of the crematorium ovens. Although there were two death chambers (storage rooms in which to keep the dead bodies before they were put in the ovens), as time went on the number of corpses became too massive for the space available, so there were a few mass graves near the outer perimeters of the camp. I am still searching for the word(s) to adequately relay to you the somberness of this place. Words like sadness, death, evil, anger, sorrow, and disgust are all naturally there, but there is so much more to it than that.

The last building we visited was the jail rooms for "special prisoners." It is also where much of the formalized torture was carried out. One of the men who attempted to assassinate Hitler was briefly housed in here before his execution.

Unfortunately, two other recurring words that floated through my brain were rudeness and irreverence. As a teacher, I am always on the lookout for texters. Texting while I am teaching is a HUGE pet peeve as I find it horribly rude, not to mention that the more they don't pay attention, the less they learn. However, what I saw at Dachau went above and beyond the rudeness of texting in the classroom. Teenagers were actually texting in the gas chamber! Many people were loud and laughing and I was not the only one disturbed by this. Most of our students and chaperones noticed the same behavior when they went through and were equally aghast. Sherry and I had to shush people a few times and I was on the verge of whipping out a soap box and speaking my mind (the only problem was that the better part of the irreverent noise makers were not speaking English, so they were spared my wrath...)

One major repetive concept I couldn’t get over was the paradox between the ugly side of humanity that was revealed there and the beauty of nature that surrounded the camp. To look at the babbling brook and lush vegetation that encapsulated the stark, bare concrete and stone that symbolized death was difficult to wrap my head around. In fact, it brings to mind one of the other words that pervaded my thoughts - surreal. The whole experience was very surreal because not only is it difficult to think about what happened on the very ground upon which you are standing, but because you just cannot fathom how any one human could do these things to another.

Dachau was a solemn and emotional experience, but one I think we all appreciated and will never forget. We left and traveled back to Munich to do some exploring. Of course, it poured buckets again and we made further good use of our umbrellas. It was also quite chilly and our jackets and sweatshirts came in very handy.

Dinner was at another Biergarten and consisted of chicken in a cream sauce and spaetzle. I am not a big fan of dumplings, but the spaetzle was awesome. And you should see the pretzels around here! They are as big as your head! It is crazy.

With full bellies and tired bodies, we all opted to go back to the hotel and get some rest for our big day castle hopping…

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