Published: December 10th 2009July 22nd 1997
(Tuesday, July 22)
Located just 20 kilometers north-west of Munich is a sleepy Bavarian town. The quaint city streets are lined with mature trees forming a dense canopy over the span of the roadway. The town is situated just far enough away from Munich to be away from all the hustle and bustle. It is an everyday town. Normal. Average German men, women and families go about their lives in an average fashion. My bus ride from Munich took about thirty minutes. The scenery blurred by as I stared out the bus window. The ordinariness of the ride later proved to be the definition of irony. Fifty years ago, young men the same age or younger than me would have travelled down the same ordinary roads, passed through the same sleepy town and had been deceived by the same façade. Most would be American boys who volunteered to serve their country and help free Europe from the Nazi menace. By Spring 1945, the American forces had effectively defeated the German army in the west and they gradually began to enter and occupy Germany. As the boys travelled the same roads in their jeeps and personnel carriers, they would also watch the same locals go about their daily existence. Ladies in pretty flowered dresses would go about hanging their laundry on a clothesline; professional middle-aged men would look up from reading their local newspaper and watch the convoy pass. Older gentlemen dressed in long overcoats and fedoras, would be seen taking a short walk upon the cobbled sidewalk. All this took place in purposeful ignorance, to what was really going on in their midst. How horrible was their contemptuous indifference.
Dachau was the first place I visited on this day. Akin to the young soldiers who approached the camp in 1945, I was naively unaware about what I was about to encounter. I was lucky. I was not burdened with the scarring memory and reality of the real thing. One can only imagine the horror that a young soldier would find when he approached Dachau’s gates during the war. The stench of death, filth, waste and rot would instantly overpower him. Amazed and confused, he would stand outside the fence looking inside at the emaciated, wretched souls of men. The forsaken tortured men would bravely attempt to hold themselves up with their skeletal hands, the rust-encrusted barbed fences cutting into the remaining flesh. Each prisoner would say nothing, their faces begging for nothing other than help to escape from the horror of their existence. Imagine the scene, the atmosphere, the relative helplessness that these teenaged soldiers felt when they came upon such a sight. 67,000 prisoners remained in the camp when the US Army discovered the camp. Now turn your thoughts and recall the local German lady making sure that her white cotton nightgown was clean and fresh. Remember that for almost her entire life she lived within earshot of the firing squads and every day looked up to see the plumes of smoke wafting from the crematoriums.
Officially classified as a camp for political prisoners, Dachau was ordered to be created by Himmler in 1933. It was the first camp opened by the Nazi’s. From 1933 to 1945, Dachau was used to torture and terrorize over 200,000 men. While not on the scale of the death camps, Auchwitz or Bergen-Belsen, records detail that approximately 35,000 men were killed by the Germans within its grounds. Designed with the purpose of breaking people, Dachau kept strict order and discipline amongst its prisoners. If one did not obey a commandant’s orders or disregarded their duties they were either shot or sent to one of the other death camps. As the Nazi gradually descended into true evil, the camp’s uses mirrored their wickedness. SS doctors conducted medical experiments on the prisoners by subjecting them to such barbaric ordeals like atmospheric pressure tests, hypothermia, malaria, amongst others. Many of the dead succumbed to starvation, exposure, beating, disease or degradation.
Today, when one passes through the main gates they proceed through the main building. This currently serves as an interactive information centre for visitors. Continuing through the building to the grounds, they would stand before a vast compound looking out to row upon row of the outlines of where the original prisoner’s barracks stood. Guard towers stare down from each corner and others high up from the side edges of the camp. The fence that held the prisoners also still remains. Of the original buildings, most were razed to the ground following the liberation and clean up of the camp. However, representative samples of some prisoner barracks have since been reconstructed to provide tourists with an example of the conditions that existing upon liberation. As almost every original structure has been dismantled, I find it difficult to transport myself back to 1945 in order to try to better appreciate the circumstances of the prisoners. Dachau felt white-washed. By covering up the scars of the past, it is difficult to realize what it was really like to be there. Some may say that it is a good thing. Move on. Remind the people of the past with pictures and memorials. However, for one, Auchwitz, remembers its’ evil past a different way. If you visit Auchwitz today, you see piles of eyeglasses, piles of shoes and rows of stacked luggage all remain untouched from the day they were first taken from the dead. While morbid and terrible, I think that is a much better way to ensure that the world truly never forgets.
The most moving part of my tour took place when I took a walk past the memorials to the thousands of victims of the Nazi’s. Located within a small forest in the rear of the camp, memorials of the dead have been erected in the very spot where many of the victims were executed. The forest is situated a good distance away from the main building. This ensures that visitors can contemplate the experience without having to endure the disruptive sounds of visiting school groups. Back in 1944, it was also far away from eyes of the prison population. As I stood in the small forest, I watched the other visitors stare at the memorials, quietly discuss them to a friend or family member. The walk was very peaceful.
I believe that the concentration camp grounds are sacred soil. It was here where the Nazi’s executed thousands of men. In one area, I saw the remains of a wall that was covered in pock marks. The scars represent vicious etches on a concrete tapestry. Each represented a bullet mark left from an executioner’s rifle and signified the death of an innocent victim. Such pock marks are the scars that Germany and Germans cannot wipe away. It remains as a reminder to themselves of their past sins. Nestled about ten feet from the wall was a shallow ditch. Word is that the ditch once held pools of blood spilled from their freshly killed victims. I walked past the monuments remembering those killed in the camp. Stones were placed atop the memorial's faces to symbolise the perpetual memory of the slain souls. As I walked across the sacred ground once again I felt shame, not for myself but for those who take their kids to visit such sights. This place should be a shrine to the memory of a national crime. Instead, it has become a playground for pseudo-liberal parents and educational systems. The blood spilled at Dachau should not be cleaned up for posterity sake but retained to fortify the message that once was the spot that their German ancestors killed innocents because of who they were and what they worshipped. One cannot know the future if they are ignorant of the past. The past is still being cleaned up by modern day Germans. If the pock marked walls are torn down then the memory of those who died against it will also soon vanish. As I left the compound I took a stone from the marching yard where the prisoners assembled each day for roll call.
The visit to Dachau was pretty heavy but I had to move on. Therefore, I got back on the bus and returned to Munich. My agenda for the afternoon included a tour of the Royal Residenz, the Royal Treasury and the Fine Arts Museum. From death to dynasty. From the epitome of hatred to ornate displays of opulence. The transition was incredibly striking. As I tend to be an open minded person, the experience at the former did not cloud my ability to focus on appreciate the latter. Thus, as I continued on into Munich my attention was once again drawn to learning about the treasures and culture accumulated by early German aristocracy. The first stop was the Munich Residenz.
Used as the royal residence of Bavarian Dukes, Electors and Kings, the Residenz was home to German aristocracy for over 500 years. Erected in 1385, the complex grew to encompass 10 formal courtyards and over 130 rooms. Our boys reduced the many rooms of the Residenz to many piles of rubble in 1945, but as in many other historical tourist attractions, the structures have since been rebuilt. Today visitors are able to experience 19th and 19th century German culture within the theme, style and manner of those periods. As I toured through the many rooms, I got to see the fancy garbs that the dainty krauts pranced around in their former days of glory. I saw many outfits dyed in turquoise and ceruse, lots of puffy trim and decorated by a spastic armed with a bead-dazzler. Leading between each room were hallways lined with formal portraits of dead Germans. Statures of more dead Germans greeted visitors upon entry to many of the rooms. To finish off the show, murals of other dead Germans and a few dogs and horses adorned the walls of the many rooms. Sorry, on more important decoration which I forget to mention. It seems that everything was draped in velvet. Purple velvet everywhere. The Residenz was George Kastanzas Germanic Valhalla.
From the rooms of the Residenz, I continued onto the Treasury. Extravagant. That is all I need to say. I don’t know what those Bavarians were up to, however what ever scam they were up to the family was able to accumulate a tidy amount of wealth. It took me an hour to peruse the seemingly endless displays of jewels and treasures. 60 minutes was about the maximum amount of time my eyes could stand. My eyes were literally blinded by the brilliant flashes of light reflecting off the countless diamonds and gold-plated surfaces. This was by far the largest collection of wealth I have ever seen. I am certain that the total value of the exhibits must have surpassed the equivalent monetary value of everything that I have ever seen, ever. Their holdings were stunning. There were diamonds, rubies and big chunks of gold. Gold was plastered in heaps and hunks on rows upon row of jewelled artefacts. I saw crowns, staffs, crucifixes, chains, swords, daggers, clocks, guns....you name it. If these families had anything, even as insignificant as a toothbrush or hairbrush, they would coat it in layers of twenty-four carat gold. It was quite impressive.
In order to fill up the rest of the day I decided to wander over to the Munich Fine Arts Museum. It was actually called something else but I couldn’t pronounce it, so what’s the point? It's an art gallery. The walls were lined with, well…German art. What a surprise! I was greeted with masters from Ruebens, Rembrant, a couple Botticelli’s and one or two Van Goghs. Okay, Ruebens is a Flem, Botticelli is a wop (wonderful old painter) and Van Gogh was a Dutchman. However, I am certain there were one or two canvases splattered by some dead German. Aside from inspiring me to one day do something inspirational, the museum managed to accomplish one thing...tired me out. I left the building as they were bolting the doors shut and I searched desperately for some food. My quest was fulfilled at a quaint biergarden located alongside the train tracks in suburban Munich. It was only one stop from the hostel so I was able to dine and quickly head back to crash. The meal consisted of a dish of local fare. Mmmmm, Kraut fettuccine. Yummy. So much for grabbing the German menu, close your eyes and point to whatever pleases your finger. I should have realised that fettuccine is spelled the same in English, Italian and German. An incredibly delicious pint of a local lager called Hacker-Pschorr washed down my noodly feast and it was nighty-night back at the castle for a tired trooper.