A Town No One Wants For An Address
By Tom Morrow
Of all the places I’ve traveled to over the past half-century, there’s one which I never want to return: Dachau, Germany.
In 1979, I spent three weeks riding the trains through Europe. I chose this particular time of year for two reasons: the kids were back in school and the beer was flowing for Oktoberfest.
While much of Austria and Germany, along with portions of Switzerland, celebrate Oktoberfest. And, you really can’t say you’ve been to this annual brew guzzle unless you go to Munich, capital of Oktoberfest. The three things on my to-do list in this Bavarian city of southeast Germany were the beer gardens, the fabulous national air museum and the small town of Dachau. I couldn’t wait to experience the first two; I had to force myself to visit the latter.
Dachau is a short 15-minute commuter train ride north of Munich. A suburb of the city, Dachau is a name that doesn’t take any explanation unless you’ve been living in a cave or are under 30 and haven’t paid much attention to World War II history. This small town’s claim to infamy is being the site of Hitler’s first concentration camp. On March 20, 1933, 11 days after becoming Munich chief of police, Heinrich Himmler established the Dachau concentration camp on the site of an old World War I munitions factory. For the next 12 years Dachau would be the hub and model for a network of death camps, which covered nearly all of central and eastern Europe.
Compared to the other death camps, Dachau was small. Just over 200,000 prisoners were interned there from 1933 until the Allies liberated the camp in 1945. Some 31,000 are known to have died there — probably more. Unlike Auschwitz, Poland where thousands of prisoners, mostly Jewish, were herded into gas chambers under the pretense of taking showers, no such activities were said to have been conducted at Dachau. The remaining ovens you’ll find today in the one crematorium left standing were used to dispose of bodies of prisoners who died in a variety of ways, from firing squad, to starvation or being worked to death.
Today, the Dachau concentration camp goes almost unnoticed by motorists as they drive along the highway leading north out of the small community. It’s partially hidden by trees and surrounded by housing complexes on all sides.
When I was there it was a place where there were no docents and the Munich chamber of commerce certainly didn’t put it on their tourist map. You had to actually get a road map of the area to find the town of Dachau. For the citizens living there, it can’t be a hometown one could boast of proudly. No amount of goodwill will ever erase the chill one gets when the name of Dachau is mentioned. Visiting is equally chilling.
When you arrive at the Dachau train station with camera in hand, the locals certainly know why you’re there. There are no directions, but information somehow is given, usually involuntarily. There is a bus that will take you from the train station to the camp. When you arrive, the driver simply points across the street and says in near-perfect English, “It’s over there.”
Only a few buildings remain at the death camp to show examples of what was once hundreds of acres a little more than a half-century ago. Portions of the electrified fence, along with a guard tower remain, as do two of the long barracks buildings, which are the only ones remaining of the hundreds in 1945, into which Dachau’s unfortunate inmates were crammed. It was the American army who liberated the camp.
While the death camp isn’t your ordinary tourist attraction, and it’s something the average German would just as soon forget, the government doesn’t ignore this bit of infamous history. In 1965, a grant from the Bavarian government helped establish a special international monument that was erected in 1968 in “roll-call” square, where inmates sometimes had to stand for hours as punishment, even freezing days of the winter.
The place looks peaceful, but one cannot visit there without a crushing feeling of death and evil, which fills the air. It’s a place everyone should visit, but only once.
SCAG SEZ — “You’ve probably noticed that glasses can change one’s personality and world around them — especially if their emptied too often.” — Cecil Scaglione, Mature Life Features