A Visit to Dachau
by Margi Desmond
It is impossible to emotionally prepare for a trip to the site of the Dachau Concentration Camp—the first Bavarian state camp that served as a model for the vast concentration camp system under Schutzstaffel (SS) management during World War II. Living on Kreiger Kaserne, a United States military base a mere two-hour drive away and determined to pay her respects to all those who perished, Army wife, Amanda Lahane, felt it her duty to visit the site, regardless of her own feelings of trepidation. With her husband, Marc, deployed to Afghanistan, now was a good time to take the tour, so if the visit upset her, he wouldn’t worry about her. Mark was protective of Amanda and never liked to see her sad. Going on the guided tour with her new friend and neighbor, Rachel, was an ideal way to visit the site—both convenient and economical—given the atrocious gas prices in Europe.
“I’ve delayed the trip to the memorial site for over a year because every time I thought about visiting, I became overwhelmed with dread and sadness,” Rachel explained. The two military wives promised to support each other throughout the trip.
Amanda and Rachel walked from their post housing to the Community Center parking lot where the tour bus waited for travelers. People who lived off post arrived in their vehicles, parked in the remote parking spots, and walked to the bus. Everyone wore somber expressions, for this was no wine tour, no trip to a castle or cathedral. People, young and old, of various beliefs gathered together to remember and pay their respects the Holocaust victims. In an age where everyone felt free to disagree and debate, to voice their own opinions, in an age of ear buds and smartphones, reality shows, texting and social media updates, one thing was common: respect for the victims. Amanda was both glad and relieved to see everyone take the trip seriously.
The tour guide stood at the bus door with a clipboard.
“Everyone, please check your seat assignments with me prior to boarding the bus. We’ve tried our best to seat family members together, and single travelers will sit with each other. If you’re alone, no worries, you’re sure to make friends quickly with the other lone passengers.” Everyone shuffled towards the tour guide and formed a line. When Amanda and Rachel approached, the guide gave them a seat assignment beside each other and they boarded the bus.
“I studied the Holocaust in school,” Amanda said. “Those black and white photos of the starving people inside barbed wire fences and the pictures of the dead are burned in my memory. I can’t believe I’ll actually be standing on the same soil on which those people stood.”
“I think I’ll probably cry.” Rachel took out a small package of tissues from her purse. “See, I came prepared.”
“Good thinking. I may need a couple too, I think.” Amanda shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s as if my mind can’t comprehend where I’m going. It’s like there’s a door deep down in my emotions that’s closed and won’t allow my imagination to venture further.” The bus full of passengers grew warm. Amanda took off her jacket. She hoped the driver would turn up the air conditioning once they started traveling.
“Think of all those people crammed on trains, ten times worse than this crowded bus, all going to Dachau,” Rachel said.
“The conditions were horrendous. Imagine how frightened those poor people must’ve been. They’d been robbed of all their possessions except for the little bit they could carry, and many had been separated from friends and family.” Amanda took a deep breath, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes, trying to mentally prepare for the trip.
After the last of the tourists settled on the bus, the tour guide began. “Hallo everyone. My name’s Betty and I’m a USO volunteer. I’ve conducted the tour to Dachau for the past fourteen years and will provide you with historical facts and figures throughout our walk through the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. Our drive to the site will take a little more than two hours. Once we arrive, restroom facilities will be available to you. Please, for the sake of your fellow passengers, limit bathroom use on the bus to ‘Number One’ only,” Betty smiled and a few passengers chuckled. It was a serious group, given the destination.
The bus driver closed the door, released the break, cranked up the air conditioning, and steered out the parking lot. “No turning back now,” Amanda thought as they drove through the access gate towards the autobahn.
Rachel pulled out her iPad, adjusted the volume to “mute,” and played Bejeweled.
Amanda grabbed a paperback book she’d obtained from the library’s giveaway shelf and attempted to read the cozy mystery, but her mind kept wandering to the destination. She gazed out the window, at the sunny day, beautiful rolling hills, populated every so often by little villages with red-roofed buildings, always with a church steeple dominating the middle of the town. How could a country with an overabundance of churches and cathedrals have been the site of such violence? Did the parishioners listen to the sermons? Didn’t they practice what was preached to them? It was utterly inconceivable to her.
The two-hour ride went by quickly as Amanda read about a cupcake chef turned amateur sleuth attempt to help her friend who unwittingly became the lead suspect in the murder of the small community’s crotchety mechanic.
Betty, the tour guide, stood at the front of the bus and grabbed the edge of a seat to steady herself as the bus traveled through town. “Everyone, this is the town of Dachau. The memorial site is a few kilometers from here.”
“Look, a Burger King,” Rachel said, pointing out the window.
The irony of a fast food joint so close to the site of mass starvation wasn’t lost on Amanda. But that was long ago, a lesson to future generations.
The bus maneuvered through the town roads similar to other German villages. Shops, restaurants, houses, apartments, typical German civilization. Springtime flowers, green trees, and a pleasant breeze. One would never know they were located a few hundred feet from Hell’s entrance. The bus turned left onto a short driveway leading to a gravel parking lot surrounded by a beautiful wooded area. Passengers gathered their belongings and prepared to leave the bus.
As Amanda and the other tour group members followed Betty through the parking lot, Amanda noted the warm sunshine, beautiful and lush green trees, and the quiet surroundings. The gravel crunched beneath their feet, birds chirped, and people whispered to each other. The entire scene begged of respect, similar to entering a sacred ground. Tears welled in her eyes, but Amanda fought them back. She’d been told a particular smell from the crematorium and mass graves still lingered, but she did not detect any. She wasn’t sure. Her body was numb, in an emotional protective mode.
A man spoke up. “Don’t tell me the villagers didn’t know what was going on here. The camp’s right here smack in the village.”
Betty turned to the group. “Actually, yes, the town of Dachau welcomed the concentration camp. The site once held a munitions factory. After the factory closed, the economy tanked. The villagers hoped the camp would stimulate the local economy.”
Several people shook their heads in obvious disgust.
“The mayor even approved a bus line leading back and forth from the city to the camp for workers.”
Betty shook her head. “No. In the beginning, in 1933, the camp housed political prisoners. The Bavarian Political Police took Communists and Social Democrats into ‘protective custody.’”
The man huffed.
“Then later, officials expanded the camp, forcing the prisoners to complete construction. Before the liberation, a group of town rebels tried to invade the camp, but they were shot to death.”
Betty turned and continued to lead the group down a pathway to the visitors’ center. “Following the camp’s liberation on April 29, 1945, U.S. troops forced Dachau town citizens to view the crematorium and piles of corpses. The Allies used Nazi party functionaries and SS members to bury the dead. Later, the camp served as an internment camp, and military courts held war crime trials on the grounds.” Betty stopped in front of the visitors’ center. “Later, faced with a catastrophic housing shortage, the camp housed thousands of refugees since after the war many people had nothing, no families, no possessions.”
Betty pointed to the visitors’ center. “There are restroom facilities for everyone in here. Feel free to browse in the bookstore also.” Amanda and Rachel explored the bookshop, featuring many non-fiction accounts of Dachau and World War II, along with fictional bestsellers regarding the Holocaust. One of those fictional books being The Book Thief, an account of a little German girl’s struggle during the war chronicling the fear and intimidation perpetuated on the German people by the Nazi regime.
“This is an excellent book,” Amanda told Rachel. “It gives readers insight into the struggle the many German people endured during World War II. The book made me understand that not all Germans were Nazis and that many were forced into submission for fear that they, too, would be sent to the concentration camps.”
Nazis: yesterday’s terrorists.
The group followed Betty to the Jourhaus, the camp entrance and exit. Tourists stopped to take photographs and paused before walking through the metal gate. On both sides of the gate, tablets hung in honor of the camp’s liberators: the U.S. Army’s 20th Armored Division and 42nd Rainbow Division. The metal gate, situated straight ahead, read Arbeit Macht Frei, which Betty translated for the group: Work will set you free.
Amanda felt her heart sink as she walked through the gate. She stood close to Rachel and gazed at her friend as her eyes scanned the large gravel area before them.
“This is the Roll-call Square,” Betty explained.
“We’re standing right where those poor people stood,” Rachel said. Amanda imagined thousands of emaciated prisoners in striped clothing standing for roll call every morning and night, exhausted from working dawn to dusk, starving, and sick.
Betty guided the tour group into the Schubraum, the exact path the prisoners walked years ago. “You’re standing in the shunt room, where officials processed all prisoners,” she explained. “Guards confiscated all prisoner possessions, including clothing. Each naked person endured twenty-five lashes or more and listened to a ‘welcome speech’ in which the protective custody camp leader, Josef Jarolin, told them, and I quote,” she read from her clipboard, “‘You have no rights, no honor, and no protection. You’re a pile of shit and will be treated as such.’”
Amanda walked to a display case housing a striped prisoner uniform with a yellow star. A wave of nausea and dizziness traveled through her body.
“You okay?” Rachel asked. “You’re pale.”
Amanda nodded. “It’s awful.”
Rachel squeezed Amanda’s hand. They walked arm-in-arm viewing display cases containing personal possessions ranging from spectacles to food bowls and spoons. “Look.” Rachel pointed to an identity patch chart. “You always hear of the Jews’ yellow patch, but there were many more.”
Betty approached the two women. “The original political prisoners wore a red patch, red and yellow if they were Jewish political prisoners.”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses wore purple patches. Why Jehovah’s Witnesses?” Amanda asked.
“Because they refused to do give the Hitler salute and serve in the military,” Betty explained. “They were known for their honesty and integrity, and guards considered them low flight risks. Therefore, they were often given job duties that were particularly difficult to guard.”
“Criminals, emigrants, homosexuals,” Rachel read. “Many more people than just Jews.”
“Indeed,” Betty said. “Follow me.” The tour group walked with Betty to another room, with drains in the floors and columns throughout the space. “This area—the bath—is where guards shaved prisoner’s heads. The Nazis used the hair to make felt. Shaving everyone’s heads also served as a way to humiliate them. Once the hair grew to two centimeters length, guards would shave the head again. It’s in here that the prisoners took their weekly baths. It’s also where guards would submit the prisoners to ‘pole hanging.’”
“What’s that?” a lady asked.
“They’d tie a prisoner’s hands behind his back with a chain and force him to stand on a footstool. The guard would then attach the chain from a hook and kick away the stool.”
Amanda realized she’d been holding her breath. “How….”
Betty continued, “Of those who actually survived the harsh punishment, many suffered lifelong shoulder and wrist damage.”
“I need air,” Rachel said. “Want to walk outside with me?”
“Yes.” The two exited the Schubraum, and looked at various memorials and statues erected by groups honoring the victims.
Once everyone in the group had finished looking at the exhibit in the Schubraum, Betty guided them to the bunker courtyard where she explained the punishments doled out to prisoners both in the courtyard and inside the bunker cells. Everyone followed Betty thorough the long, dark hallway and peeked into the small rooms where prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, tortured, and often murdered. “Many times, the guards would encourage prisoners to commit suicide to escape the torture,” she explained.
The tour proceeded to a reconstruction of one of the barracks where visitors were able to see the wooden bunks, toilet room, and the day room lined with lockers for the few meager items, such as a plate or fork, prisoners might possess. “Originally, the camp was designed to hold six thousand prisoners,” Betty explained. “By the time the U.S. Army liberated the camp, it contained 30,000 prisoners.”
“Can you imagine all of them crammed in those bunks?” Amanda asked. “This camp is pretty small considering the number of the people held captive.”
Rachel shook her head in obvious disgust. “It’s shameful.”
The gravel crunched under their feet and cameras clicked as the group walked down the camp road, each side marked to show where the thirty-four barracks previously stood. Markers at each site indicated the barrack number, and racial category, starting with German prisoner barracks, and progressing with the barracks housing what the Nazis considered the inferior races.
“The Nazis utilized ‘divide and rule’ standards, by breaking up prisoner solidarity through racist and nationality categorizations: German, Czech, Polish, Russian, Italian, French, and of course, always last, the Jews,” Betty explained to the tour group. “At the end of the road stands the Mortal Agony of Christ chapel and other religious memorials.”
After viewing the various religious memorials, the group proceeded across the bridge. Amanda noted the wide, barbed wire-entangled fence and guard post. Straight ahead stood “Barrack X,” the crematorium, its smokestack looming above. Amanda’s heart sank to her stomach.
Betty guided them to the left entrance of the building. “In this first room, guards instructed the prisoners to disrobe in preparation for a shower.”
“Like anyone believed that,” Rachel said. “I can’t fathom the terror they must’ve felt.”
They followed Betty into the gas chamber, a small, dark room with a low ceiling, followed by a room where workers piled the dead bodies awaiting cremation.
“The crematorium ovens worked around the clock,” Betty explained. “They were staffed by prisoners who were kept separate from the others in the camp so the activity conducted here would not be made known to other prisoners. They worked until they dropped, then the guards would exterminate them and assign new replacement workers from the prison population.”
Amanda and Rachel, along with the rest of the tour group, stared at the ovens in horror and disgust. Some cried. Others exhaled in anger, shook their heads.
“Towards the end, there were too many human remains for the crematorium to handle. U.S. soldiers found mass graves, train cars loaded with the dead, and piles of bodies throughout the camp,” Betty said.
As the group retraced their journey from the crematorium down the camp road, Betty continued, “After the war, German society adopted a ‘repress and forget’ attitude toward the camp, but former prisoners insisted on preserving the grounds as a place of learning and remembrance of European history. Since the memorial’s opening on May 9, 1965—on the 20th anniversary of its liberation—the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site has hosted more than twenty million visitors worldwide.”
Amanda picked up a small, smooth pebble from the gravel road and said to Rachel, “I’m going to keep this always, and whenever I feel sorry for myself or feel overwhelmed, I’m going to think of those poor people and everything they had to endure. I’ll use it as a reminder to have strength during tough times.”
Amanda slipped the pebble in her pocket and said a prayer for the victims.
Margi Desmond has written more than 100 articles and short stories. A United States Army wife, Margi and her husband are stationed in Germany. She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America, serves as a selector and judge for the annual Colorado Book Awards, judges for the annual Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence, and facilitates a writing group at the military library in Stuttgart, Germany. Margi’s website is available at http://www.margidesmond.com or check out her Facebook Author Page at https://www.facebook.com/MargiDesmond?ref=hl