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VISITING DACHAU CONCENTRATION CAMP

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I wrote this essay about my visits to Dachau concentration camp to punch the experience and the story it told deep into my consciousness, so that it will stay with me for the rest of my life. I hope I never go there again, but I have been there and I never want to forget. I’m publishing it here because lately there has been a lot of discussion about Holocaust denial. The Holocaust is a broader term than Shoa, which describes exclusively the Jewish experience. What happened in the Nazis concentration camps went far further than the attempted genocide of Europe’s Jews. And there’s no denying it.

The camp gate, with the Appellplatz beyond.

I had always known about the Holocaust and thought I knew what happened, what caused it and who suffered in it. But I learnt there that the enormity of it was not clear to me nor had it weighed on me as much as it should until I saw this relic of it with my own eyes. Not just the numbers, the famous number, of course, the millions of Jews who died, but the breadth of it across German society, the great sweep of the Nazi determination to take control of mankind and re-order our social and individual destiny. According to the rounded down calculations of post-war research, since we will never know the exact figures, the Jews represent less than half of the total number of victims of the concentration camp system. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, but another eleven million or so people were murdered in one way or another in those camps, Russian and Polish prisoners of war, as well as Roma, social misfits, petty criminals, homosexuals, and the mentally and physically disabled. Anyone whom the Nazis considered “untermensch”, “racially undesirable elements”, were slaughtered, the variety in the methodology of their murders unlimited. People died through the appalling conditions of life on the trains; in the camps they starved or were left to die of disease, particularly septicaemia and gangrene; they died in suicidal attempts to climb the fences of the camps; some, the most to be pitied, were tortured to death by the SS guards or at the hands of Dr. Mengele and his team; they were shot in the streets of their ghettos or on the grounds of the camps. And finally, after 1943, in a programme that was exclusive to the Jews, the Extermination Camps were purpose-built to carry out the so-called Final Solution, the gas chambers and furnaces of which we are all surely well aware.

I was working in Munich for most of 2006. It was my second time working in that city, but I had not got around to making the trip to Dachau during the first sojourn. Maybe I thought it would be depressing (it was) or boring (it was that too, in a way, but perhaps mind-numbing would be a better description). It isn’t far from the city, about twenty or thirty minutes from München Hauptbahnhof (Munich Central Station). It’s within the city limits, though when it was in use, from 1933 until 1945, it was outside the city, on the outskirts of the little town of Dachau, which has since become a suburb of the city.

It is one of the tourist destinations for visitors to Munich, advertised in the tourist literature. My first and longer visit was on a Sunday, one of the sub-tropical summer days that we had been having for a month or so (as it turned out, the last – the next day it began to rain, and it carried on raining almost non-stop for a week). I didn’t feel like sitting in my flat or wandering the streets and parks all day and it seemed like a good day for the visit I had been thinking for a while that I should make.

You take the S2 S-Bahn (Schnell Bahn – Fast Rail) to Dachau, sitting in one of those lovely wide-gauge carriages, not too crowded, cool and well ventilated, out of the centre of the city and into its suburbs. At Dachau Bahnhof you catch a bus to the camp. That Sunday the bus was full and the heat inside was absolutely stifling. I sat with my elbow resting on the sill and with the sun coming through the big window my arm was quickly coated in a layer of oily sweat. Every seat was taken and the standing room was crowded, even though it was a bendy bus with double the normal space for passengers; even though it was a baking hot day when any sensible Münchener goes down to the Isar river to bar-b-q and swim and generally laze around in the sun.

The buses ran every fifteen minutes or so, and as far as I could tell the flow of visitors never slackened while I was there. You could see them pouring in at the gate all afternoon (quite like the war days, in fact – the whole day was filled with ironies of this sort). On the bus I was in the company of tourists from Japan, Australia, America, the UK, and a number of Germans. There was a tour-guide on board, a very loud Australian, with a party of mostly Americans. I had to warm to him though, when he declared that Berlin is his favourite city in the world to his audience, which perforce included at least half the bus, though I presumed he only intended it for the group he was talking to. He certainly liked the sound of his voice, as I suppose a good guide should. Berlin is my favourite city too. Also, as we bowled along praying for the journey to end before we died of the airless heat (irony no. 2), he provided one rather interesting piece of information, giving rise to the first of the chilly thoughts that became the hallmark of my afternoon. As we passed a row of prosperous looking houses, freshly painted in a pale grey with white porticoes and architraves beneath their dark slate roofs, and fronted by well-kept gardens and hedges, he told us that they were built originally for the Schutzstaffel who ran the camp, the SS, as they are commonly known. These houses survived the American attack and are occupied now by a new petit bourgeoisie occupying a similar status in modern Germany to the one once occupied by that paramilitary bureaucracy of the Nazi state. You would think those houses might have been vengefully destroyed, if not by the Americans, at least by the duped (if they were) and shamed (which certainly they were) locals, but I suppose anger and vengeance end where good sense begins: why destroy a perfectly sound house if you can occupy it?

When you get to the camp the bus drops you at a bus shelter next to a large post-war plaque dedicating the site of the camp to the future peace of the world (the first of several similar sentiments expressed in bold memorials of cast iron, stone and bronze that you come across, dotted about the place). There are wide gravel pathways leading off in all directions through groves of low trees and hedgerows. From this moment on there are always stones under your feet, of various sizes, rough and straight from the earth, sorted into their sizes and used to mark out the various different areas, the paths and plateaux and the restored ground plans of the camp as it was in its heyday. I took a guess, correctly it turned out, and headed for the camp itself. The opposite direction led to a beer garden, intended perhaps for refreshment after your visit, but I didn’t feel like going there then or later.

The first you see of the camp is two thin railway tracks almost buried in weeds and gravel, which were once the end of the branch line that ran up from Dachau Bahnhof, stopping just short of the main gateway. The gates are set in an arch that runs through the centre of the old guard-house, a two storey building with small windows and a tiled roof. The gates are a lattice of cast-iron bars, comprising two large panels to allow the entry of transport trucks, with a smaller gate set in their centre for the passage of the prisoners. At the top of the prisoners’ gate, in cast-iron letters, is the infamous, cruel SS joke that was displayed at the entrance of all concentration camps: “arbeit macht frei” –. “WORK SETS YOU FREE”.

The low wall that surrounds the camp adjoins this building on both sides, and beyond, through the narrow gateway, you can see the side of another low building, the Administration block as was (the memorial museum now). You walk in, and, bearing slightly to your left, almost immediately you walk onto the Appellplatz, the Roll Call Ground. This was my first moment of actual shock. I don’t know what I expected, but it was not what greeted my eyes then. The parade ground at which edge I was now standing, is enormous, a great desert of white gravel stretching away in all directions, a glaring expanse under the sun that day, and beyond it the prison huts where I could just make out the tiny figures of tourists making their rounds. Perhaps it was the gravel, or the trees beyond the walls of the camp, but there was a scent in the air, that felt cold, like an olfactory reminder of the cruel past.

On the Appellplatz

In 1933 the camp was established in an abandoned First World War munitions factory, but in 1937-1938 the prisoners were set to work tearing down the old factory and rebuilding the camp. The new campsite was designed to house 6000 prisoners. All the prisoners were kept in rows of barracks that stood on the far side of the Appellplatz. Each barrack block was originally designed to house 200 prisoners. By the end of the war, with some modifications in the layout, but with no increase in the overall ground space, the camp contained some 32000 prisoners, and the barrack buildings housed up to 2000 people each. At the beginning, between 1933 and 1938, the prisoners were mainly political, though some were criminals of one sort or another, and all of them were German. Later the intake broadened as the numbers increased. In the end, 200,000 people from thirty nations had been imprisoned in Dachau and its sub-camps over the years of operation under the Nazis. Of these, around 35,000 died there, of disease, malnutrition, suicide, or execution by shooting, or in the gas chamber or the crematorium.

The barracks are all gone now, their positions marked for the information of visitors by rectangular low concrete kerbs, filled with yet more gravel (I took a stone from the ground of the old medical hut, to keep as my own reminder of what I saw and felt there). These neat rows of rectangles are only markers, they are not remnants of the originals, which were simple wooden huts, built without any foundations, and soon collapsed and rotted away after the liberation of the prisoners and the abandonment of the camp. The loving restoration is a part of a determination on the part of the German people that one can only admire, to keep these places alive in their memories, and more importantly, their consciences (and also, the conscience of the world).

The camp itself was shoddily built and quickly destroyed. There are guide posters wherever you go, with photographs of whatever you are looking at, taken by the SS when they were running the camp. You stand on the Appellplatz and you know you are standing where those men whose pictures you have just seen stood, rigid with fear, standing at attention, sometimes for hours on end, knowing that any movement, any wavering, any slip at all, would get them clouted at least, quite possibly thrown into the punishment cells, or even shot. You walk the Prison Road as it was known to the inmates, that leads between the huts where they ate and slept, worked and died, and you are walking where they walked. Of course, this is always the case with historic sites, so I suppose the difference is those photographs that you just looked at a moment ago and can now picture as you walk. The sun blazed down and it was the same sun that spread typhus like wild fire through the prison population in 1943, and the same sun that baked them in the huts where the SS pretended to give medical assistance but in reality merely used the airless conditions to hasten the victims to their deaths. In winter as in summer, they exposed the inmates to the weather and used it to kill them if it could, or at the least to make their lives a misery. Their cure for scabies, when an epidemic broke out in the winter of 1944, was to bathe the afflicted in cold water and then force them outside in the freezing wind to stand naked for hours on the Appellplatz. Most of them died there.

Eventually I stopped walking around the grounds. At the far end of the site there are two memorials, one Jewish, a vast chimney-like structure half buried in the ground, made of hefty, dark grey granite blocks, and one a Christian chapel. For a moment they put an end to my musing. I realised that I wasn’t thinking anything that hadn’t been thought before, and here were the dedications in bronze plaques, written in German, English, French and Hebrew; the flowers; peace picked out in stones in the Jewish memorial; the plain wooden cross hanging over the altar in the chapel.

Then the Christian bell started tolling. I left and went into the only fully restored prison hut, a facsimile built for the edification of the visitors, so they can see something of the conditions in which the prisoners lived. The hut is divided into three sections, showing the arrangements as they prevailed in, respectively, 1933, 1939, and 1944. You start in 1933. The rooms are nothing but dormitories, rows of bunks, slats of wood walled in by low planks, too short for an average man, so they could only sleep curled up, could never stretch out. The bunks are about two foot wide, and there are two tiers of them. Along the backs, above the heads of the prisoners, there is a narrow shelf for their personal possessions, a curiously detailed little cruelty, as they were not allowed any personal possessions at all. Perhaps it was a design oversight by the carpenters who were not, after all, SS men, but in the strict efficiency of the place, that seems unlikely. Far more likely the shelf was put there to rub in their utter poverty. Everything is made out of pine, and in 1933 the bunk structures look sturdy enough, the floors are well laid, the windows fairly airtight.

I heard one of the guides say that the hut as we saw it now was much dustier and dirtier than it would have been when it was one of the several in the working camp. That was one of the means by which the guards found their excuse to harass the prisoners. Everything had to be kept spotlessly clean, all of the time, and the slightest thing out of place would incur their wrath. The beds were covered by bedspreads with a pattern of rows of small blue and white squares, and these had to line up exactly, bunk after bunk.

Along the length of the hut there are large posters of short extracts from various men’s memoirs, in four languages, with a photograph, sometimes of the author of the quotation, sometimes a general portrait of the prisoners living together. The extracts are taken from books published after the war, and they tell the details of cruelty, the minute to minute, hour by hour impositions and oppressions. There was no let up. The daily routine was to wake and make the beds; eat breakfast (never more than a thin gruel, sometimes just a slice of stale bread), wash their plates and cutlery, and then sweep and wash the floors. Then they were driven out to the Appellplatz for the roll call. Then to work in the workshops. At night they were taken back to the huts to eat and wash the floors again, as well as the bunks and walls. Finally a few hours of sleep before it all started again. The only break in this arduous routine was an hour in the afternoon, when they were allowed to walk up and down the Prison Road. Yet in their letters, their cards to each other, their dedications in their memoirs, even their paintings, all of which I saw later in the museum, they mention only good companionship and fond memories of conversations about politics and art, of history and culture; they write of concerts and good jokes. They do not mention their oppressors.

And all the while, every day, every hour, someone died nearby, or was beaten, or left out in the freezing cold, till they became inured to all the misery surrounding them and also their own. Of course, without that, how could they have kept sane, kept conversing, kept going at all? As one man wrote: “in peace time even a dead cat in the street will draw attention, but here we hardly noticed the bodies left to wait for the guards to take them away.” It is so sad, so dreadful, so impossible to imagine or picture, that in the end it is wonderfully uplifting, that they managed to remain so gracious and civilised in the face of such unrelenting brutality.

The recreated 1933 dormitory looked pretty cramped and uncomfortable. But then you go through to the 1939 section. Now the bunks have no dividing planks, they are lined up side by side, though they are separate bunks as such, but with no gap or partition between them. They are approximately 20 inches wide and a little over five foot long. They are piled three high, rickety looking structures that are designed to be taken apart so they can be moved and reassembled according to need. It is obvious that no one can sleep properly on these beds.

Then you go through to 1944, and there are no longer any bunks at all, but merely wide shelves, platforms, three levels, the topmost almost touching the ceiling, looking like a wooden sheep transport, where the prisoners were crammed in together, making space for themselves as best they could, stacked like animals. The photographs, and the quotations that have been put up on the walls tell it all in case your imagination cannot grasp what it must have been like to live in there.

I left and went over to the museum, which is housed in what were the main administration buildings, the only solid, brick and concrete buildings put up by the Nazis, and surviving to this day. Here all of the photographs are repeated, with more detailed descriptions, and accompanied by many more photographs, letters, paintings, and artefacts of prison life. This is where the gruesome pictures are, and the gruesome reports of perfunctory executions, of suicides, the piles of bodies left outside waiting for cremation. On and on. The awful truth behind these images is that the pictures were all taken by members of the SS, happy to record the effects of their work.

From maps and explanations and the documentary they show in the museum cinema, you learn that Dachau was merely the centre of the local hub of activity. There were other sub-camps nearby, some run independently, some as annexes of the main prison at Dachau. They were built to take the overflow of the increasing population, as the Nazis imposed their ideas of social order and racial purity on their newly conquered subjects. A third of the prisoners were Jews and they undoubtedly suffered horribly at the hands of the SS, but so did the other two thirds, the gypsies, homosexuals and prisoners of war from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. When it was built in 1933 the 6000 or so prisoners between then and 1938 were German citizens, many political prisoners, incarcerated for their communist/socialist beliefs, but also homosexuals, gypsies, the physically or mentally impaired, and a few ordinary criminals. In 1933 it was the gypsies who were, if anything, the most despised. To begin with, at least, and perhaps one could say at heart, the Nazis feared the Jews, for their economic and political power, though they did not admit openly that it was (is) fear. The gypsies, the disabled, the homosexuals they feared no more than dogs running loose in the city, to be gathered up and disposed of for the sake of public harmony. They loathed them, but they hated the Jews.

Among the prisoners of war who came after 1941, they loathed the Russians the most. So much of post-war history, rooted in Stalin’s paranoid fear and distrust of the West, was born of the destructive cruelties of the Nazis during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Mother Russia, and the horror that spread throughout the USSR as a result. In Dachau, Russian prisoners were routinely executed, sometimes by firing squads but frequently as targets for practice on the camp’s shooting range. No one knows how many Russian prisoners were shot overall, but it runs into hundreds of thousands. The Jews, whom they purported to despise and blame for all the ills of the earth, they didn’t shoot, at least not often, and, by the standards then holding, not many. Those they did shoot were the recalcitrant ones, or the ones that happened to annoy one or other of the guards on a particular day, or the few who tried to run for the wire, and those probably only did that as a form of suicide. My research is by no means complete, but as far as I have been able to determine, no one ever escaped from Dachau, or any of the other concentration camps.

So I asked myself, why did they go to all this trouble to keep them alive at all? Why not simply slaughter them, as eventually they began to do, starting with the drawing up of The Final Solution in 1941, though that did not really getting going until 1943 and 1944? The answer, it turns out, falls into two parts.

The first was that they actually weren’t sure of public support for such a policy. It is notable that, whether they were deceiving themselves or not, the German people living in Dachau denied all knowledge of the deaths at the camp, though the smoke from the crematorium would surely have swept over the town at times. If they lied it was from shame. It was one thing to imprison the vagabonds and political enemies of the State, and, of course, the ever-despised Jews, but it was another to kill them off, to murder them en masse, and in fact, the Nazis went to quite considerable lengths to conceal what they were doing once they started. Dachau was in Germany itself, and the use of the crematorium as a place of cold-blooded murder was a late development. At first they let disease and other causes do the killing. The great extermination camps like Auschwitz were built outside Germany, in Poland and Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Russia and elsewhere. When the war did end, whatever may have been their level of self-deceit, the civilian population of Germany was generally horrified by what was found in the concentration camps, the heaps of shoes, clothes and teeth, the infested huts, the piles of rotting bodies. This was not what they had voted for, not what they wanted to be remembered for, and it has remained a shame to them even to the generations born so long after the war that they hardly know its history. But they do know about the concentration camps.

The second part is for me the colder, the more awful somehow. They didn’t shoot them because they didn’t want to waste the ammunition, and while they starved them and beat them, they also worked them. Right up until their liberation, in Dachau the prisoners worked for the German armaments industry. They made bullets.

***

I learned later that on my first visit I had missed a central part of the camp, and though I had no desire to see it, I felt that I must go back, and eventually did so in early November. Some of what I saw belies or at least tempers what has gone before, some is to be expected from the nature of the camp as I have already described it. I add these last comments as a postscript because that is how I experienced it.

When I got off the train at Dachau Bahnhof the sky was low and overcast and the air was close to freezing. It had been snowing the week before, but now it was drizzling slightly, the morose damp of early winter. The bus was nearly empty, a few couples, some of them locals on their way to various intermediary stops, myself, and a noisy bunch of American military, as they called themselves (from later comments, it seemed they were in the USAAF), young men and women in civvies, jeans, trainers and wind-cheaters. These young Americans were rowdy and a little drunk. They weren’t obnoxious so much as rambunctious and insensitive. They did not appear, to my sober and censorious mind, to be quite in the right mood for a visit to the concentration camp – “Is there beer at the concentration camp? There better be beer at the concentration camp, ‘s all I’m sayin’…” said one of them on the way. They were loud, broadcasting their conversation, chatting for a while to a fellow passenger they had evidently just met on the bus, about their camp in Germany, their time in Iraq (“Eye-Rakk”, as the Americans pronounce it), calling to the driver to tell them when to get off, laughing uproariously at the things each other said, and so forth.

Two young Turkish boys near me chuckled and made jokes about them. The middle aged German couple next to me stared resolutely out of the window. I did much the same. The Americans were behind me. As we approached the camp it occurred to me that it would not shock me if I turned around and saw that they were wearing grey uniforms and heavy jackboots. It wasn’t that I thought they were particularly fascist or heartless or cruel. It was simply that I realised how easy it had been for the SS to recruit the guards, to find enough insensitive, ignorant young men and women to carry out that appalling work. The prisoners brought with them to the Dachau camp and deposited in the library many books that were prohibited by the Nazi regime, but the illiterate guards never spotted them. They were country boys, given a reprieve from the front line of the war in return for keeping guard over people even lower in the Nazis’ social scheme than themselves. A premonition of Abu-Ghraib, perhaps, but no more so than all the atrocities of war across the whole of history, atrocities that cannot be avoided once you tell men that it is, after all, all right to kill and maim. After that, it is just a matter of leadership to set the limits on what the men will accept is allowed. Set the limits, or remove them entirely.

At the camp I knew where I was going. I went through the gate and crossed the Appellplatz, heading for the far left hand corner of the camp. There is a gate there, with a bridge across the perimeter ditch that runs along the inside of the fence and a second bridge across the narrow canal that flows along that side of the camp. These bridges were added after the war. A short path takes you past the Russian Orthodox chapel, through a gate in a low wall and so into the courtyard of The Large Crematorium, a low brick and plaster pavilion with a tall rectilinear chimney at its centre, reaching about twenty metres into the air. A sign tells you that Dachau was never officially an extermination camp, never intended for the purpose of mass murder, but how else to describe the efficient and systematic killing of people in groups of up to a hundred at a time? In the context of The Final Solution, perhaps the toll at Dachau was small beer, but as I wandered through the simple building, which is split into sections, each one a step in the process of murder and disposal, it felt like nothing but a factory of death.

The prisoners chosen on any particular day were told they were being taken for a shower, and then marched outside the main prison and round to this place. On arrival, their journey through the building began with the disinfection cubicles, a row of narrow concrete corridors with a heavy steel door at each end. The doors are thickly painted in a blue-ish grey. The cubicles are on the left-hand end of the building, separated from the rest by a narrow open platform that the prisoners crossed after being disinfected. From there they stepped into the Assembly Room, a plain room with a concrete floor and walls, with space enough for a hundred or so men and women. Once the whole group had been assembled there they went through to the Disrobing Room. Standing in that cold grey room, one imagines the prisoners, still anticipating a shower, quietly jovial as they undressed, joking about this or that one needing a shower more than most perhaps, and all of them glad of the break from the rigorous camp routine. How the SS kept the truth from them is hard to imagine, but I suppose the smell of cremating flesh that must have wafted over the campsite would only have been associated with the endless train of death within the camp from sickness and punishment, not murders occurring beyond its walls and fences.

From the Disrobing Room they went into the Shower Room. This is another simple rectangle of concrete walls, with a lower ceiling than the preceding rooms, but in here the floor is tiled, with drains set into the floor, and shower heads in the ceiling. The heavy steel door shuts behind them. They wait for the water to come flowing down on them. But it does not. Instead two vents in the wall let in clouds of Zyklon-B, prussic acid gas, the invention of the Nazis for this very purpose. The acid burns into their lungs, burns their eyes, and sears their flesh. Within a few long and agonising minutes, all of the prisoners are dead.

As should be expected from the smooth running, bureaucratic efficiency of the SS, the next room was for stacking the bodies. The Body Room, as it was called, is narrow, its concrete floor poorly laid and uneven. It is merely an annexe to what comes next. The crematorium is the tallest room in the chain, at the centre of the building, beneath the chimney, with a stone floor and no ceiling beneath the steeply pitched roof, which is supported by sturdy wooden beams.

Four brick kilns stand in a row, separated by wide corridors for ease of maintenance. They are linked by a system of pipes to the chimney. A notice tells the visitor that the ovens were capable of cremating up to four bodies at a time. The kilns are built out of red fire bricks, the doorways are protected by a heavy steel plate that was raised and lowered on a simple pulley system. One man could operate it, while others loaded in the bodies. This was done on a kind of stretcher contraption made of steel, with long steel poles to push and pull them in and out of the furnace.

Fixed to the roof supports, crossing the length of the room in front of the kilns, is a long, heavy wooden beam with thick iron hooks set into it at intervals of a metre or so. This was used to hang some of the prisoners, saved from the gas for this special cruelty. As they slowly strangled to death they could see and feel the furnaces that would soon receive their remains.

Outside the building, to which the visitor hurries to feel at last the cool breath of fresh air, there is a garden lying in the shade of the surrounding trees. Along its perimeter stands a crude earth and stone wall. The area below this wall is divided into sections by low hedges. Each of these sections was the site of a pit where the ashes of the cremated dead were shovelled. Immediately facing the crematorium the first two of these have been converted into memorials to the victims of the camp. Along from them there are two larger sections, about six or eight metres wide and perhaps four metres deep from the path to the wall. Stone plaques explain that the first of these was a pistol shooting range and the second an execution area. Prisoners, primarily officers of the enemy armies, most of them Russians, were executed either by being used as targets on the pistol range, or by being taken to the execution area and made to kneel along a shallow “blood ditch”, now just a shallow dip filled with grass and weeds. Here they were shot in the back of the head, so that their bodies and their blood would fall neatly into the ditch.

At the furthest corner of this part of the garden, the farthermost point of the Dachau Concentration Camp, there is one last ash pit measuring no more than four or five metres square.

It is marked with a stone plaque. It reads: “This is the grave of many thousands”.


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