DAY 16 in Dachau & Starnberg, Germany:
Today started cheerily in Hirschgarten. We ran in a park behind my house, stopping along the way to slide down an elephant slide and feed the deer in the enclosure right by the beer garden. Hirschgarten is the name of the park but also the name of the beer garden in the heart of it. The Hirschgarten Biergarten is the biggest beer garden (8000 seats!) in Munich and also in the entire world. Reading under the shade provided by the nearby chestnut trees is just about the best thing to do on days when the sun is out. It’s also the perfect place to watch children playing Tag, teens having barbecues and some grandmas playing ping pong!
We went home for nice cream breakfasts, got ourselves ready, packed Kartoffelbrot for snacking on the road (a must!) and drove to Dachau.
On March 22, 1933, a few weeks after Adolf Hitler had been appointed Reich Chancellor, a concentration camp for political prisoners was set up in Dachau.
Getting a map of the concentration camp and an audio guide along with it, we walked through the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work begets freedom”/ “Work sets you free”) gates (featured above), just like Hitler’s prisoners of WWII. They were told,
“You are without rights, dishonourable and defenceless.
You’re a pile of shit and that is how you’re going to be treated.”
Walking along the Path of Remembrance really put into context what the prisoners had to endure. Nothing is dressed up there and the entire camp was a raw look at a very sad and difficult chapter of human history. It sure did bring home the horrors of what had happened not only at Dachau but all across Europe at the many camps set up by the Nazis.
The camp was divided into two sections: the camp area and the crematorium area. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, including one for clergy imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime and one was reserved for medical experiments. The courtyard between the prison and the central kitchen was used for the summary execution of prisoners. An electrified barbed-wire fence, a ditch, and a wall with seven guard towers surrounded the camp.
It was odd, and slightly unsettling, walking on the same floor that the prisoners had to clean to unbelievable, impossible standards, touching the very cremation ovens in which thousands of prisoners turned to dust, and walking through the gas chamber where prisoners were planned to be poisoned to death by hydrogen cyanide (the gas chambers were labelled ‘shower rooms’ and were fitted with fake shower heads to trick the prisoners into thinking that they were going there for a shower… and not to die).
I say ‘planned to’ because there is no credible evidence that the gas chamber in the new crematorium (Barrack X) was used to murder human beings. Instead, prisoners underwent “selection”; those who were judged too sick or weak to continue working were sent to the Hartheim “euthanasia” killing center near Linz, Austria. Prisoners had to be sent away to be killed because the cremation ovens were ‘overworked’, i.e. there weren’t enough to keep up with the deaths of prisoners in camp. Alternatively, the firing range and the gallows in the crematorium area were used as killing sites for prisoners.
“I remember walking into the crematorium. The pungent smell of death simply knocks you off your feet…,” one visiting American officer said.
Just outside where the crematorium, we took a little break to compose ourselves after having become slightly unsettled in the gas chamber. There were what looked like dandelion seed umbrellas floating and dancing around in the wind, and I whispered, “They look like the prisoners’ souls…,” and trailed off.
Initially, the internees (prisoners) were primarily German Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. Over time, other groups were also interned at Dachau, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, as well as “asocials” and repeat criminal offenders. In the twelve years of its existence over 200,000 prisoners from all over Europe were imprisoned there and in the numerous subsidiary camps. Although the Dachau concentration camp was built to hold 6000 prisoners, it held around 32,000 by 1945, with 400 men squeezed into bunks meant for 50.
The number of prisoners incarcerated in Dachau between 1933 and 1945 exceeded 188,000. The number of prisoners who died in the camp and the subcamps between January 1940 and May 1945 was at least 28,000, to which must be added those who perished there between 1933 and the end of 1939, as well as an uncounted number of unregistered prisoners. It is unlikely that the total number of victims who died in Dachau will ever be known. It is estimated 41,500 were murdered at Dachau alone. I remember very clearly having listened to an audio of a woman (on the audio guide) who was absolutely agitated about the deaths, “For what?!?! For what reason!! … I don’t understand how these people can kill people and go back to their families at the end of the day.”
In Dachau, as in other Nazi camps, German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners, including high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments, and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners were also forced to test methods of making seawater potable and of halting excessive bleeding. Hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently disabled as a result of these experiments.
We moved on to the church, built for remembrance, where no right angles existed. Entering the church, we stopped to have a read at what was written (in German) on one of the church’s wall:
From the depths I have cried out to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
If you, Lord, were to mark iniquities, who, O Lord, shall stand?
But with you is forgiveness, that you may be revered.
I trust in the Lord;
My soul trusts in his word.
My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the dawn.
More than watchmen wait for the dawn, let Israel hope in the Lord.
For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
After touring the camp, crematorium and church grounds, Miriam and I sought shade at the main exhibition in the former maintenance building. The main exhibition includes an overview of the history of the Dachau Concentration Camp and highlights the original utilisations of the exhibition rooms.
29th April 1945, American troops liberated the survivors. A new life began for many prisoners.
Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz wrote in his diary:
“The day is over, this April 29. I will celebrate it for the rest of my life as my second birthday, as the day when I received the gift of life anew.”
I thought that Dachau was an emotional, excellent portrait of what happened in these places of horror. It was a moving and humbling experience to get such an up-close and personal experience of such a painful period of human history.
Following Dachau, we drove to Starnberger See, where all the rain clouds were. It got dark and gloomy pretty quick, Miriam was vlogging the windy journey through the pine trees, the frames getting greyer and greyer with every passing second. When we alighted in Starnberg, we didn’t make it very far. Just pass the bakery, through the U-Bahn underground pass and to the cafe where I met Kingsley Coman just a few weeks ago with Mum and Dad. We turned back swiftly, large droplets pelting down on us by then and we drove off to Munich, windscreen wipers sweeping furiously.
Back in Munich, we were picking up some groceries for future lunchbox meals at REWE when Polish football fans stormed through the store, chanting their Polish cheers (Poland had just won), making sure that they were heard. “Idiot”, our cashier called them as they continued to make a din as they exited the store. ‘Noisy pride’ is such a European thing, hey.
That night, after I uploaded the pictures from the day, I got a message from Uma who told me that she once visited the Dachau concentration camp in winter. She said that, in the summer light, the camp looked ‘all full of hope for a better tomorrow’, but in winter, it looked ‘extra gloomy, chillingly oppressive and persistently terrifying’. She added that the ‘vacillation between summer and winter reveals a continuous struggle of those who were trapped there and subjected to the atrocities while under the delusion of a better future for themselves’. Fair dinkum.
We watched ‘Like Crazy’ after dinner and called it a day soon after.
A tear rolled down my cheek when I turned off the last crystal lamp beside our bed. I couldn’t believe the two days in Munich ended this soon.