That Dachau, site of one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps, was the first item on my trip agenda shows, I hope, how intensely focused on my mission I was. After all, it was in autumn in Munich, and for most visitots that meant Oktoberfest with beer and oompah bands in abundance. After flying to the Bavarian capital on Tuesday night, during which I slept 2-3 hours at most, arriving early Wednesday morning, picking up a car at the airport, blearing my way through rush hour traffic, and locating the hotel more in the heart of an unfamiliar city, I made my usual painful attempt to fall in with the local time, no matter what.
Nevertheless, jet lag and all, I roused myself the next morning, left the car parked and joined a Dachau guided tour found in a hotel lobby brochure. The gathering place was the Marienplatz, the gaudy square in the center of Munich, which, with its reputation for gaiety, is easily forgotten as the birthplace and incubator of the Nazi Party. Disturbing also was that Dachau is a stop on the city subway line, not some remote location out of the public eye. A swift transition from Munich’s modern bustling heart to literal hell!
I quickly fell in with the group, including a woman from the West Side in Manhattan, just across town from me, who had worked for the same company I do now. We exchanged views as we went along and in the end exchanged business cards—small world. The mix was international, several from Australia, a couple from Russia; and we quickly drew together for an experience too painful to go alone.
We’d all heard of Dachau before, of course; and I had a vested interest: it was a place that profoundly influenced the protagonist in novel in progress. I’d read much about it and looked at as many pictures and films as I could endure. (For those unfamiliar with the camp, the link to the official memorial website is http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/index-e.html.) But no amount of advance preparation can steel a human being against the naked experience of that dusty, stark and sprawling camp, once dedicated to the efficient and ruthless enslavement, punishment and annihilation of tens of thousands of other human beings.
Understandably, there are deeply emotional moments where one shares the physical, mental and emotional trauma of the victims; but—and this was not predictable— you also fall into the twisted mindset of the perpetrators, if only to wonder how they lived with themselves day after day doing what they did there. Perhaps it was a blessing I was jet-lagged; only in the state of numbness could this be endured.
An extremely sobering beginning to my trip, and it lingered throughout. Nevertheless, credit is due to the current German generations, in which by ancestry I count myself and family, for maintaining places like Dachau in remembrance of those who suffered and died there and as a stark warning against empowering a political regime like the one entered this terrible chapter into German and world history.