Trip Start Oct 29, 2012
17Trip End Nov 27, 2012
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Where I stayed
Our hotel is right next to the station which is very convenient, however like all grand central stations in most cities it seems to attract the towns deadbeats. The area is full of teenagers out on Saturday night, football fans coming back home (Bayern Munich won btw) accompanied by a solid police presence and patrons of casinos, pubs and other 'adult' places of entertainment
Time to rest for the day as Michelle is already asleep. She has had a big day with a lifelong ambition fulfilled with the Sound of Music tour. Her vocals were in fine form today as she sang out every musical tune on the packed coach. Maybe thinking she was 16 going on 17 again?
We set out on our second day to a small town 16km NW of Munich: Dachau. Infamous as the home of the first constructed concentration camp by the Nazi's. Dachau is a place of historical importance, yet serves as a place of remembrance for so many people (Germans included) who were cruelly enslaved there and of course died. The camp began in 1933 just 5 days after Hitler assumed the role of Supreme Ruler. From this period until allied forces liberated it in 1945, some 32,000 people had been killed at this camp.
It was intended that the camp be demolished after the war however ex-inmates pressured the international community to maintain the camp as a stark reminder of what actually occurred within and to ensure it must never happen again.
Two things immediately grabs us as we take the sad trail into the camp (same trail as all inmates took). 1. The old railway line and platform that brought prisoners to the site, and 2. The infamous entrance gates with the more infamous words inscribed on them: "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work sets you free").
Our guide for the day knows his stuff and creates the strong historical background that puts everything into perspective. It would be easy to be overwhelmed but what we see however our knowledge and understanding allows us to better appreciate the circumstances for the camp and the atrocities that went on inside. A short film is first played to everyone to provide a pictorial overview. Silence overcomes the theatre as we watch unfold the terrors of the camp. It is very hard to watch this and then leave the theatre with a dry eye and a feeling of extreme sadness for all that took place. Persecution against not only Jews, but gypsies, academics, criminals, the mentally displaced, the clergy and disenchanted locals are all targets for this Nazi madness.
The camp was originally built as an ammunitions factory to support the Germans WWI efforts, however after this was closed down post-war, it was established as a concentration camp for an initial 3,000 prisoners. By war's end, this had blown out to 30,000. As you can imagine the living conditions inside the preserved huts left a lot to be desired. Poor sanitation, diseases, illness and death would have made life unbearable as time went on
For those who have seen the countless films and documentaries on Dachau, the thing that struck me was that it looked exactly the same. That is to say, the preservation of the original camp is immaculate and testament to those wanting to keep the memory of all lost souls alive. Vast grounds that housed numerous bungalows, torture halls, prisons and execution chambers are spread throughout. The fact that we arrived on a 1 degree day that was very misty gave the place a certain degree of eeriness and indeed somewhat surreal.
The hardest part of the tour was the visit to the extermination centre. The gas chambers and ovens that leave little to the imagination. Our walk through this brought a degree of mixed emotions. The horror of what actually occurred in this place and the fascination that some 60 years after the end of the war we are walking through here, camcorder and camera in hand. The walk into the gas chamber was very composed. The room was very dark, except for some natural light coming from the outlets that provided the cynics gas pellets and viewing shaft for the SS Officers The ceiling was extremely low, so much so that I could reach the 'fake' shower sprays. One could only imagine the thoughts that ran through the victims mind as they entered this room and the door ultimately shut behind them
The galling part of the extermination area is the precision in which the building is constructed. It reminds one of a meat processing centre. Cattle goes in, is slained and then packaged up. Unfortunately, the ashes of the unfortunate are gathered up and dump together in the near by forest. For many years it had been claimed that such exterminations did not take place at Dachau but rather at the more infamous Auschwitz. How recent evidence proves to the contrary.
My highlight is at the end tour of the museum when a site employee tells me off for walking about the museum eating a roll when in fact I should be sitting down to do this!?!? Seems like one of the Commandants is still alive and well in Dachau.
A reflection on our visit is that we relished the opportunity to visit this site and in many ways (like thousands of others each year) pay our respects to those 30,000 lost souls and countless others who managed to survive the horrors of the death camp. More importantly, we came to seek an understanding and in some way, an explanation for these atrocities. Not sure if we achieved this but both agreed that we got our closest glimpse at a 'hell on earth.'
Back in Munich town we head back to the reality of hot chocolate, cakes and free wifi. Munich town, whilst having the usual old churches and buildings seems to lack the raw energy and interest that Berlin had for us. Sure Bavaria is much prettier than the old Prussian north of Germany, but it seems too sleazy, dirty and commercial. Glad we saw it but glad we move onto Switzerland next.