Have you ever had one of those days where you feel like you’ve existed in two completely different worlds at the same time. Feeling up and down at once, having a great time but feeling a bit guilty and awkward about it. That was my day in Munich. (A clarification for the title, for some reason, the rest of the world seems to assign different names to cities and countries than what is used by the local people. I never understood that. Vienna=Wein, Germany=Deutschland, Munich=Muenchen. Go figure. Can you imagine if you were trying to buy train tickets to Munich for the first time, but couldn’t find it on the departure board because the name is different. Oh, well.). The day began with a nice tour of the city, became more intense with a visit to the Dachau concentration camp, and ended merry with an evening of oompa, brats, yodeling, and beer at the famous Hofbrauhaus Beer Hall
The city of Munich is rich with history. As a part of the state of Bavaria (Bayern to the Germans. Again with the names!!), the city exudes a strange mixture of conservative, traditional values and a carefree, party-like atmosphere. This is at once the city that bore the Oktoberfest and has some of the most amazing beer halls and beer gardens in the world, but at the same time saw the rise of Hitler as a disgruntled thrice rejected art student turned mein kampf writing prisoner, ultimately spawning the rise of the Nazis. The Bavarian people seem to be at once jolly, yet could care less about things like customer service. Bavaria seems most typical of Germany to the American mind, yet sees itself as separate from the rest of German culture; unique and generic all at once.
And the rain didn’t help. Non-stop rain all day long added a somber atmosphere to a day that needed some sunshine.
So, although there are a lot of things to talk about my stay in Munich, I feel Dachau has latched on like a stubborn emotional leech. In the course of my travels, I’ve visited several concentration camps. It’s strange because it doesn’t seem like a place that people want to visit, or even should, but at the same time it is such a powerful and important experience that I feel it shouldn’t be missed
. The tamest, or least emotionally draining was Mauthausen camp on the German-Austrian border, where Peter from the Diary of Ann Frank was ultimately held and died. There wasn’t much left there of the camp, so I wasn’t really confronted with the reality of what happened there outside of the imagination. The crematoriums were difficult to see, but overall, Mauthausen was a visit that wasn’t like a punch in the gut. I’ve also been to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. This experience was more than a punch in gut. It was too intense, too emotional and lingered with me for days. I would recommend this visit to anyone who has the chance, but it’s not for the weak of heart. Maybe that’s best to ensure that what happened there never happens again. At Auschwitz, everything remains, including the human remnants. If you’ve been to the Holocaust memorial in Washington DC, amplify that experience to the fullest, but add to the equation that what happened, happened under the ground you walk on. Dachau is somewhere in between on the spectrum. Most of the camp is gone, with only two barracks remaining. The crematorium remains. The gas chambers remain. The cells used for prisoners of more ‘notoriety’ remain. The museum is tasteful, informative, and powerful. The photos and video are difficult to view, but a distance remains because there are no ‘artifacts.’ It’s when you walk about the grounds, looking at the buildings, the guard towers, the barracks, the walls, and you notice that just over the trees sits an entire town that you get a funny feeling in your gut
. How is it possible that all of this could have happened while a town full of German men, women, and children stood by. Could they really plead ignorance? Could they really have believed the ‘perfect lie’ that was being told by the government? Or is it a case of people who in their hearts had to have known, but it was easier to just keep your head to the ground and pretend that everything’s fine. In some ways it’s easier to be angry at those people for doing nothing. Knowing silence IS complicity. If you are not willing to put yourself at risk for the human dignity of others, then what’s the point? The sign at the main gate into the camp reads in German “Freedom through work” (picture below), but did anyone truly believe that this was place for people to achieve freedom through work? Prisoners at the camp were forced to dig holes and fill them up again, move piles of sand back and forth across the camp and other meaningless work. Are people so easily fooled? Are lies really so easy to tell? What about today? With so much of the media controlled by so few, and governments around the world so closely integrated with the media, how easy is it for us to simply believe everything we hear. Whether those ‘lies’ lead us to war, or simply make us feel better about the economy or oil spills, where does it all lead? A sign at Dachau as you walk across the yard reads “Never Again.” But if the citizens of the town of Dachau were so apathetic, so believing, so unwilling to question that they let this happen, what is the consequence of our own behavior
. What will we be willing to allow to happen on our watch?
Never say Never?
Never mind. Let’s just watch Dancing with the Stars and keep our heads to the ground.