05 July 2007

Day 8: Dachau–Munich

Today held forth weather more fitting a November in Munich than a July: cold, rainy, windy. Bleak. A perfect day to visit Dachau KZ (Dachau Concentration Camp). What a very eerie way to follow-up on a visit to the glorious castles of King Ludwig.

Although not as infamous as the Death Camp at Auschwitz in Poland, Dachau was the site of the first Nazi-built concentration camp. The town itself is old, with records dating to the ninth century, and contains vacationing palaces for the Wittelsbach Dynasty. The town remains lush and beautiful, even in sour weather, making it a strange and creepy choice for a place of death, disease, cruelty, and starvation, a monument of racial and political intolerance and ultimate tyranny.

Dachau KZ opened in 1933 and operated until the U.S. Army liberated it in 1945, making it the only Nazi concentration camp that operated for all twelve years the Third Reich lasted. Originally it housed political prisoners (red triangle), people who had opposed or spoken out against Hitler: newspaper editors, opposition party members, judges, communists, and writers. As the camp expanded, Jews (yellow triangle), Gypsies (purple triangle), homosexuals (pink triangle), and the "asocials," a catch-call category that could included just about anybodythe Nazis didn't like (black triangle) were crowded into the camp. In all, approx. 32,000 people died in Dachau. The deaths increased exponentially in the final years of the war, when the Nazis evacuated camps near the front and crammed the prisoners into Dachau. Typhus epidemics broke out among the inmates, and when the U.S. liberated the camp, they found boxcars loaded with dead bodies.

What I'm getting at here is that Dachau is a grim place to visit, but an important one to remember. Under a cold sky and torn by a biting wind, I could feel the specters of the innocents who died and suffered here. This memorial sculpture does a perfectly morbid job of capturing the feeling of the place and its lesson:

Most of the camp's outer buildings, which included an SS training area, no longer exists, and only a few traces of the train tracks that brought prisoners in remain before the front gate. The gate, with its iron-worked message Abreit Macht Frei ("Work makes you free") opens onto to the Roll Call Yard, where the prisoners had to stand every day regardless of weather, sometimes for hours, while the guards tallied them all. If the roll call didn't come out exact, the prisoners were forced to stand until the problem was "resolved." This could take hours, and inmates often died from the exhaustion and exposure. A stone carved in four languages greets you as you enter the yard, asking the readers to let the example of the people exterminated in this place help them to build a better world of tolerance and respect.

The Dachau Museum is housed in a large machine works building that faces the remains of the prisoners' barracks. The museum is an extensive room-by-room history of the camp, beginning with the rise of National Socialism in the ruins of World War I and concluding with the liberation and the camp's eventual transformation into a memorial. Each bare stone room contains large cards of information with photos, quotes from witnesses and inmates, and artifacts from the camp. It is too much to absorb at once, and it's almost more than you think you can deal with. The one surviving barrack contains walls of wooden beds and prisoners' lockers; this part is strangely antiseptic and clean—nothing could capture what it must have been like during the worst days of the camp's operation. The rest of the camp lies in scattered runins: sections of wall, barbed wires, towers, and gravel pits.

Our family left Dachau KZ and headed back into the center of Munich on the S-Bahn. The weather remained cruel, but we needed the busy center of Old Munich to cheer us up. We left the S-Bahn train at the Karlsplatz Station. Karlsplatz is bordered by the magnificent 1890s Justizpalaz. We then walked down the busy shopping thoroughfare of Neuhauser Strasse, which is a bizarre mixture of modern stores and classic Bavarian architecture. We stopped in Karlstadt, a huge department store that looks like any other department store in the States. We did get a few good views of Munich's most famous church, Frauenkirche (Church of the Lady) with its onion domes:

We also stopped briefly in a smaller but still astonishingly decorated church. The street ended in Marienplatz, and we ate dinner in an enclosed new mall. On the way back, we stopped for a beer at the Augustiner Beer Hall, another of the grand old beer halls of the city. I really haven't adapted to the extremely "hoppy" beer they serve in Germany, although the Augustiner beer is the best I've tasted in Germany so far (it's the most popular beer in the region). Dad continues to indulge in apple strudel (apfelstrudel) at every opportunity, and Reed took some paper coasters with him that contain pictures of Munich's "mascot," the Münchner Kindl, on them. The Münchner Kindl is the monk figure in brown robes with a yellow cross who appears on Munich's coat of arms (and also manhole covers):

I have a Münchner Kindl shirt I've worn a few times on the trip. I am sure it isn't helping me "blend in."

The family waiting at the S-Bahn in Karlsplatz:
We're looking forward to improved weather tomorrow for a trip to Schloß Linderhof, another Ludwig castle.