Dachau – 85 Years On


Posted by in February's Magazine

Cheap air travel has opened up a range of unlikely destinations. Can’t decide which to choose? Kennedy Wilson opts for a long weekend in Munich

As capital of wealthy, conservative, hard-working Bavaria, Munich’s certainly not the place for stag night revels. Once you’ve visited the cathedral and art galleries, you might consider a day trip to Dachau.aown.

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Countryside from the train window is a little dull on the 25 minute journey to the charming small town of Dachau with its leafy streets and hanging baskets. I get the connecting bus to the concentration camp memorial site and feel distinct trepidation. 

Dachau: The infamous gate is open…

I pay for the audio guide (entrance is free). I leave my passport as a deposit, a whispered echo of the identity papers surrendered by the first arrivals 85 years ago. A tree-lined walk leads down to the main gate and, picked out in wrought ironwork, is the maxim arbeit macht frei (work makes you free).

There is a vast parade ground surrounded by one-storey buildings. The first was the reception centre where arrivals were processed which is now a museum. There is a replica desk revealing neat index cards recording names, ages and what treatment is to be meted out. The audio-guide fills in more detail including first-hand accounts. 

The museum is busy yet no one speaks. At one point a mobile phone goes off like a jingle at a funeral.

The visit should be revelatory or redemptive but in reality it leaves open more questions. Was this pure evil? Was this the inevitable outcome of rabid, corrupt nationalism? Could it have happened anywhere had the conditions been right? Has anything been learned about this dreadful place? Could it happen again? Stories of forced labour and cruelty continue throughout the world from the torture chambers of Kazakhstan to human rights abuses in China, genocide in North Korea and gas attacks in Syria. 

After a while the voice in my ear telling me about malnutrition, overcrowding, beatings, the countless Jews, gays, gypsies, indigents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Czechs, Poles, Russians, Catholic priests, intellectuals, communists… gets too much. Halfway round there is a film show.

This was the first concentration camp, a prototype for all the others that were to follow and rolled out across Germany and Poland. Inevitably the film brings tears. The piles of dead, the degradation, the final liberation. When the film ends it’s good to get out into the sunlight. 

I cross the parade ground in warm sunshine and spot a young couple who have two whippets and go over to say hello to the dogs – incapable of harm and uncomprehending of the significance of their environment they provide, oddly, some sort of humanity; a break from the tension. 

The barracks are next. The unremitting audio guide explains all – the overcrowding, the deaths in the night from exhaustion. Medical experiments. Typhus. The industrial scale of Dachau is frightening – there were 1,780 interned Polish clergy alone. In the 12 years of its existence over 200,000 people from all over Europe were imprisoned, 41,500 were murdered.

At the end of an avenue of poplars stand a number of large religious memorials: Catholic, Russian, Protestant, Jewish. Over to the left is an example of the barbed-wire perimeter fence and the moat-like ditch to prevent inmates throwing themselves at the electrified wires. Beyond, nestling in a grove of trees and shrubs, is the crematorium. It looks like a little summerhouse. Only the huge chimney and ventilation grilles on the roof tell another, more sinister, story. 

Park benches offer a place to take the weight off your feet and people-watch. Who are these visitors and why have they come? I overhear a family – they are Israeli – including two young teenage boys dressed formally, unlike many others to come, in shorts. (Unlike one idiot who wears a bright yellow T-shirt emblazoned “psycho killer”.)

The respectable Israelis pose for pictures – the crematorium building in the background. Had they lost some relative here? 

A quick walk around the prison block and I leave under the Iron Gate through which so many people never left. I take a desultory look round the gift shop: books and religious knick-knacks (Christian and Jewish).

The visit takes a sombre three hours and has been physically and emotionally exhausting. There seems something wrong about having lunch in the cafeteria. A “specials” board advertises fish ’n’ chips and apfelstrudel, not the starving inmates’ gruel and mouldy crusts.

The bendy bus takes me back to the train station. Almost all my fellow travellers return to Munich. 

I decide to look around the lovely dormitory town of Dachau itself. Lunchtime, life goes on. The minimarket has a special offer on Colgate. An estate agent’s window offers a house for sale at 300,000 euros. The coffee shop is filling up. BMWs are neatly parked by the kerb. 

I walk up to the Altstadt – the candy-coloured old town at the top of the hill. A large mansion, Schloss Dachau, and its Italianate gardens of fountains and flowerbeds offer views to Munich off in the distance and torpid Dachau village down below. 

Alles klar, as they say in Germany.

Twitter: @KenWilson84 

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