A boomer’s tour of Dachau he will never forget

Our generation is defined by World War II. American servicemen came home from the war, after years overseas, and began their families. Thus, the “baby boom.” So by definition, baby boomers didn’t experience the Second World War firsthand. But with those who did quickly fading away, it is important for our generation to remember what happened, and carry the torch of the lessons the world learned. That’s what’s behind this essay by BoomerCafé’s co-founder and publisher, David Henderson. David and his wife just made a pilgrimage of sorts to one of the worst symbols of the war.

The sign on the black iron gate to Dachau Concentration Camp carries a sinister message, “Work sets you free.” An ominous and maybe sarcastic greeting, I thought, as I pushed it open and entered.

The sinister greeting on Dachau’s gate, “Work Sets You Free.”

The sprawling camp — started in 1933 as a detention center for people the Nazis didn’t like, such as gypsies, Jews, academics, artists, writers, and political dissidents — is located in the village of Dachau, today a suburb of Munich, just a few miles north of the city.

I think it is important to keep in mind that Dachau was first used to imprison political opponents of the Nazis: communists, social democrats, and centrists, many of whom held seats in the German parliament — the Reichstag — in Berlin.

One month after Hitler took office as chancellor in January, 1933, a mysterious fire in the Reichstag provided the Nazis with an excuse to give Hitler emergency and unlimited powers to arrest political opponents. Hundreds of people were rounded up, imprisoned in camps and prisons like Dachau, and horribly beaten and tortured.

The right wing German establishment, business leaders, and the military observed all the alarming events of that time and did nothing. It’s no surprise how quickly Hitler seized power in the country.

Every political party other than the Nazis was declared illegal. The German press was muzzled. Only foreign reporters were allowed to tell a version of the truth but even they faced resistance by their publications back home, which questioned the relevance of such stories at that time.

The death chamber.

Ever since my visit to Dachau a couple of months ago, I have tried to comprehend what kind of inhumanity leads to that kind of treatment to humanity. I have no answers other than that I live in a country which today also has a growing number of detention camps, and there are even calls for a change in our democratic form of government. I’ve also thought about my days in high school in the Washington area, a time that profoundly influenced my life when I was taught by a few teachers who had survived the Holocaust, still carrying tattooed numbers on their left arms.

The tattoos represented the brutality and dehumanizing treatment by the Nazis but also a reminder of the resilience of those who bore them.

I will say this as a personal note: there is an emotional toll in visiting Dachau.

Dachau was the first concentration camp built by the Nazis. It was used as a model for the Nazis to run other camps, a place to test methods that would lead to the systematic murder of six million European Jews by the end of World War II.

From detention center in 1933, Dachau morphed into a death camp where the Nazis developed their efficient processes to torture, dehumanize, and kill their prisoners. In one brick building, for example, prisoners would enter at one end to “take a shower.” They would take turns removing any clothing and hanging garments neatly. Then, they would enter — en masse — a windowless room. The only light came from a metal grate in the wall. Rather than shower water though, the room would fill up with poison gas and death would quickly but painfully come. The next room contained ovens, specially designed to cremate each victim. Their ashes would be removed to a large pit in the rear.

The only light entering the death chamber.

Dachau was not a killing center on the scale of other concentration camps, such as Auschwitz and Buchenwald, yet nearly 32,000 people were killed by poison gas at Dachau and their bodies burned, plumes of acrid smoke rising up and settling over the nearby village of Dachau before liberation in 1945 by American forces.

Death came from a shower or “Brausebad” in German.

Finally, a few personal impressions of Dachau today, its tours and its place in history …

I came away from my somber visit believing that while the camp is today a “memorial” to the more than 32,000 who died and the more than 200,000 who were imprisoned during the Nazi regime, it has been “over-sanitized” to remove some of the despicable evidence of torture and experiments on human beings.

Avoid the “official” group tours offered at the visitor’s center. As a student of World War II, I found our guide to be a font of misinformation, erroneous statements, and personal opinion that was downright incorrect. The woman even accused my wife of being a Russian spy for simply taking her photo.

Instead, find a private tour for individuals. There are several listed through a Google search.

Prepare to take some time to process a visit to Dachau. While it’s said of the Holocaust, “Never Again,” I am reminded of the old teaching to never say “never.”

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for making the sad trip and sharing your insights, David. As someone who grew up under the long shadow of the Holocaust, I am dismayed at ongoing denial and increasing intolerance. I appreciate you bearing witness and drawing parallels with current events.

  2. Thank you for your article. It is wise to always remember horrors like Dachau , and how seemingly good intentions and mass, popular movements can get out of hand. We have to guard against demonizing those who disagree with us. We have to be wary of us vs them, and attempt to find common ground. And we must keep our heads and cherish our democratic institutions and form of government and resist the siren call of quick, emotional fixes when we do not get our desired political goal. There’s always another election cycle.

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