A boomer’s tour of Dachau he will never forget

After a year of high tension thanks to the twin plagues of presidential politics and the pandemic, BoomerCafé wants to do its part to tone things down, which is why for a while, in addition to fresh stories, we’re going to run some of our “best of” pieces from the past, stories that will remind you that Yes, Virginia, there was life before the tension.

Even when making a pilgrimage to a terribly tense place: a concentration camp. That’s what BoomerCafés co-founder and publisher David Henderson did with his wife in the Fall of 2018. As David wrote, it is important for our generation to remember what happened, and to carry the torch of lessons learned.

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.”

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for your very moving article on your visit to Dachau. I, too, have never forgotten my 1966 visit to this horrible death camp. I was only 20 years old at the time, on a summer trip through Europe between my Junior and Senior year at the University of Illinois. I will always remember the chilly, rainy day as if it were yesterday. I was midway through reading Leon Uris’ Mila 18 and spending the afternoon at Dachau will be forever etched into my mind. We must never allow such an atrocity to ever occur again. The recent insurrection of the Capitol, instigated by a president of the United States was and is, a chilling reminder that history could repeat itself if we allow it.

  2. David your article was powerful the first time I read it in 2018, and today it hit me even harder. Knowing that I lost relatives there makes it all the more personal. We must be on our guard to ensure that something like this never happens again, and although a far cry from Nazi Germany, the events we are witnessing today all around us, with the hatred directed at others, the rioting, the calls for cancelling this person or that group, makes your last statement even more timely: “While it’s said of the Holocaust, “Never Again,” I am reminded of the old teaching to never say “never.”” Thank you David.

  3. David, I have my own experience with the emotional toll you write about, from a visit not to Dachau but to Auschwitz, on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the camp itself, if not of the tortured lives its liberated prisoners still had left to live. I was there with a camera crew to commemorate the anniversary– which included the honor of walking through that hideous place with Holocaust author Elie Wiesel– and late that night at dinner, the crew and I were talking about the horrors that happened there, when one member of the crew made a crude joke. Which brings me to the emotional toll: I punched him. Probably the only time in my life I ever did that but I just got up from my chair and reached across the table and punched him. You and I both had our share of graveyard humor, given the careers we shared as journalists. But some graveyards are beyond jokes, beyond humor, beyond funny. What you’ve written is a reminder of where to draw the line.
    Your BoomerCafé partner, Greg

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