Monday, June 15, 2015

Dachau Memorial

As part of the eighth grade curriculum at our school, and across all schools in Germany, the kids study World War II. They read Holocaust biographies, wrote articles and essays and then visited the Dachau concentration camp memorial, only a thirty minute drive away. I went along on the field trip, a bit anxious on how Tori would take all that sadness, but mostly because I was invited by Tori and the school! I’m guessing this won’t happen next year in high school. Anyway, it was a beautiful day. Our first day of sunshine. Everything was green and just the right contrast of life and death and renewal to make the experience approachable for grade eight.  While there, Tori told me she was surprised that we had not been before as a family. And she was right.
We took Phil and the twins back a few weeks later for a tour. Dachau has been in the news lately as many events were held, even at our school, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Dachau camp liberation by US troops on April 29, 1945.
There we wandered around the grounds, entering through the infamous cast iron gate with the words : arbeti nacht frei. On the day we came with Tori’s class, we entered with no gate but by the time we exited the gate was there. Apparently, the gate was stolen earlier in the year and after much deliberation, a replica was made and put back in place. The memorial consists of the museum, the bunkers, the gas chambers and crematorium and memorials from the Christian and Jewish faith. All was sad of course, though the bunkers and crematorium, almost unbearable to think about. At these times, we left our guide and pondered the sites on our own.
We learned that the Dachau camp was established in 1933, first for political prisoners, and was used as the example for other concentration camps in the years that followed. It was stressed that Dachau was a work camp, not an extermination camp, though this distinction was mostly lost on us.  A map in the museum showed the Dachau camp plus all the so called subsidiary camps in the area. The map, exactly where we live, was covered in red dots indicating camps. The prisoner labor in German industry shocked us. Not only the well known 4,000 prisoners working at BMW but notes of 5 prisoners working at a downtown bakery. Over 12 years, over 200,000 prisoners were held at the camp. Over 40,000 prisoners were killed in Dachau.
On April 24, 1945, just days ahead of the American liberating troops, the prisoners were marched from Dachau to the Austrian border. The starved and ill prisoners were marched through many little villages we know, including the one we live in and the one the kids go to school in. On the day Tori studied this at school, she and I rode our bikes five minutes from our house to the Dachau Death March Memorial, on the main road and in front of the cemetery. We were saddened to learn that Himmler, the German Chief of Police, who increased the terror at Dachau, was from our tiny village. But we were also slightly cheered to hear that a former mayor from our village came up with the idea for marking the death march path with memorial statues. And that the anniversary is marked every year.


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