When you visit a place like Dachau, you go there with very particular ideas about what to expect.
You prepare yourself for predictable feelings of sadness and anger and disgust.
The main purpose of a visit to Dachau nowadays – the reason why it still remains open for visitors – is to confront and to memorialize the atrocities that took place there, so as to better inoculate against others taking place in future.
This purpose is made explicit in one of the many stark memorials (photos below) found throughout the grounds of the former concentration camp. Upon a wall behind a tomb holding the ashes of one unknown victim, the words “Never Again” are spelled out in large capital letters in five different languages.
When I visited Dachau this past summer, I anticipated the disturbing nature of the experience. But what was most unsettling was something I did not expect to find.
Dachau is not only the name of the Nazis’ first-opened and longest-operating concentration camp, but also that of the pleasant Bavarian town – just outside Munich – in which the concentration camp was built.
There’s now a suburban strip mall not a five-minute drive away from the former camp. You can have lunch there at the local Dachau Subway franchise. You can shop for groceries at one of Dachau’s big clean supermarkets, or for home furnishings at Dachau’s large, shiny warehouse outlet. If you withdraw some Euros from a conveniently located ATM or buy a pair of Birkenstock sandals at the local “Siemes Schuhcenter” bargain wholesaler, you get receipts benignly printed with the foul name of the town in which you have made your transaction.
I’ve now done the research and, yes, the town had the name for more than a thousand years before the concentration camp was built. Dachau has a history independent of the Holocaust, and tens of thousands of residents, many of them suburban commuters with jobs in Munich.
You’d think someone in the local town hall might have recommended a name change sometime over the past six decades. How can anyone possibly admit with any civic pride they live in Dachau?
How can that name now be associated with the sale of shoes and sofas and turkey subs?
I thought of this again during a tour of the former concentration camp, which houses an impressive, comprehensive exhibition of the site’s brutal history. The exhibition includes archival film footage from 1945 of local Dachau residents touring the recently liberated concentration camp and reacting with horror to what they find.
Left unanswered by the footage is how any resident of Dachau town in 1945 could be plausibly ignorant of what had been going on for twelve years in the concentration camp down the road.
Then again, an even more disturbing thought: Maybe it was all too possible for life just outside the camp walls to carry on as normal.
Visiting the camp in person is much more eye-opening than books, documentaries and lectures about the Holocaust can possibly be.
From witnessing the cruel, deceptive words of the famous Nazi lie “Arbeit macht frei” – “Work will free you” – built right into the front gate of the concentration camp, to walking through the somber barracks, showers and the roll-call square where prisoners were forced to stand for hours on end, to seeing the badges they were made to wear and the instruments of punishment with which they were attacked, the experience of actually being in Dachau sears into the memory in a raw, visceral way.
And as life carries on as normal in the strip malls outside, it’s important to never forget what happened within those camp walls.