Happy to be hosting a guest post from the Northern Voyager (http://www.northernvoyager.net/). This is a special post because it talks about an experience that most of us would consider twice before adding it to our travel list. It talks about the concentration camp in Dachau which stands as a reminder for humans to learn from past mistakes and plea for peace and freedom. Lee tells the story so much better than me so here it is:
“Every summer, for the last 4 years, my wife, two sons and I have been choosing small, sometimes off the beaten track destinations in Europe to explore and discover as a family. Each of our summer adventures has included a tightly packed mid sized rental car, a list of pre-booked self catering accommodations, and of course, a bucket list of destinations and experiences meticulously researched in travel books, internet travel blogs and travel websites. Each of our GPS guided and sometimes bumpy cobblestone road trip adventures is usually about four weeks long. Being a Canadian family from the prairies, each of our over seas excursions has exposed us to multiple world renowned historical sites and given us a taste for many of the diverse European cultures. This past summer’s trip was no different. Our destination of choice was an area in the Alpine region of southern Germany. During the logistical planning phase prior to our trip, we started looking for places to discover in and around the Bavarian city of Munich. München (German translation) was our family’s designated rendezvous point as I was already in Europe for work and my wife and sons would be flying in from Canada. When most people think of a holiday in Munich, they envision enormous Oktoberfest Beer Gardens filled with drunken lederhosen clad gentlemen devouring freshly prepared wiener schnitzel, singing traditional folk songs while being served frosty steins of German beer by beautiful Bavarian women in traditional dirndl dresses. However, our trip was starting at the end of July, two months premature to most of the traditional Oktoberfest festivities. A visit to the local Hofbräuhaus founded in 1589 could have possibly served as an Oktoberfest substitute but we figured our teen and preteen sons may not benefit much from the experience so we continued our search for an alternative attraction. While surfing the net, we stumbled upon another experience not as celebratory as Oktoberfest but rather a place that serves as a reminder to one of the human races darkest moments – the WWII holocaust memorial of Dachau.
Dachau was the first concentration camp established by the National Socialist German Worker’s Party or better known to most North Americans as the Nazi Party. The camp was located on the southeast corner of the medieval Bavarian town of Dachau about 18 km northwest of the city of Munich. Originally an old munitions factory, the camp opened its gates in March of 1933 and started detaining both ordinary German criminals as well as Nazi political prisoners. Dachau became a training and testing ground for the Nazi Party’s Final Solution. Many of the first SS* guards received their training in Dachau.
* SS abbreviated for Schutzstaffel. The German word “Schutz” translates to protection or shield in English while “Staffel” translates to squadron.
After researching historical facts and viewing photographs of Dachau both past and present on the internet, we had to ask ourselves, “Is this a place we want to experience with our two sons who were 11 and 15 years old at the time? Is this an experience appropriate for children of their age or would exposing them to these horrific historical acts of human violence only produce fear filled sleepless nights and feelings of anxiety? Over the course of a few months before the trip, my wife and I discussed the topic periodically. It was incredible how such a topic could open so many different thoughts and feelings associated with parenting in todays fast pace high tech world. Thanks to today’s modern video games, our sons had already been exposed to the violence of gunning down digital human figures on a TV screen. Would this experience provide us as parents with proof that killing isn’t as glorious and detached as todays technology makes it out to be?
My grandfather served with the Canadian Military during WWII so my family has always marked November 11th as an important date to remember those that paid the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom that we have today. Would this experience at Dachau help reiterate for our family what we have learned over the years through my grandfather’s recollection of his battlefield experiences? Would it echo the atrocities of war as told by our local veterans and clergy at the annual Remembrance Day Services? Would experiencing Dachau as it stands today provide our son’s with an educational experience that would assist with Social Study projects and provide helpful insight into the human condition in the years to come? While researching various websites about the camp, I came across a site stating that the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site receives on average 800 000 visitors each year. A vast majority of these visitors are Germans, especially German students who typically visit at least one former concentration camp during the course of their High School studies. My wife and I finally decided that even though it wouldn’t be a joyous experience, it would be an educational opportunity for both ourselves and our boys that could provide valuable insight into how corruption and violence plague the human race even today.
Our tour of the camp started by passing through a prison like iron gate in a building known as the Jourhaus. Skillfully crafted at the top of the gate was the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” a German phrase notorious to many of the Nazi Concentration Camps meaning “Work Will Make You Free”. It was a first hand reminder of the propaganda used by the Nazi’s to inflict a false sense of hope for many of its prisoners. The prisoners were told that if they worked hard and collaborated with the camp rules, their lives would be spared when in actuality, the forced labor was designed to torture them to the point of death. With the help of historical photographs and first hand written accounts by surviving prisoners, we as a family experienced our first glimpse of what prisoners saw years ago as they entered into a living hell.
We continued walking along a wide path between the barrack foundations and the camp’s perimeter fence in an area once know as no-man’s land. This area was heavily guarded by the Waffen SS soldiers in nearby guard towers. As a way of deterring escape from the minds of prisoners, guards would immediately gun down any prisoner who entered the designated no-man’s area. I remember sharing a story with my wife and son’s about how many of the psychologically and spiritually broken prisoners would voluntarily and at will enter no-mans land as a way of committing suicide. As we neared the end of the barracks, we came across a winding narrow gravelled pathway leading away from the camps perimeter walls and in the direction of the crematorium. As we crossed through a once electrified barbed-wire gate, I remember looking down the perimeter wall and seeing the guard towers thinking how horrific life must have been for so many living under these hostile conditions. As we ventured further, we crossed over a deep concrete ditch formerly known as the Würm Canal and passed into what is today, a neatly manicured garden. This beautiful garden setting that leads to the crematorium is now home to numerous memorials that serve as a place of healing and remembrance for the camps victims and their families. Originally in 1933 when the camp opened, most of the camp’s inmates were German and Austrian political prisoners. After the Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935, homosexuals, emigrants and Jehovah’s Witnesses were incarcerated along with the political prisoners. Jewish populations began arriving at the camp in November 1938 after Kristallnacht was carried out by the German Army’s assault detachment known as the Sturmabteilung. As the camp grew, so did the demographics of other prisoners. Detainees also included Czechs, Poles, French, Yugoslavs, Roma Gypsies, Sinti Gypsies, Russian POW’s, German Catholic Church Clergy denounced by the Nazi Party and many other European ethnic groups. Many of these individual groups are recognized and mourned by having their own distinct memorials erected in the vicinity of the camp crematorium.
As my family respectfully walked past the memorials, I was curious to know, what does an eleven year old think about when touring a place like Dachau? When I asked our youngest son, his comment was “ if I ever invented a time machine, I would never want to come to this place.” Eventually, our winding garden path led us to the crematoriums. Visiting the crematoriums is similar to seeing white crosses in the ditch along North American highways. It leaves you with a sad and empty feeling knowing that a tragic event took place in that exact same spot at some point in time. The only difference being white crosses in ditches are usually the result of human error, an accident. The crematoriums were a reminder of the premeditated and systematic murder of thousands of human beings by other human beings – the difference being, Dachau was no accident. The crematoria was used to dispose of the executed prisoner’s bodies. While standing outside the buildings housing the ovens, my oldest son and I noticed a historical photograph showing a pile of human corpses. Theses corpses were piled on one another some 71 years before in the exact same spot as where we were standing that day, a very grim reminder of the atrocities that had occurred in what is now a very peaceful and prosperous country.
As the camp continued to grow and more prisoners died, there was a need for a second larger more efficient crematorium. Once we entered inside the crematorium, my family all felt the presence of the sinister acts that took place there during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Barbaric descriptions of how dead bodies were loaded on to metal stretchers using large tongs before being rolled into the ovens and how workers inside the crematorium sometimes needed to smash the heads of some of the prisoners with a shovel before placing them in the ovens because they were still alive. We saw hooks in the ceiling were prisoners were hung to watch as fellow prisoner’s corpses were systematically turned to ash. Standing in that room made us feel as though we were witnessing proof of the darkest side of the human race’s capabilities.
As we left the crematoriums, we passed by a concrete wall now covered in vines, moss and other lush vegetation that could easily be mistaken for a carefully constructed botanical garden structure. However, this wall was used for executing prisoners at close range by SS guards during the days of the camp’s operation. In front of the wall is a small ditch now over grown with small shrubs and ferns. This ditch served as a drainage system to direct the flow of blood draining from the executed prisoners. Most of the prisoners executed on the wall were Soviet POW’s and Gestapo prisoners. This same area also serves as a cemetery . Many of the ashes removed from the crematorium were buried in a nearby ditch.
Today’s Dachau is a very well kept, clean and organized reminder to the world of one of the greatest violations of human rights. An extensive collection of historical photographs, memorials, historical documents and first hand prisoner accounts of what life was like in the camp before the 1945 American liberation can be viewed throughout the former concentration camp grounds and buildings.
The Dachau experience for my family has become a valuable educational resource. Its been a challenge to look beyond the graphic violence that occurred within the camps walls to truly understand how the human race could fail so terribly. For us, it has become the springboard for numerous conversations and discussions directed towards the human condition. Human beings will continue to struggle with good and evil in the future as will our children. Even in today’s society, we continue to buy into the “Arbeit Macht Frei” propaganda. Many people today, chase a dream that hard work will someday make them free. We can only hope that our children will never have to experience the horrors of a holocaust or war in their lifetime. We hope that by learning from historical events in the past that they’ll be able to easily recognize when governing bodies become corrupt and society starts to travel down a familiar dead end road. Unless we take the time to show and teach them the mistakes we’ve made in our past, we will always run the risk of history repeating itself. One of the memorials at Dachau is inscribed with the phrase “Never Again” written in several different languages. We must never let those words fade away.”
You can find out more about Lee by click here Lee Mailer.