Thursday, June 17, 2010

The most depressing day. Ever.

Well, last night was probably the best rest I’ve gotten so far. Our hotel rooms looked over a street that boasted 3 different bars, but the combination of lack of sleep from the night before and the gravol to sooth the still queasy stomach helped put me out and keep me out for about 10 hours (the only interruption was the charley horse around 3.30, but even then, I fell back asleep right away). After a nice simple breakfast of rolls and spreads (and some broo-ha-ha about a lost parking card), Dad and I got on the road for Munich (or Munchen as the Germans call it) around 9 and got to the outskirts of the city around 11.30.

Rather that head straight into town, we went out to Dachau first. I knew it would be hard, but it hit both Dad and I, and I don’t think we said more than a dozen things to each other over the almost 3 hours we were there. Admission and parking are free, and the purpose of the camp is to encourage people to never forget the depths that humans can sink to to destroy each other. We walked though the prison block, but only made it about a quarter of the way through it before we both decided we’d seen enough. (This is where criminals and ‘special prisoners’ – ie – those deserving better treatment than the common prisoners – were held.) We then started walking down the main camp road, along the foundations of the 34 barracks, to the end of the camp and then into the crematorium area. We then wandered back to the camp’s old administration area to see a documentary about the history of all concentration camps, and in particular Dachau.

Dachau had originally been designed to quarter only a few thousand people (and at those numbers, it was meant to be uncomfortable), but by the end of the war, 30,0000 people were housed there. Never a full-blown extermination camp, Dachau was a work camp that did have the ability to use a gas chamber (only 1) and operate 4-6 ovens at a time. By all accounts (and historians don’t know why), Dachau never became a full-on extermination camp – rather, those slatted to die were generally sent to other camps. The main exception to this rule appears to be Soviet POWs, as they were general executed on site then the bodies were cremated. (Historians have been unable to determine just how many Soviets were killed at the camp.) There is some evidence that Dachau was used for experimenting with execution methods, which might explain why there was only one (reasonably small) gas chamber. Dachau was the first of the concentration camps and set the tone for those that followed. The purpose was the work its inmates to death, either in the agricultural fields or the armament factories. The rations were purposely designed to starve inmates to death.

I couple things stood out that are worth sharing. First, the camp feels tiny, even with all the barracks pulled down. I can’t begin to imagine how 30 thousand people lived in such a small space. Two of the barracks have been reconstructed, including the bunks, sinks and toilets that were used. As the camp became increasingly crowded, they went from housing 50+ people in a room (and figure 4 rooms to a barrack) to over a thousand (and, in some cases, where certain races were housed together, it was almost closer to 2,000). Bunks ceased to be divided into individual sections, and rather you’d get long tri-level bunks without any dividers that spanned the length of the room. There were only 8-10 toilets per barracks, and only 2 large, round sinks. The re-built barrack shows you room-by-room what living conditions were like in various years and the last room literally took my breath away.

The other think that struck me was the ground itself. The paths are covered in pebbles, rather than paving. I wore flats today and at one point, thought how uncomfortable walking around the camp on that terrain was. Then I told myself to shut the fuck up. I’m not sure if that was the original condition of the grounds, but either way, a couple of hours walking around, a little uncomfortable, is NOTHING compared to what had been endured at that site and I need to remember that.

Finally, there were lots of school group there; some of the kids looked upset, some weren’t paying enough due respect, but they were all over the age of needing to be asses when they were with their friends, so it wasn’t so bad having them milling about. The site museum is not recommended for anyone under the age of 12. The exhibits aren’t that bad – they show the progression of the Nazi party and the building of the camp, and some of the conditions. But the documentary film we saw definitely wasn’t appropriate for younger ages. It appears to have been made in the 50s/60s, and shows a lot of old photos and film reels of the camp while it was in operation. It’s really shocking to the senses to see emaciated and/or dead bodies being carted about like trash – it’s not something that’s easily forgotten.

What one takes away from the camp is a reminder of just how low humans can sink. The purpose of keeping the camp open and free to visitors is to remind them of the situation so that something like that never happens again. And yet, it’s still happening, just in different ways in different continents. Remember that as bad as the Jews had it in Nazi Germany, the women of the Sudan and Rwanda are being treated just as horribly. Bosnians, not too long ago, were still killing neighbors over religion. And prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are being held in conditions that, maybe not surpass, but certainly remind one of the torture that went on in the camps. It’s noble to want to remember the Holocaust, but more people should be forced to learn and experience it first hand, so that the message the survivors demand we learn is spread far and wide: Never Again.

Needless to say, it was a really depressing afternoon. When we left the village of Dachau, we headed into Munich to check into our hotel. Because we were at the camp at such an odd time, it was almost 4 before we had a chance to have some lunch. Dad and I both had a light snack and plan on going out tonight for a late dinner. As I sit here, there is thunder and lightening outside, but hopefully it’ll let up when we’re ready to go out. We’ll be in Munich for the next two nights.

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