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Visit to Dachau

A story by Jean McGavin

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Photo Credit: Jean McGavin

It was spring, 1973. I was 19. My sister and I were visiting Munich. We wanted to take the day trip to Dachau and inquired at the Munich travel information office for travel instructions to the former camp. The man in the office responded with anger - possibly prompted by shame or resentment - that all Americans want to visit Dachau and harangued us for quite some time about the voyeuristic indecency of our interest in Germany’s horrific past. After suffering his rage, and acquiring the directions, we made our way to a lovely suburban village at the outskirts of which we found ourselves at the gate admonishing all who passed through that Arbeit Macht Frei. We are not Jewish and were we to have lived in Germany during the war, we would not likely have ever had cause to pass under this gate, but reading those words while passing under that gate in 1973, nearly 30 years after the war’s end, I wanted to run away. The pain and death and terror and atrocity was sticky in the air. The jack-booted SS guards terrorized where the bare footed prisoners walked and crawled and were dragged and bled. Both guards and prisoners are part of this ground.

We visited the museum, presenting photos and film documenting the death, medical experiments, the teeth, the hair, the human skin lampshades, the uniforms of guard and guarded, the faces – so many faces; innocent, stunned, numb faces of people who would likely soon be dead but deserved nothing more than to be home in their own warm beds. After the museum, we went out to the dirt yard. The barracks were long ago demolished. Simple outlines on the ground instead marked where they had stood. One reconstructed, sanitized barrack stood in place where the original lice, typhoid, cholera and unthinkable terror infested barrack had once stood as shelter from snow and as a zoo where Nazis caged their prisoners – Jews, Soviets, Gypsies, clergy and homosexuals.

The German at the travel information office was right. No one should see this. There should never be a Dachau or Auschwitz or Buchenwald for anyone to see. 19 year old girls should never see this because these places should never have been even the thoughts in any man’s head. But there were many men with heads capable of imagining death camps and exterminations of whole peoples, whole cultures and we need to see these places. I needed to see Dachau, to walk where the depraved and the innocent both defamed and ennobled the dirt they shared underfoot, and breathe the same air that sinner and saint inhaled and exhaled one lung to the next without affecting the quality of sinner or saint in the owner of each lung.

When one walked past the barracks, one arrived at the shower room. It was claimed that these showers were used for showers and not as gas chambers. Nonetheless, it is my recollection that they were equipped for that possibility of the engineering mass death and it is not possible to walk through that shower without feeling death in the air. Next door is the crematorium. I recall a row of ovens - 3 or 4, perhaps more, lined up in a brick wall. Big oven doors in a brick wall in a neat little building with big chimneys on top that spewed evil day and night. Tens of thousands of innocents were burned here.