The neighborhood appeared welcoming as we bicycled along tree-lined streets, past manicured lawns and verdant flower gardens. Tidy bungalows, freshly painted in gay yellows and light green sat comfortably like entitled dowagers beneath old maple trees and oaks.
We might have been riding through a village in middle America or a historic New England town. But we weren’t. We were bicycling through the medieval German village, Dachau.
On that sunny Tuesday May morning, my three children and I had arisen early, left our hotel in Munich, walked to Central Station and boarded the S-2 train. In anticipation of our destination, we four were somber throughout the twenty-five minute ride to the Dachau station.
We disembarked, seeking directions to the Camp. Alas! We were told by the trainmaster—eager to practice his English—that the Camp was closed on Tuesdays. Perhaps, he suggested, we might like to rent bicycles and tour his village. “Very pretty town,” he assured us.
Very pretty, indeed…if we ignored the indisputable fact that the pretty town was adjacent to a concentration camp. Dachau Concentration Camp, with its acres of barracks and sites of torture, was in the backyard of those tidy houses with their tidy lawns. All these years later, what my children and I remember of our bicycle excursion is the proximity of the pretty town to the site of the most unspeakable horror of our time in history.
The following day, beneath a gray and dreary sky, we boarded the train once again. Just as hundreds of thousands of prisoners had done before, we passed through the entry gate.
Arbeit Macht Frei – The Gate at Dachau – Photo by Nonethelesser – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
Work Sets You Free
We wondered at the lie. Did any of those women, men, children catch the lie? Did anyone see the irony in the words?
In silence, we entered the courtyard where tens of thousands of prisoners had suffered and died…and where their spirits hovered…still.
Built in 1933, Dachau was the first concentration camp for the purpose of forced labor and the imprisonment of Jews, German, and Austrian criminals. We moved, solemnly, into the barracks with bunk “beds” each of which held multiple bodies crammed together; onto the gas chamber and the crematorium. How could we not hear their cries? The echoes of the more than three million women and children? The terror of Jews and homosexuals as we walked slowly from one building across the courtyard where prisoners lived in constant fear of the incessant brutality.
While the experience of that day at the Memorial Site remains sharp in our memories, it is the pretty town against the backdrop of such horror that continues to haunt each of us. We continue to ask, How could they not know? Could they not see the smoke rising from the chimneys of the crematorium? Didn’t anyone wonder what was going on behind the heavily guarded enclosure with its barbed wire fence and three-foot ditch where those desperate to escape were shot and left to die? And what of the trains transporting thousands of women, to work that would “set them free?”And what were the seven guardhouses guarding? And the frequent gunfire? Did anyone in the village inquire? Protest? Was there no one who dared to ask? Did everyone in that pretty medieval town simply ignore the neighborhood camp?
Recently a tweet was brought to my attention which piqued my memory of that day at Dachau. “Dear America,” it read, “You are waking up, as Germany once did, to the awareness that 1/3 of your people would kill another 1/3, while 1/3 watches.”
Is history repeating itself?