It was such a peaceful place, the little Bavarian town located in southeastern Germany. A quiet, dreamy country idyll nestled not far from Munich, the metropolis with over a million inhabitants.
It’s a town with a long and rich history. The Celts settled the land from the 5th Century on and gave the rivers the names they still bear today: Amper, Wurm and Glonn. It’s located at the junction of two landscape regions: in the south, a broad area of impenetrable marshland; in the north, wooded, fertile, hilly country.
If you go down to the foot of the Old Town today, you can visit the tavern which still bears the name of an ancient mill, marking the start of communal history; the “Steinmuhle.”
From the 12th century Bavarian kings ruled the area. With Napoleon, the little town’s era as the summer residence of the Bavarian princes came to an end. But still it remained what it always was; a small town where the farmers came to the cattle market and a town with renowned breweries and comfortable taverns.
In 1870 artists began to discover the landscape. Hundreds of them made the pilgrimage from Munich, fascinated by the nuances in color of the moor landscape and in love with the rural idyllic setting. There were famous names among them including Carl Spitzweg, Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, Ludwig Dill, and Adolf Holzel. It became the most important German artists’ colony in the land.
I arrived in the summer of 1993 to visit the little Bavarian town for the first time, greeted by the modest white and black sign “Welcome to Dachau.” The origin of the name is not known. It may have originated with the Celts who lived there before the Germans came. But it’s an infamous name the world knows now.
I was there to visit the memorial site of the Dachau Concentration Camp.
A huge powder factory was built during World War I on what was then the eastern edge of town. Thousands of workers arrived during the war to manufacture ammunition for the battlefields of Europe. After the war they lost their jobs. The Treaty of Versailles prohibited the manufacture of war materials. Dachau became a needy community. In 1928, 1,400 of the 7,100 inhabitants were dependent on public welfare, but a strong labor movement was also developing across Germany.
What was happening was not destined to bring good to the little town.
The presence of the empty halls of the powder factory was one of the reasons why Heinrich Himmler, the Munich Chief of Police, chose to erect the first Nazi concentration camp in Dachau.
The Nazis seized power on January 30, 1933 and the concentration camp became operational a short two months later. This became the first among other camps throughout Europe to isolate enemies of the National-Socialist regime: political opponents, clergymen, so-called undesirable elements and to offer a “final solution to the Jewish question.”
In 1937, the camp originally planned for 5,000 persons proved to be too small. The prisoners were forced to build a larger camp, completed in 1938. Between March 22, 1933 and April 29, 1945, more than 206,000 prisoners were registered in the official records, however, many prisoners were taken to Dachau without being registered. The exact figures are unknown.
Over 32,000 died, through torture, execution, hunger or epidemics. Unspeakable atrocities took place there. Dr. Rascher’s experimental station was set up in Block 5 where high pressure and exposure experiments were practiced on defenseless prisoners. Professor Schilling had prisoners infected with Malaria agents and other bio-chemical experiments were also carried out, many resulting in death.
The mortality rate among the prisoners increased so rapidly that the crematory constructed outside the compound in 1940 proved to be too small and the prisoners built a larger one in 1942.
On orders of the SS Economic Administration Main Office in Berlin, a gas chamber was installed. This chamber, camouflaged as a shower room, was never used. The prisoners selected for gassing were transported from Dachau to the Hartheim Castle, near Linz (Austria) or to other camps. In Hartheim alone, 3,166 prisoners were gassed between January 1942 and November 1944.
The name Dachau, the lovely 1200-year-old town, became synonymous the world over for the inhuman terror of the Nazi regime. On the 29th day of April 1945, American troops liberated the concentration camp. The surviving prisoners in their weakened condition cheered their liberators. The town, too, could hope for a new and democratic start.
At the end of our visit, we paused for a moment of silence as my wife, Rebecca, placed a single red rose beneath the statue of “The Unknown Prisoner” memorial at the former crematorium.
If you were to visit Dachau today, perhaps you would be welcomed, as we were, with a message like the one offered by Mayor Dr. Lorenz Reitmeier:
“You have come to Dachau to visit the Memorial Site in the former Concentration Camp. I should like to welcome you on behalf of the town of Dachau. Innumerable crimes were committed in the Dachau Concentration Camp. Like you, deeply moved, the citizens of the town of Dachau bow their heads before the victims of this camp. The horrors of the German concentration camps must never be repeated or forgotten! After your visit, you will be horror-stricken, but we sincerely hope you will not transfer your indignation to the ancient 1,200-year-old Bavarian town of Dachau, which was not consulted when the concentration camp was built and whose citizens voted quite decisively against the rise of National Socialism in 1933. The Dachau Concentration Camp is a part of the overall German responsibility for that time. I extend a cordial invitation to you to visit the old town of Dachau only a few kilometers from here. We would be happy to greet you within our walls and to welcome you as friends.”
A horrible reality seemed burned into the collective conscience of a little country town with pity, a village having the knowledge of both good and evil.