A Visit to Dachau

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 - prompted by shame or resentment - that all Americans want to visit Dachau and harangued us for quite some time about the 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 bare feet of prisoners and jack-booted SS guards walked and crawled and were dragged and bled and all together became part of this ground.

We visited the museum, with 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 soon be dead but deserved nothing less than to be home in their own warm beds.

We went out to the dirt yard. The barracks were gone. Outlines 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 are so 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 is said that these showers at Dachau 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. When American troops liberated the prisoners in Dachau in 1945, bodies were piled like logs for the fire in front of the crematorium which even burning 24 hours a day could not keep up with the executed, the dead and dying from exhaustion, disease and starvation.

At the back of the camp, behind the neat rows of barracks were chapels. I recall 3 – a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jewish chapel. In the Protestant chapel, a Lutheran Minister was receiving visitors. He stayed there to minister to anyone trying to make sense of the senseless and to offer God’s grace, solace and peace in the face of the greatest evidence for the lack of existence of God. This minister was about my father’s age, probably mid-50’s and he bore a tattooed number on his forearm. He had been a prisoner in Dachau and somehow he and the other clergy who held vigil at Dachau had the fortitude to return to the camp to minister to the visitors and to bear witness. Perhaps he and his fellow clergy also felt that in this way they could undo some of what the Nazis had done. Perhaps he and they felt that with their innocent breath they could continue to try to win the battle of good over evil – to breathe innocent breath into evil lungs, to unsticky the air of death and hatred and terror and to cover the soil with the steps of the innocents. The former prisoner clergy at Dachau are likely gone now or will certainly be soon. Those of us who were fortunate enough to meet them have the burden to continue to breathe that innocent breath and walk in their innocent shoes.

These memories have been in my mind for 40 years and I have never written about them. I tell my children to be careful what they see because it will be in their minds forever. Memories never leave us, they just get filed away in dark little cranial cubby holes. But it is Passover week. My children are half Jewish from their father and my son is talking about taking his spring semester of his junior year of college in Tel Aviv. He wants to learn about his heritage. And this dark memory of visiting Dachau is squeezing out of a little cranial cavity and making its way to this page in honor of Passover and my children and my friends and strangers whose families lost innocents to unchecked madness and cruelty.

Jean McGavin
Bethlehem, CT © 2013

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