Kris’s parents and I went to the Dachau Memorial today. It was the first Nazi “concentration camp,” set up just a few months after the Nazis took power in the winter of 1933. The Nazis has some buildings outside of the village of Dachau (a suburb of Munich), and this became the camp. Interestingly, the Munich police were allowed to run the facility for only three weeks, then the SS took over, just as they would run all the rest of the camps for the next 12 years.
Right away the camp got a set of political prisoners: journalists, communists, former government officials, even priests who acted against the Nazis. An elaborate system of colored badges was set up to tell the Jews from the homosexuals, from the political offenders, from the gypsies, all of whom were “undesirables.” One of the worst things about the badges that I remember hearing was that if you came back to the camp, you got a special black line above your colored badge, meaning that you were a repeat offender. The typical way to come back to the camp was to foolishly tell people back home what the camp was like. Inevitably, an informant would scurry to the police and pass on that you were making trouble. You would be picked up and brought back very quickly. Once at the camp you’d be singled out for vicious abuse as an example to the others of what happens when you “blab” on the outside.
The tour was very good, although it was a really hot day, and quite oppressive standing in the bleak gravel role call area. It was easy to imagine the misery inflicted here in a hundred subtle and brutal ways.
We saw the chilling gas chamber disguised as a shower. Although never officially used here, chambers like it were used elsewhere. We saw the ovens, busy day and night after 1940 burning bodies. A depressing little story had to do with how the ovens were kept secret. 20 prisoners were brought from the main camp to live at the ovens, and perform the work of burning bodies. After 2 months, during which they never got to communicate what they knew back to the main camp, they would be murdered and tossed into the ovens. Another 20 prisoners would be brought from the main camp and the cycle would begin anew. This continued for years.
We learned about the depressing manipulation of public opinion, via heavily scripted visits from journalists, via slogans that seemed to impart a philosophy independent people would like (“arbeit macht frei”, or “work will set you free”), and just as importantly, via darker rumors that were allowed to spread but which could also be officially denied. All this had the dual purpose of keeping people in line out of fear, and also putting an official good face on the concentration camp system as the humane way to deal with troublesome wayward elements. Thusly public opinion was kept in check.
A favorite technique to get rid of one or more “troublemakers” within the camp was to toss their cap into the grass near the electrified barbed-wire fence. If the prisoner doesn’t run to pick up his camp, he could be beaten or killed at will. If he does go pick it up, the tower guards will shoot him because it’s forbidden to step on the grass. Countless people died this way.
Hearing each of these stories just made me quieter, not knowing how to fight the alert, intelligent and deeply cynical Enemy that produced these worlds of pain. Feeding partial information to this group, and playing on the fears of that one, the regime spread complicity in it’s crimes in a wide net. The hoarse and jarring voice that continues to tell what happened, along with the true rescue of thousands by young American soldiers was a good answer to that Enemy.
We came back and slept heavily.