The name Dachau typically conjures up horrible images among foreigners. Among Deutschland natives, the name brings up feelings of shame about Germany’s past. When I told others I was going to be visiting relatives in Dachau, they usually looked at me quizzically before asking, "Oh! So you’re going to visit the concentration camp?”
Yes, Dachau is the name of one of the most infamous concentration camps in Germany. Yes, I did visit the camp during my stay. But Dachau is not only a concentration camp—it’s also a town populated by over 45,000 people. Two of those people are my cousin and her partner.
The both of them are well aware of what comes to mind whenever Dachau is named. They told me Dachau residents drive and park their cars around Germany and the rest of Europe at their own risk. With license plates sporting the name Dachau from local dealerships, resident’s vehicles have been known to be vandalized as a result of the strong emotional response tied to the town’s name.
Declaring hometown pride for Dachau must be challenging for residents. I certainly can understand the difficulty seeing the name stamped on someone’s car, like a badge of hate. At the same time, it's important to realize the name also represents a small town along the River Amper in Bavaria. This is why I’ve decided to write about the concentration camp and the town in this post.
The main attraction in Dachau is, of course, the KZ-Gedenkstätte (Concentration Camp Memorial). I considered only writing about the town of Dachau for this post but then I felt that leaving out the camp would be its own kind of injustice. The site deserves (even requires) an overview if for no other reason than out of respect for the lives lost there. Prominently all over the camp are monuments calling for the public to "Never Forget" and never allow what occurred to happen again.
The Dachau Concentration Camp was the first camp opened by SS commander, Heinrich Himmler, in 1933. The camp became the model for all other camps set up during Hitler’s reign. Originally meant to hold political prisoners, the Dachau camp eventually imprisoned many different groups including Jewish people, suspected “homosexuals,” Germans and Austrians who resisted the national socialist movement, and various other social groups and individuals from countries invaded by Germany during World War II.
Over 200,000 were imprisoned, 41,500 were murdered, and thousands more undocumented deaths occurred solely at the Dachau camp.
The museum at the memorial site begins in one of the camp's original buildings. The first rooms of the museum were used to organize and register prisoners upon arrival. I was moved by excerpts of prisoner accounts describing the very room I stood in. The Schubraum (thrust chamber) was where the admissions procedure for prisoners took place.
The following is an account from Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz who was imprisoned from 1940-1945:
We entered...a large, long hall. Square columns supported the ceiling. They stood at about the middle of the room. Between them stood tables that divided the whole room into two parts. Posters hung above the tables: From A-K, from K-P, etc. Behind these barriers stood a few men with shaved heads, striped suits, and intelligent faces. Our personal possessions were once again registered. An SS man in the background shouted "forward, faster." The SS man who had brought us ordered: "Undress, get going, faster! Clothing and underwear, everything in one pile!"
The museum displays did a thorough job describing the camp’s establishment, explaining the guards’ orders and experiences, showing the propaganda throughout Germany to deceive the public about what went on inside the camp, memorializing each group brought into the camp, and depicting the harsh conditions they faced as prisoners. Stories, images, and artifacts did not shy away from describing the horrific torture sustained by the imprisoned.
The middle of the camp showed a replication of what the living quarters of inmates looked like. The other corner of the camp showed where prisoners were taken to gas chambers nearby the crematoriums.
The museum depicted grim information and imagery balanced with gleams of humanity and a persistence for psychological sustainability within the camp. Despite the terror that ensued from every angle, accounts described the rare guard who would risk his life with a small act to aid a prisoner or look the other way. Many prisoners also managed to enact various survival methods and moments of resistance in secret.
These bits of information were captured on hanging tapestries as I walked through the rooms where prisoners were robbed of their dignity and harmed beyond belief. Leaving the camp, I noted the irony of the phrase Albeit macht frei (“work makes you free”) which, when inside the camp, is read backwards.
Personally, the experience made me reflect on both my German-Bavarian roots and my Russian-Jewish roots. These two parts of my ancestry feel partly at odds with each other while peering back in time. Simultaneously, these parts of me make up a whole demonstrating the ability for humanity to overcome its weaknesses and persist toward peace, love, and progress.
I walked out of the Dachau camp thinking about the unjust vehicle vandalism Dachau residents have sustained when traveling in their car around Europe. I wondered how frequently it happens.
Immediately after WWII, such vandalism was obviously more commonplace. A 1971 film documented vandalism to Dachau residents’ cars by foreigners who equated the town to the crimes at the camp. After the film’s release, letters of support poured into the mayor’s office relinquishing the town of any guilt or responsibility for what happened at the camp, but locals note the vandalism still occurring today.
I realize such targeted vandalism is nowhere near the kind of violent discrimination faced by many other groups in our world today. But, to me, these crimes serve as a metaphor for injustices occurring all around the world. These crimes often occur because we dwell too much on the past, missing the reality of the present and the possibility of the future.
Dachau was once a town. It continued to be a town throughout WWII and it continues to be a town today. Despite the concentration camp that developed and eventually shut down there, Dachau is a place where people live, work, and play.
More specifically, Dachau is a quaint old Bavarian town proud of its roots in which famous artists settled there in the 1800s to paint the surrounding landscapes. The Alps appear in the distance on a clear day and are best viewed from the highest point in Dachau. I walked to the highest point with my cousin and her partner on a sunny afternoon to visit the Schloss Dachau (the Dachau Palace) built by the Wittelbach family. Rulers of Bavaria used the palace as a residence from the 16th century on. Today, the banquet hall is frequently reserved for special events and classical concerts.
The Hofgarten (court garden) around the palace has beautiful flowers and trees lining the grounds. Running along the frame of the garden are arching lime trees that create a tunnel to walk through and sit under. Droplets of light fell elegantly through the canopy overhead on the day we were there.
Old Town is a section of Dachau where you’ll find many different art galleries. One gallery is the Dachau painting gallery which is devoted to the landscape artists who painted the Dachau moors. Artists' villas and some of the town’s first buildings stand in Old Town. They looked pristine and colorful as a backdrop to the pretty autumn trees.
Dachau residents know how to spend their afternoons, like this woman at the cafe, Altes Schulhaus. We had a seat to sip hot chocolate and share a slice of lemon-poppy pie. Yum!
A simple walk away from the city center reveals the town’s devotion to outdoor activities. Children play in beautiful public parks, tennis courts are available for public use, and community gardens are maintained by green-thumbed locals.
The people of Dachau have many trails winding through back forested areas that open up to lakes for barbequing, dog-walking, and swimming in the summers.
Birdhouses can be found dotted along the paths, and the town’s focus on the vegetation in the area is prominent on signs posted at trailheads.
One trailhead was even marked with a map designating exercises to perform at different points along a route through the park!
Although its name often gets muddled by association with the concentration camp of the same name, Dachau is truly a beautiful town in which to live, work, and play.
Many tourists travel from Munich on a day trip only to visit the camp. Sadly, they miss out on the rest of what Dachau has to offer. I enjoyed my two days there and encourage those who visit the camp to deviate from the memorial site and explore the rest of Dachau, too.