With each visit to Dachau I remember a chance contact I had with a woman who called the town of Dachau home. Riding the city bus from Munich to the infamous concentration camp, I sat awkwardly next to an old German woman. I smiled at her weakly as if to say, "I don't hold your people's genocidal atrocities against you."
She glanced at me and sneered down at my camera. Suddenly, surprising me with her crusty but fluent English, she ripped into me.
"You tourists come here not to learn but to hate," she seethed. Pulling the loose skin down from a once-strong upper arm, she displayed a two-sided scar. "When I was a girl, a bullet cut straight through my arm," she said. "Another bullet killed my father. The war took many good people. My father ran a 'grüss Gott' shop."
I was stunned by her rage. But I sensed a desperation on her part to simply unload her story on one of the hordes of tourists who tramp daily through her town to ogle at an icon of the Holocaust. I asked, "What do you mean, a 'grüss Gott' shop?"
She explained that in Bavaria, shopkeepers greet customers by saying "grüss Gott" (which means, roughly, "praise God"). During the Third Reich it was safer to change the greeting to "Sieg Heil." It was a hard choice. Each shopkeeper had to make it. Everyone in Dachau knew which shops were "grüss Gott" shops and which were "Sieg Heil" shops.
Pausing, as if mustering the energy for one last sentence, she stood up and said, "My father's shop was a 'grüss Gott' shop," then stepped off the bus.
By the end of the line there were only tourists on the bus. Together, in silence, we walked into the concentration camp for a powerful education.
Dachau, founded in 1933, was the first concentration camp, a model camp, and a training ground for wannabe camp commandants who studied such subjects as crowd control and torture. The camp at Dachau was built to hold 5,000 prisoners, but on Liberation Day the American GIs found 30,000 packed inside its walls. Some 3,000 were so sick that they died after liberation.
Visitors start in the camp's memorial theater, where they sit in silence, looking at black-and-white film clips of tangled bodies and the hollow faces of the dead. As the camera pans silently across the corpses, gasps emanate from the audience. A frothing Hitler stands high, his hand waving furiously at his adoring masses. Even on the scratchy newsreel clips, he seems strangely charismatic, not dead but only hiding.
From the theater, wander through the museum. It shows how, under Hitler, Germany's prison system overflowed. A network of concentration camps provided a solution. A chart of the camp system network illustrates an integrated circuit of misery and torment.
When inmates arrived, they passed under the infamous Arbeit macht frei ("Work liberates you") sign. They were forced to trade their property, rights, and human dignity for a number — tattooed on their wrist.
Hope was not allowed. During sick parade, the ill and infirm were beaten and ridiculed in public each evening. A photo shows a Jewish violinist forced to serenade the execution cart as his friend was paraded to his death. The eyes of the German guards are scratched out.
When, finally, Allied troops liberated the camp in 1945 they found train cars filled with dead bodies. In the chaos of those last days, new arrivals to Dachau simply weren't unloaded. At the sight of this agony, battle-hardened American soldiers broke down and wept.
Wandering angrily through the camp's gallery of inmate art left me with a jumbled collage of images: A sky filled with Sieg Heil arms mimics a field filled with tombstones. A bald man in rags stands at attention facing a brick wall. Behind the wall a man in shorts, shivering in a cell, pulls his knees tight to his chest in search of warmth. A bent old man paints a sea of crosses…anticipating many deaths.
Dachau is an eternal flame, memories in a barbed wire box. Tourists become pilgrims. The sound of their hushed voices and sad feet on the pebbled walk seem to promise remembrance. The breeze whispers "never again" through trees on the parade ground where inmates once stood. A monument, as big as the train cars that brought in the inmates, stands in the middle of the camp. It's a black steel tangle of bodies — like the real ones found woven together at the gas chamber door. At its base, in French, English, German, Russian, and Hebrew, is the message: Forgive, but never forget.