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Dachau: Forgive, but Never Forget

By Rick Steves
Sculpture at the memorial of the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany
The Dachau memorial's central sculpture implores visitors to never forget the horrors perpetrated there. (photo credit: Rick Steves, Rick Steves' Europe)

En route to the memorial site of Dachau's infamous concentration camp, I sit down next to an old German woman on the city bus. Suddenly I'm acutely aware that I'm clearly a tourist visiting her hometown to contemplate horrors committed there. I smile at her weakly as if to say, "I don't hold your people's genocidal atrocities against you."

She glances at me and sneers down at my camera. Suddenly, surprising me with her crusty but fluent English, she rips into me. "You tourists come here not to learn but to hate," she seethes.

Pulling the loose skin down from a long-ago strong upper arm, she shows me a two-sided scar. "When I was a girl, a bullet cut straight through my arm," she says. "Another bullet killed my father. The war took many good people. My father ran a 'grüss Gott' shop."

I'm stunned by her rage. But I sense a desperation on her part to simply unload her story on one of the hordes of tourists who tramp daily through her town to gawk at an icon of the Holocaust.

I ask, "What do you mean, a 'grüss Gott' shop?"

She explains that in Bavaria, shopkeepers greet customers with "grüss Gott" ("may God greet you"). During the Third Reich, even before the Nazi greeting was required by law, it was safer to change the greeting to "Sieg Heil." It was a hard choice. Each shopkeeper had to make it. As more and more shops became "Sieg Heil" shops, everyone in Dachau knew which shops remained "grüss Gott" shops. Pausing, as if mustering the energy for one last sentence, she stands up and says, "My father's shop was the last 'grüss Gott' shop," then steps off the bus.

By the end of the line there are only tourists and pilgrims on the bus. Together, in silence, we walk into the concentration camp.

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, but on Liberation Day 30,000 were found packed inside its walls. Some 3,000 were so sick that they died after liberation. The number of Dachau deaths is estimated at 40,000, but the total will never be known. Thousands of Russian soldiers were brought here as prisoners. Not even registered, they were simply taken into the field and shot.

I shuffle into the camp memorial's theater. It's filled with 300 people, mostly tourists who are pilgrims for the morning. They sit in silence, looking at black-and-white film clips of tangled bodies and ghostly faces of the dead. As the camera pans silently across the corpses, gasps emanate from the audience. In other bits of film, a frothing Hitler stands high, his hand waving furiously at the adoring masses. Even on the scratchy newsreel clips, he seems strangely charismatic, not dead but only hiding.

After leaving the theater, I wander through the memorial's museum. It shows how, under Hitler, Germany's prison system overflowed. A network of concentration camps provided a solution. Standing before the chart of the camp system network, I see that fascist banality of evil, an integrated circuit of cruelty and misery. When you arrived, you passed under the Arbeit macht frei ("Work makes you free") sign. You traded your property, rights, and human dignity for a number.

No one had the right even to hope. 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 Dachau was finally liberated at the end of the war, the camp was a scene of chaos, dead bodies, and desperation. At the sight of this misery, battle-hardened American soldiers broke down and wept.

Dachau is both a barbed-wire box of memories and an eternal flame for the future. The sound of hushed voices and sad feet on the pebbled walk seems to promise remembrance while the breeze whispers "never again" through trees that stand on the parade ground where inmates once stood. A statue, as big as the train cars that brought in the inmates, marks the middle of the camp. It's a black steel tangle of bodies — like the real ones of those who lost their lives here. At its base, in French, English, German, Russian, and Hebrew, is the wish of the survivors: Forgive, but never forget.

This article was adapted from Rick's new book, For the Love of Europe.