A Stop On a Journey – The Lesson To Be Learned

(A reprise post from the early days of the original mil-blog, Sgt. Stryker’s Daily Brief, which was posted so long ago that the only place I had it preserved was in a collection of posts about matters historical.)

In the month of September, 1985, my daughter and I spent a couple of weeks in Italy, before I took the Autostrada north, over the Brenner Pass. I had decided to drive across Europe, when I got orders transferring me from Greece, to Spain. The Air Force generously provided passage on the car ferry from Patras to Brindisi, and Blondie and I were off on a six-week long ramble.

In the space of a day, we went from flat northern Italian landscapes of cypress trees and square campanile towers to green terraced fields clinging to a steep mountainside, and chalets and the onion-domed church towers of Bavaria. Just north of the Austrian border, I got tired of driving. In a little town just off the highway somewhat short of Munich (now, since we were in Germany, it was an autobahn) I spotted a sign for a “Zimmer frei”, and for a night rented a guest bedroom from a nice elderly German woman whose guest bathroom provided hot water only in the sink tap. Complaint in rusty college German only roused mutual incomprehension. The bedroom seemed to be that of her long-grown and departed children, with twin beds and a wardrobe upon which someone had painted a view of the nearby village, as seen from the bedroom windows.

She served us a lovely breakfast the next morning on what seemed to be her best china, and lavished affection and attention upon my daughter. We had gone from the Mediterranean, where fair blonds were a rarity and a focus of attention on that account, to Northern Europe, where they were a focus of attention because they resembled grandchildren. Not too much to chose between, it seemed: my daughter still promised to take a bite out of the wrist of anyone who petted the top of her head as if she were a small dog.

I skirted Munich and the suburbs, following the map on page 44 of my Hallwag Euro Guide, a telephone book sized atlas of maps to all of Europe west of Russia, showing all those major and a good slice of the secondary roads. It was my Bible in navigating the Pumpkin across Europe. There was a turn-off road to look for, if I began seeing directional signs for Augsburg, I had gone too far. There it was . . . there was the town, a nice little cluster of houses and duplexes. I kind of wondered what they called their local sports team. Perhaps they borrowed the name of the next hamlet over. Or they could have just gotten used to it. I must have seen a directional sign there, because I found the right road, heading out towards the countryside again, so lush and green on a foggy weekday morning, even the unkempt waste places looked like a garden to someone used to the Mediterranean, or the scrub chamisa of Southern California. A tidy, organized country, Germany, everything beautifully groomed, trimmed and the scraps swept away… except for this. Especially this.

I didn’t need a sign for the place, when the fence line and the guard towers suddenly appeared, along the left-hand side of the road. Goddamn… it looked like a movie set. It looked like all the pictures I had ever seen of prison camps. It looked like the set for Stalag 17. This was the place all right. I parked in a nearly deserted graveled parking area. The fog was beginning to burn off, but it lent the place a sense of being stifled, of sound being muffled.

“What is this place?” Blondie asked, looking around dubiously.

“It’s called Dachau, it was a special kind of prison camp, sweetie. The Nazis… you remember who the Nazis were? They put their enemies in camps like this, and treated them horribly.”

“Enemies? Like Indiana Jones?”

“Made-up story, sweetie. But yes, they rounded up all sorts of people; mostly people who disagreed with them, or people they wanted to blame things on.” How to explain it to someone five years old, someone who has the Greco-Roman pantheon well mixed up with the concepts gathered from attendance at the general Protestant services? “Like the Jews, and the Jehovah’s’ Witnesses.” She looked a little baffled, “People who went to different services,” I explained. “They also rounded up the Gypsies . . . you know, the people who used to come around selling fruit, and fixing chairs and things? And people who didn’t agree with them politically, like Communists . . .”

I am drawing a blank again. But it is important that she see this, to know what happens when people hate, how it can poison a person, how it can poison a country. I took her hand, and we walked towards a long building at the end of the compound.

“You’ll be starting school, when we get to Spain,” I said, as we climbed a couple of steps. “And sometime, and at some point, someone will start being hateful to someone else, calling them names because of where their family comes from, or what color their skin is, or how they worship. That first someone will want you to hate that other person. But you must not, not even if that first person is a friend, or you want them to like you, or even if you are afraid they might turn everyone else against you. What they want you to do is wicked and wrong, and you must not do it. A place like this is what could happen, if you went along.”

Inside our footsteps fell on the wooden floor with the peculiar hollowness typical of temporary buildings. A sign in several languages recommended that children under the age of 14 not be taken into the exhibit rooms; I paid for us both, and ignored the look of disapproval. The exhibits were fairly mild, as it turned out, mostly old black and white photos. We walked out into watery sunshine, and across to the remaining barracks building; a reconstruction, at it turned out. It had the same hollow, temporary feel to it as the main building. The originals had been bulldozed or burnt down at the end of the war, apparently – I could not imagine anyone wanting to preserve them as they were, not even for historical purposes. A small wrought-iron gate stood over the single-lane roadway, where another compound had adjoined the first.

“It always looked larger in pictures,” I said out loud. “Arbeit macht frei; it means, ‘Labor Liberates.’ I suppose so, if you are working people to death. I never thought of Himmler as having a sense of humor.”

A narrow gravel path led to a small grove of trees, well planted with flowering shrubs, and another small building with the flimsy temporary feel of the other two; the crematorium. The pretty landscaping around it seemed rather an obscenity. This was a horrible place, where horrible things had happened for years.

Even if I had known nothing about Dachau, it seemed to me that I should be able to feel the horror still lingering.

17 thoughts on “A Stop On a Journey – The Lesson To Be Learned”

  1. When in Budapest, we took a tour of the Jewish community. As we passed a memorial – stones for some who were killed – a man on the tour saw the stone for his grandmother. Did you know that Dachau has the largest cemetery for Catholic priests?

  2. I didn’t know that, Bill – what did impress me the most, after the terrible hauntedness of the place was the memorial stone for six women SOE agents who were executed there.
    (later edit) The women were all enlisted women in the British forces – and I was an enlisted woman myself at the time. It was the only memorial that I saw at Dachau which listed the names of victims. All the other memorials were for groups of victims.

  3. Dachau was the scene for the Twilight Zone classic “Death’s Head Revisited”, wherein the sadistic ex-commandant returns to relive what he sees as good times. He is put on trial by the ghosts of his victims; this is apparently offering him a last chance for him to repent. Sadly, if he HAD repented, the upshot would have been too scandalous for many viewers. He chooses to double down, and in the ending, we see that justice without mercy is a terrifying thing.

  4. Markers are common on the sidewalks of Berlin, and there’s a tiny, sad little park dedicated to the Roma and other victims just a short walk from the Reichstag.

    My wife and I visited Dachau in ’78. The German couple who were there with their teenage son insisted (as only Germans can) that we Americans should not walk all the way back to the station and paid for a taxi for us. Fair enough–both of our fathers were only sons (mine was the only son of German immigrants) who had years taken from them to deal with the Nazis.

    Not that any of these memorials will ever prevent like events . . . but isn’t it pretty to think so?

  5. I am about 65K words into writing a family history starting from when my dad was a kid in China. In 1943 when American law changed so that Chinese were legally human beings, even though he was an old man of 30 [which is late to start being a soldier] doing war work he enlisted in the Army and ended up leading a squad of infantry across Europe with Patton’s 3rd Army. Your piece on Dachau reminded me of a section I wrote about my dad. His company of the 71st Infantry Division liberated the last concentration camp in Nazi hands, the Gunzkirchen sub-camp of Matthausen. They did this less than a week before the war in Europe ended. He never talked about it, or anything else after he landed in France [after Normandy]. I found out about it while doing research on his service [which is how he got his citizenship]. It is to his honor that he was able to do this. And it says something about the vagaries of fate that a Chinese peasant boy who came here alone at 12 years old not speaking English could have a hand in saving those people.

    You did very well teaching this to your daughter, especially in this way.

    Subotai Bahadur

  6. We visited Dachau in 2018. If you thought the “pretty landscaping” around Dachau Nazi Concentration Camp Memorial was an “obscenity”, what you’d think of the bistro they added some time after your visit is probably unmentionable.

    What struck me most about Dachau was the attitude of the Germans. When we were there, so were a lot of German Hochschule/Gymnasium students equivalent to our high school students. They treated it like an amusement park. Dachau meant nothing to them.

    What also struck me was the “modern art” placed around the camp. Not the religious memorials the Catholics (Catholic clergy had their own barracks at Dachau), Protestants, and Jews had put up (one for each), which are fine and indeed necessary, but this … thing that was right outside the Kommandantur that was supposed to evoke a skeletal form stuck on barbed wire. And another one near the entrance made of colored rocks. These seemed very, very out of place. I get that artists are in their own world (so are many authors, I will admit), but picturing what Dachau was like when it was operational is complicated by abstract art that looks more like a Rorschach test than anything else. The barbed, electrified wire, the guard towers, the crematoria, the gas chamber (which wasn’t really used at Dachau, though I thought I saw Zyklon B residue), the communal toilets, the horrific bunk beds, the cheap construction of the barracks in cold Bavaria, the wide square below the Kommandantur do a far better job conveying a glimpse of the horrors that took place therein than abstract art.

  7. My Wife and I visited Dachau around 1968 (on leave from Bitburg). It was pretty austere. However, even that soon after the events there was a gaggle of Italian tourist who were treating it like a frolic. No wonder college students here in the US today have no historic knowledge. I am not sure the Main Stream Media is helping. I guess it is up to those who blog.
    Regards — Cliff

  8. Went to Dachau in April 1973 on our vacation to Italy while my dad was stationed at Wiesbaden/Lindsey AS. It was as described in this article. Grim comes to mind. I remember we didn’t have dinner that night.

  9. In 2002 I was working for a company consulting for a client southeast of Munich. Three of us were there in June, and on a Saturday off, we went to Dachau. As best as I can remember, the place was deserted. One or two staff members were visible, but no other visitors were present.

    The artwork and bistro were not there at that time, and the place was somber and bleak. None of us wanted to go elsewhere in Munich that day, so we returned to the hotel in a somber mood.

    (In a March trip, I spent my free day visiting the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Could have spent several days taking that and the other museums in, but I only had the one day to geek out.)

  10. I have not been to Dachau, but I have been to Buchenwald (in the late 90s). It’s a haunting place.
    Amazingly, I didn’t cry or feel grief. I just felt a cold, deep anger – a desire for justice against people who would do this.

    I’ve seen a lot of evil in the world. I don’t have the ability any more to go crusading against around the world. But I have put down a marker where I am – Not here, Not today.

  11. Stepping onto the grounds of Dachau, I came to a sudden halt. The crunch of gravel beneath my shoes resonated: this was the same sound the prisoners heard with every step they took, every day.

  12. A Sgt friend and I went in his Ford Van – with a V8 – in 1973 and blew down the Autobahn surprising some Germans in Opels and Fiats. Our destination was Munich, about 6 months after the terrorists kidnapped the Israeli athletes and murdered them at the ’72 Olympics. We toured the site of the Olympics that given the background was such an eerie sight.

    Then a day or 2 later we went to Dachau.

    When you realize that Dachau was one of the first, if not these first, camps and its primary purpose wasn’t to be a death factory like Auschwitz but to hold political prisoners, I wondered what places like Auschwitz were like.

    Yes it had a gas chamber and there were shower heads on the ceiling. And I remember, 50 years later, the “execution trench” where the blood of people shot would run in the trench.

    It was a sobering long weekend.

    I think based on my own experiences over there, I think your road trips with Blondie in your (IIRC) Volvo were times that you treasure today. Not much money on military pay but on the little time you were allowed, footloose and fancy free to see Europe.

  13. I forgot to mention that one female SOE operative was captured by the GESTAPO and thrown alive into a crematorium – I wonder if this was at Dachau. If you haven’t read it the book on Virginia Hall is a great read. Those agents had nerves of steel in France.

  14. I don’t think it’s possible for a normally decent person not to be profoundly affected when confronted with the films of the liberated camps with their winnows of corpses and, in some ways, the even more horrifying countenances of the survivors. As time went on, there was the testimony of survivors and, most damning of all, the meticulous records of the German’s themselves. The existence of these records were, again, in some ways, more horrible than the physical evidence; showing a deliberate industrialization of murder on a society wide basis. All of this lead to many weighty pronouncements by the great and good, summed up by; “Never Again”. As if this Holocaust represented a sort of apex of mass murder that would never be approached again.

    Publicly overlooked at the time was the fact that even as the last of the German death camps were being liberated, the Soviets were commencing more than four decades of mass murders to consolidate their subjugation of Eastern Europe. While the rate probably never approached the German standard, the duration more than makes up the difference. They were Russians, after all.

    Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the world in China, the Japanese are still on the road to their destiny with desperation not likely reducing the body count. I haven’t come across much on China between the departure of the Japanese Army and the “victory” of the Chicoms in 1949, Mao’s subsequent record gives me every assurance that that butcher’s bill would have gratified Hitler and, I have heard, gave even Stalin pause.

    What the history of the 20th and the 21st century, so far, shows is that pious pronouncements are not going to save you from genocide and you”ll not get anything more. No one was willing to risk war with Germany over Kristallnacht or Japan over Nanjing or China over Uyghurs.

    Where does this leave us where the Israelis have the bombers and tanks? By the end of WWII, the Allies had long abandoned making a meaningful distinction between military and civilians and in both cases, the war was continued past the point where either Germany or Japan were real threats . What would the response have been to a suggestion that our Japanese campaign conduct a humanitarian pause in the summer of 1945 given the widespread famine enveloping the country? In the end, the Allies concluded that the people making the guns and even the people that fed the people making the guns were legitimate targets. How many Palestinian “civilian” casualties avoided are worth one Israeli soldier? How many Arab countries are standing ready to receive Palestinian refugees, assuming Hamas would let them leave?

    As I’ve said, the only answers left are ugly.

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