16 October 2010


This seems like both a good and a bad post to begin our German visit with. Good because the holocaust is something that will always be associated with Germany, and that it's impossible to forget about when you visit. Bad because it is only a part of what this country is about, and isn't what is foremost in our minds as we travel around. We had to start somewhere, though, and we're starting with Dachau.
We parked our car next to lumber yards and walked by a fitness center, a donerkebab stand and an Opel dealership that all crowd around the walls. We drove in past a "pan Americana" restaurant. People have lives, here. We talked about how people put down their addresses - "such-and-such street, Dachau, Germany" - and how infrequently they must think about the concentration camp. It was a gray, chilly day and we decided to visit because we felt a little depressed anyway and thought we would just go with the mood.

Walking in, it's difficult to know how you're going to feel. Most of the tourists made their way silently from the parking lot to the entrance, and there was a sense of nervousness and anticipation in the air. The two women at the information desk were smiling and cheerful, which was startling - but, of course, they were just doing their job. How can you ask them to represent solemnity and sorrow for eight hours every day? They're just trying to explain how to use the audio guides and where the toilets are.
The place is mostly a recreation. The main building, in the picture above, is one of the few structures that still remains. Most of the other buildings were torn down, eventually, or fell into disrepair. The camp was actually used by the Americans, after the war was over, to house German prisoners of war. Later, it was used to house refugees. Nobody thought of it as a historic site until much later. I think that it became important only when people who were too young to remember the holocaust grew up and began looking for markers and pieces of the past. The people who remembered it must have wanted to forget that it ever existed.
It was a harrowing experience, but not in the way that I expected it to be. It wasn't a place that made you feel as though there were ghosts around, or where history seemed very present. The experience was more like reading a textbook, unfortunately. The museum has a lot of information, but very little to look at. The black and white photographs are much the same as the ones everyone has seen - it's difficult to make the connection between the blank, refurbished structures and the images that are presented to you. Perhaps the most powerful feeling was one of emptiness. Even though there were hundreds of people there, the space was large enough that we felt almost alone. Also, it's very quiet.
The barracks buildings were constructed for the museum - all the original housing had been torn down long ago. It was still interesting to see the buildings and to imagine life there. There was very little immediacy, though. Before we got there, I was almost frightened of being overwhelmed. Instead, I felt that I had to search for feelings of connection to the past. The picture below is of the foundations of the old barracks buildings, where all of the prisoners were housed.
I think it's interesting that this camp - which, in many ways is a symbol of the great destruction of Europe - is itself preserved. So much was wiped out here, both in terms of human lives and buildings. This space itself was almost lost as Germany changed around it - in fact, most of the camp is now completely gone, covered over by new buildings. It is a funny thing that this is now a historic site, when what it really represents is the demolition of so much history.

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