This past fall, my family was planning a trip to some of Northern Europe’s greatest cities — Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin and Munich. Dachau is just a one-hour drive northwest of Munich, which was to be our final city before returning stateside. And so we put the former concentration camp on our itinerary.
Once in Munich, we settled into an Airbnb. On its single bookshelf were a few board books in German for the toddler traveler, a couple of outdated, touristy books about Munich and a gray-blue paperback about Dachau, published in English in 2003.
The evening before our self-guided tour of the camp, I read the book — “The Dachau Concentration Camp, 1933 to 1945” — spending perhaps too much time staring at each black-and-white photo.
The photos included an image of the SS march through Dachau; headshots of enemies of the Third Reich killed in the camp shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933; illustrations by political dissidents and Jewish concentration camp prisoners, and, of course, the emaciated, near-naked masses the American soldiers found upon their liberation of the camp.
I wanted to own this book; it would be a physical item I could refer to and cling to, knowing that time could warp, if not erase, the memories I’d form at Dachau. I wasn’t sure where I’d find this book, and hoped to purchase it before leaving Germany.
On the September day that my family silently toured Dachau, the sky above its desolate, steely exposed landscape was a mixture of late-summer blue and early-fall gray.
I had never seen a concentration camp before, except as a dot on a map of the Third Reich, or via pictures and films dating to World War II. I imagined Dachau located in some isolated meadow or expanse of field. Rather, Dachau is, and for hundreds of years has been, a town of regular Germans. Today its population is about 35,000. How could anyone live in such a place? A knot formed in my stomach.
More than two decades ago I worked as a certified medical assistant at a Planned Parenthood clinic. I helped nurses during exams, including gynecological ones. I handled needles. I even attended abortion procedures, holding patients’ hands.
Many people fainted, I did not. I am not a particularly squeamish person.
Inside Dachau, I didn’t faint, but I felt sickened, nauseated to my core.
Dachau’s grounds are huge; the camp comprises an expansive, walled, rectangular area surrounded by dense forest, as well as some houses and an apartment complex painted bright yellow. There are guard towers at regular intervals along the camp’s exterior walls.
Inside those walls there remain a few of the camp’s original barracks. They are cold and claustrophobic; their few windows let in faint light, illuminating the gloom. One elongated room — filled with explanatory placards and photographs — led to the next and the next and so on. I felt like a mouse in a maze, if not a trap.
I went outside. Many of Dachau’s barracks were razed before 1965, the year the camp was turned into a museum. Placed within the erstwhile barracks’ curbed, rectangular footprints are millions of pebbles. And on the far end of this barracks graveyard are memorials. To the Jewish dead. The Catholic dead. The Soviet prisoners of war dead. I’d seen some of them already in the book back in the Airbnb flat. Now I went look at and touch them, close up.
Many of the book’s photos were grainy and didn’t include each of the memorials. For example, the book has a bird’s-eye view of the Catholic Church of the Mortal Agony of Christ, but not the Holocaust memorial whose power silenced me and the other tourists around me. To enter its increasingly dark space, one must descend a ramp that goes beneath the ground’s surface. Here, I wept.
On our way out, I wanted to search the bookstore for the book from our rental. I still wanted it, even though its flat images had barely any of the impact of what I saw with my own eyes. I found the book and was about to pay for it, when I decided to look around.
Survivors’ memoirs lined the shelves and sat atop display tables. There were shelves dedicated solely to copies of “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” in about 20 languages. There also were academic books as well as Judaica: hanukkiot, yarmulkes, mezuzas.
How could one purchase Judaica at a concentration camp? Would its use be a triumph, signaling that on acres dedicated to the extermination of the Jews and other peoples, one can buy and enjoy a physical representation of Judaism? The sale of such items seemed incongruous, even thoughtless. This was not a synagogue gift shop, this was a former death camp. Even more incongruous were greeting cards. At Dachau, where nearly 42,000 prisoners were murdered, one could purchase a birthday card.
I picked one off a standup swivel display, then quickly returned it to its slot as if it were on fire. It felt criminal to handle an object meant to denote a celebration in a hallowed place whose every stone screams death. I experienced a swirl of sadness, anger, stupefaction.
It was good that we visited the camp. But to say I was “glad” we went to Dachau sounds a little like “liking” someone’s Facebook message about a death in the family. Or, for that matter, like buying a birthday greeting at a concentration camp.
Historical book in hand, I paid and left; I really couldn’t wait to get out of there. My book reminds me daily of our visit to the tens of thousands who never did.
Jenn Director Knudsen is a Portland-based journalist.