So benign looking, this strip of grass buffeted by a rocky walkway on one side and a cement culvert on the other. The short blades are brownish-green, their mottled tones making the grass even more innocuous.
But there is meaning here and it is not pretty. We are at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, the most visited of the World War II Nazi camps. More than 1 million people come here each year to pay their respects and remember horrific history. Its proximity to Munich — just 12 miles and 20 minutes by train — makes Dachau a popular day trip. It is often included in walking tours of famous Nazi sites in Munich.
This swath of grass was a killing field of sorts. Nazi guards in lookout towers shot prisoners who set foot on the green border that circled the camp. For prisoners who could not take the torture, isolation and inhumanity any longer, the green strip, so close to freedom, was their escape. They trampled the grass willingly. Now here we are, more than 60 years later, strolling by the grass, occasionally stepping on it, and gazing at the tower unafraid, but not unaffected.
It is winter in Germany and the shadows are deep. Barren poplar trees pierce a bright blue sky. The air is cold and gets even more frigid as the sun drops. We try to wrap our heads around what happened here.
Dachau Concentration Camp opened in 1933 in a charming medieval village known more at the time as an artists colony. Dachau was built as a training ground for Nazi soldiers and a camp to house political prisoners, though "camp" is far too cheery a description. Hellhole is more apt. People, mostly men, were sent to Dachau because they had said something negative about Adolf Hitler or the Third Reich. Perhaps they had broken one of the inane laws enacted at the time. Or maybe they were Jewish. Or homosexual. Or Jehovah's Witnesses.
Dachau was technically not an extermination camp though gas chambers were constructed as prototypes for death camps at Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and others. Still, many people died within the barbed-wire-lined complex. In the years before it was liberated in 1945, 200,000 people from all over Europe were imprisoned in Dachau. More than 43,000 died at the hands of SS soldiers, or from illness or starvation.
The memorial site buzzes with German teenagers on the day we visit. Dachau, like other concentration camps, is part of the nation's required tolerance education. It's a tough history lesson but one the government and society deems necessary.
Dachau, the village, seems to have made peace with its past. There are 40,000 residents now, and growth has pushed a housing subdivision close the camp's walls. Two-story houses peer over a cement barrier. We wonder how anyone could live so close to a place that represents such darkness. Our guide reminds us that life continues in Germany even as memory persists.
We meet our guide at the appointed spot at the main Munich train station. We ride a train, then a bus with about a dozen other people and make a short walk to the camp. We chat amiably, everyone speaking English, until we walk through the gate with the famous inscription.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI
Work makes you free. The first lie of Dachau.
Our guide leads us efficiently around the nearly 20-acre site. There is a lot to cover in three hours, plus she wants to leave us time to wander alone. She motions for us to hang back when throngs of teens gather. Even in the face of horror, kids will be rambunctious kids.
Reflection is a major element of a visit to Dachau. We have our 13-year-old son with us and he finds a lot of what the guide says difficult to believe. It is hard even for adults to understand how such atrocities happened.
A well-planned museum, housed in the former maintenance building, puts Dachau in perspective with a short film and displays of photographs, writings and other artifacts. Our son takes dozens of photos: of barbed wire, the memorial sculpture of twisted bodies and the lookout towers. He is quiet, and I make a note to have a good conversation once back in bustling Munich.
We walk slowly through the surviving barracks, pausing to consider how six or more men slept on wooden bunks built for two. There were 34 barracks at the height of the war; only two remain, refurbished for the memorial. The wooden buildings were not built to last.
As we move to the back of the camp, we come upon the gas chamber and crematorium. The crematorium was built in 1940 to handle the large number of dead, and even it wasn't enough. Lack of coal forced burial in mass graves nearby.
Thankfully, chapels and religious memorials flank that part of the camp. We need respite with a little hope.
Someone asks our guide why the village hasn't changed its name. What town would want to be saddled with such history, its name forever intertwined with human cruelty and suffering?
They keep the name, she tells us, because the village existed long before Hitler's reign of terror. Villagers refuse to let 12 years define their town, she says.
At that moment, I am sorry we hadn't made the trip to Dachau on our own. We could have left the camp behind and gone to the town square to poke through shops and stop somewhere for afternoon kaffee und kuchen. A tour of Dachau Palace, a 16th century medieval castle, could provide another view of a place that has moved on with dignity.
Moved on, for sure, but the presence of the camp and the steady stream of tourists, plus survivors and their families, do not let anyone forget.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected]