As we are slowly making our way to Prague via a six hour long train ride, I figured I could use some of this time to relay our experiences of yesterday visiting Dachau. I am not sure what my expectations were, having never been to a concentration camp before I only had pictures and history lessons to rely on. Nevertheless I would say that a certain sense of ‘nerves’ was hitting me as we waited for our train, and then the bus that would take us to this memorial site. The bus ride through the town of Dachau is very pretty and you can see the signposted path that the prisoners of Dachau were forced to walk directly through the town center. As we walked down the path leading to the actual camp birds were singing, the sun was out, an altogether pleasant day that seemed a bit off keel – maybe I expected silence, a place more devoid of life or light? The “Jourhaus”, the actual gate that the prisoners entered through, leads us into the main prisoners camp and it is hard to express the feelings that came up. Not quite eerie but also not an all encompassing sense of doom either – I guess the expectation of some extreme type of emotion just comes with the territory of knowing some of the extreme acts of cruelty that took place in concentration camps. More of what was going through my mind were series of questions: I wonder what the prisoners were feeling walking through here for the first time? I wonder if they heard the birds and felt the sunshine? Did that give them hope? It seemed ironic that while I expected a sense of doom to accompany entering those gates, the prisoners were probably hopeful, not expecting the worst…who would have ever thought that this would be anything more than it was advertised; a prison.
The museum located inside the old maintenance building is very well done and overflowing with information including first hand accounts of what took place via recordings – Oskar Winter was one of the few English speaking prisoners who offered his memories of his experience there. A place that stands out for me was the bathhouse where prisoners were led after being stripped of all of their belongings. Here they have three transparent photos lined up so that the physical room is in alignment with the photograph. It showed the baths as they were being inspected by nazi officials and later as they were crowded with newly arrived inmates on the day of liberation. The purpose of this museum is to give the visitor a chance to truly place him or herself into what occurred here. Outside of the museum they have two bunkhouses set up, one that you can enter through and see just how the prisoners lived in three different stages of the life of the camp – initially, middle of the war, and at the tail end. You can tell that at the end the bunks were significantly more crowded, the rails that used to separate your bunk from the next were now missing and it resembled more of a perverse long closet shelf than beds. Past this bunkhouse are rows and rows of concrete foundations with gravel. It takes you a minute to put two and two together and realize that each foundation was an exact replica of the bunkhouse you just walked through. There are 32 rows total.
At the start of each bunkhouse are two poplar trees, now towering over the old bunkhouse, and it gave the place a sort of redeeming quality to seethat these same trees were hardly as tall as the bunkhouses in the photographs from the time of use. It was a powerful juxtaposition: such enduring life next to such terror. At the very back of this poplar lined alley are three religious monuments all calling you to remember what you see and respect your fellow man. We spent well over two hours at this site and are very grateful that we had the chance to see and experience what would otherwise have remained as a history lesson in our mind. As we were leaving I kept thinking of the gravel that was everywhere – no grass (except right next to the barbed wire, electric fence) – and as such our shoes were quite dirty. This made me wonder about how some things stay with you, some stains are harder to get out of your clothes than others; some memories are more powerful than others. The dust on our shoes, the same dust that the prisoners had to be so careful about not getting into their bunks (one prisoner called their bunkhouses ‘hallowed ground’ due to no one wearing shoes inside for fear of having repercussions brought down on them by the S.S. when cleaning duties were checked), I think that dust on our shoes will stay with us for a long time to come.
Our journey back to Munich was quite quick, and before we knew it we were shoved right back into the hustle and bustle of this lively little city. Having not had lunch we decided to be bad and get two pastries and coffees for a late afternoon pick-me-up before heading up to St. Peter’s (Peterskirche). This church has a tower that you can climb, 302 steps up to be exact, and gives you a great view of the Marienplaz below and great skyline views of Munich in general. The tower closes quite early and we were one of the last to be allowed up. After seeing our full, we had a shoe crisis to attend to…if only I were talking about myself. Adam is afflicted with what I like to call “angel feet” his poor feet are so prone to tiredness and rocks and the little hurts of walking in general. Turns out his loafers just weren’t cutting it and, to avoid being bedridden for the rest of the trip, he decided to check out the German shoes to obtain some relief. After a few stores he finally settled on a great walking shoe. An Italian walking shoe to be more specific. So, yes, we traveled all the way to Italy for a month last year only to settle on a pair of their shoes a year later in Germany. All’s well that end’s well though and so far his feet have been singing with happiness. Praise the feet gods.
One thing that we noticed about Germany right from the start – and yes I am risking making a HUGE generalization here – is how incredibly active the people are. On our way to the city center from the airport (a Sunday if you remember) every single field we went by had at least half a dozen people either running, biking, or walking with their dogs (sans leash is the German way to do it) and kids. In the city center was the same tons of biking, running, playgrounds in almost every available spot (the kids even wear helmets so that they may roughhouse on concrete playgrounds!). This is probably why there were at least 10 athletic stores in a 5-block radius in Munich. We really liked the vibe and couldn’t help but wonder what it would take to get our country on the same mindset…ideas anyone? Well after an early start to the day (up at 6:30 AM whoa!!!) we are on to our next destination: Prague! The weather there is much more seasonable (read: cold and rainy) so keep your fingers crossed that it’s only intermittent showers! Update at 18:14 – We are settled in a rainy Prague but my oh my is it beautiful! We wandered around for the past two hours seeing Charles Bridge, the castle, old town and checked out our local mini mart. Czech money feels like monopoly money so far and it’s crazy to think that we paid 95 CZK for a coke, cookies and chips…especially when that only equates to around 5 bucks! Nice to know our money is good some places…