Tuesday, June 05, 2012


The year was 1985 and the Germans were running courses for foreign civil servants showcasing how well Germany was doing and how the federal system was working well.

After a few days in Bonn, the then capital of West Germany, we went to Munich, to see how one of the German Länder was making out. We arrived at the beginning of the weekend and so had a day's respite before getting down to serious business on the Monday.

I had been looking at the map and saw a Dachau nearby. I wondered if that might be the concentration camp and it turned out it was. So I resolved not to pass up the opportunity to go and see it. The other members of the Irish contingent were game and even some of the British said they'd come along.

Come Sunday morning and there was no sign of the British, so we decided to carry on ourselves. Some among us needed to get mass so this was taken care of in Munich before our departure for Dachau. As it turned out it was some sort of feastday, of St. James I think, and everyone leaving the church was presented with a single stem rose.

Off we set on the train to Dachau. I don't know what we expected but when we came out of the station in Dachau there wasn't a concentration camp in sight. We were in a leafy residential part of town. We might as well have been in Foxrock. So what next? Where's the camp? How do we find it? The obvious thing to do was to ask. But what do you say? Excuse me, where's the concentration camp?

I was certainly reluctant to take this line since the time I nearly gave an elderly German man a heart attack when I tapped him on the shoulder from behind in Aachen. Maybe he was a war criminal in hiding but I only wanted to ask the way to the motorway to hitch a ride to Ostend.

So we decided to have something to eat first. Big mistake. The only thing that got eaten was part of the day so it was heading well into the afternoon when we were back out on the street and none the wiser.

Eventually, we plucked up the courage to ask a passing backpacker and were told to ask for the Memorial or the Anlager, but we'd be as well just hailing a taxi as it was not far off closing time for the camp. That we did.

We reached the camp with about an hour to closing time so we had to keep moving through the various exhibits. You could have spent the whole day there. The emotion was overwhelming. You could feel the fear, the sadness, the anger. Whether it was coming from inside yourself or not was hard to know. But the effect was devastating.

Dachau was one of the earliest camps. It was both a training ground for those who went on to run other notorious camps and it was also a medical "research" centre which performed horrendous medical experiments on the prisoners.

We eventually ended up in the crematoria. Yes, there were gas chambers in Dachau, but they were never used. Victims to be gassed were transported to other camps. But people were shot there, in large numbers, and the bodies burned in the crematoria along with those who died from other causes. There were over 200,000 people registered as entering the camp and there are records of over 30,000 dying there, whether from illness or being shot or as a result of torture or medical experiments. These figures are probably underestimates as many went unrecorded and some records were destroyed when it was clear that Germany was losing the war.

One thing that made a huge impression on me and stays with me to this day is the cigarette butts. These were standing on ledges in front of the doors of the crematoria like candles at a shrine in a church. I can only think that people were so affected by the place that by the time they got to the crematoria they wanted to express sadness or sympathy or hope, in some way or other, and left lighted cigarettes standing on the ledge like candles. These had then burned down to the butts. It was so sad. Fortunately we still had our single stem roses which we gently placed on the ledge.

The next morning at breakfast in the hotel our guide, an elderly German who had fought on the Russian front, was asking participants how they had spent the Sunday. Some had gone to the lake, others to see castles and the like. When he got to us and we told him we'd been to Dachau he clearly got a shock. After all, it was part of his job to show us the positive side of the modern Germany. He didn't really comment and passed on to the next table.

A short while later we met him in the lift. His immediate, unprovoked, comment was "Ja, it was good you went to Dachau". He had been clearly mulling over what we had done and had, himself, the strenghth of character to see the positive side of it. Full marks. The man shot up in my estimation, which was already high, by the way.

By way of contrast. I know there had been more than Jews in Dachau, in fact the Jews were probably not even a majority in this particular camp, but the overwhelming sadness I felt there, and which has stayed with me all these years, is rapidly fading and turning to cold anger when I contemplate today's vast concentration camp on the Gaza strip where the Israelis are subjecting the population to nothing short of what they themselves were subjected to in places like Dachau.

The abuse continues.


Anonymous said...

I went to Dachau too many years ago. And much more recently to Sachsenhausen with my son. Among the many things they had in common was the feeling of being a very uncomfortable truth tucked away out of sight. Understandable I suppose, when many of the locals presumably have strong family links to those who staffed the concentration camps and killing grounds.

Póló said...

Germans of my generation had to carry the burden of a lot of guilt which, strictly speaking, wasn't theirs.

They grew up in a divided country with a constitution written for them by the Allies with the specific purpose of keeping them in check.

I remember, on the Bonn part of the above trip, the FT reporter in Bonn, gave us an "outside" view of how W.Germany worked. His view was that, on paper it couldn't work, too much fragmentation and consultation built into it, but that in practice it did work because the Germans were determined to make it so. He said that when they went into a room, regardless of the rules, they just didn't come out until they had made a decision.

He also made the point that if they ever lost the will to make it work the whole thing would just fall apart.

It was an interesting trip all round.


Anonymous said...

Interesting view of things from the German reporter.

I worked for a while in a Polish town that had a pogrom after the Germans left - i.e. a homegrown pogrom. One of the victims - all Jews - had survived Auschwitz, only to be killed when he was nearly home. I encountered an odd guilt and eagerness by individuals to assure me that they, personally, had had nothing to do with the killings. They were far too young and strangely defensive.

Póló said...


Just rereading this and wondered if you thought the FT correspondent in Germany was a German guy. It was actually Rupert Cornwell who went on to the Independent and seems to be still with them.


Roger O'Keeffe said...

Dachau was, I believe, mainly intended for political or social undesirables - Communists, outspoken Social Democrates, Catholic priests etc. or others, who criticised the régime and social undesirables such as prostitutes, homosexuals, etc.

It was never intended as an extermination camp, but some Jews were incarcerated there from early on long before extermination was adopted as policy.

In the early days, it was quite common to release people after a while, when they had been taught a lesson and seen the error of their ways. Indeed, releasing people (including Jews) was a deliberate tactic of intimidation as the Nazis knew that, in spite of orders to the contrary, they would talk to family and trusted friends about their experiences.

The notatiion "R.E." - Rückkehr unerwünscht - on prisoners' committal documents came later. This meant "return undesirable" - i.e. the incarceration was indefinite and would end only one way, with the prisoner's death from undernourishment and overwork, if not by execution for a trivial offence or as part of a reprisal for escapes etc.

This is the sort of gradual, extra-judicial erosion of liberties and intimidation that Trump and his faithful would try given half a chance.