10 Sep 2011

Munich Day 3 – Friday, September 9, 2011

Posted by Deborah

(Written by Seth with edits by Deb)

On our third day in Munich, we again dropped into Haputbahnauf to grab some breakfast, and then hopped on the S-Bahn to visit the “model” concentration camp the Nazi regime had established in the suburb of Dachau. Originally an ammunition factory during the first World War, the camp was constructed in 1933 to house the political enemies of the National Socialist party, and was eventually turned over to the jurisdiction of the SS. The methods used at the camp were copied throughout the German occupied territories at the other camps. SS officers were sent to Dachau for training, and at one time the camp temporarily sent all of its prisoners away to free up space for more intensive officer training.

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Toward the end of the war, the population of the camp surged to more than ten times its capacity. Each barrack was supposed to house up to 200 prisoners, but eventually held over 2,000. Having been in one of the reconstructed barracks, it’s hard to fathom how 2,000 people could have squeezed in them, let alone “lived.”

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We used audio guides to take a self-directed tour through the camp. It was fairly informative and even included sound bites from camp survivors talking about their experiences. Still, I found most of the experience of touring through the camp somewhat sterile. The two remaining barracks were both reconstructed; the rest were just outlines of the original foundations. The whole scene was very orderly and structured with nothing out of place. That was until gunshots started ringing out. It took a few minutes to realize that the shots were coming from the adjoining section of the camp that the riot division of the Bavarian State Police now use for training grounds. However, in the moment, the rush of adrenaline and fear made me appreciate the interminable fear that the prisoners of the camp experienced every waking moment. As much as I’ve been exposed to the Holocaust, I still can’t wrap my head around what it must have felt like to be a victim of a concentration camp. For what it’s worth, Deb and I both agreed that it’s wildly inappropriate that the riot police 1) use the old camp at all and 2) actually fire weapons within earshot. It’s just dreadfully insensitive.

Other than the intrusion of gunshots into our visit, the most surprising aspect of seeing the camp in person was its close proximity to the residential neighborhoods of Dachau. The camp is VERY close to town – a road goes right by one of the fences on the side of the camp. Even if there had been natural borders between camp and town, the prisoners were often brought out of the camp to work on construction projects in the vicinity. Certainly, the people who lived in Dauchau must have noticed the train cars of prisoners coming in or the clouds of ash emanating from active ovens. Thankfully, we’ve never had to experience what that smells like, but from what we read, it’s quite a distinct and powerful smell.

But in interviews by Allied psychologists after the war, town residents consistently claimed that they had no idea what the camp was used for or the condition of the prisoners there. Even at the time, these psychologists concluded that there was no legitimate way the people there could profess ignorance. They may not have perceived the full extent of what was happening, but it required an active effort to pretend there wasn’t anything horrible happening. Realizing this was just as disturbing as seeing the original crematoriums in person. There was also an active convent at the back of the camp, and a number of tasteful religious memorials.

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Since touring the site took longer than we expected, we skipped plans to go to a museum and went straight to the Englischer Garten. New York’s Central Park quails in comparison, at least in square footage. We walked through maybe the bottom third of the park. Aside from the standard bikers, joggers and dog walkers, we also saw two women riding horses, sunbathers on the “nude beach,” (which was not a beach at all but just a grassy area near a small stream) and several young surfers practicing their skills on an artificial wave at the start of the river. We strolled through even more beautiful green space on the way to the train station – from a plaza garden to the manicured backyard of the Residenz palace.

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Dinner was low-key take-out from a “doner-kebab” shop near the hotel. Doners are basically schwarma sandwiches, and they’re almost as ubiquitous as bratwurst in Munich. Almost. I napped while Deb took a dip in the hotel pool and then we went out to explore the nightlife. We took the train to Kultfabrik, a huge complex of clubs to the East of the city center. It was like the Ybor City of Munich – fun but dirty and a bit sketchy. There was nothing to see in the short walk from the train to the clubs, just parking lots and people drinking on the curbs. It didn’t feel unsafe, it just didn’t have the charm of the downtown area. After circling around to check out all the offerings, we settled on a place that seemed to be playing good music. It took us a half an hour to realize that it might be a gay bar. Or maybe not. We’re still not exactly sure. It was a very ambiguous crowd, and certainly not the typical “meat market” scene you often find at dance clubs.  From there, we migrated to another club that could have easily been anywhere in the US aside from a few people dressed in traditional Bavarian outfits. It was truly a sight to see leiderhosen and drindels among glittery tank tops and jeans. But the music was distinctly American. I think we heard one song that was in German, everything else was American pop.


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