Monday, August 3, 2015

Dachau and Rhodt

On Friday, July 31, we left Paris to explore southwestern Germany.  It was a relatively short train ride from Paris to Munich, but the difference in cultures, food and architecture was stunning.  Of course part of the contrast was due to the fact that we had somehow booked a hotel in the middle of a street of strip clubs (I am just glad that I wasn’t the person who reserved the hotel for two nights).
On Saturday, we toured Munich and Joan had her first tastes of German food.  She approves of the pretzels, the soups, and the schnitzel.  She is not so sure about sauerkraut.  Joan particularly enjoyed the driving simulator at the BMW museum.

On Sunday, we toured the Dachau concentration camp.  It is hard to know what to say about Dachau.  Visiting Dachau is a powerful experience that leaves you speechless.  If you have never been to a concentration camp, you probably ought to add it to your list of things to do.  I am still digesting the experience. The images that stand out for me are:
Original fence beside busy road
  • The extensive ash disposal areas near the crematoriums (the ground over a large area is still visibly filled with ashes);
  • The relatively small size of the facility for the incredible number of people who were brought to the camp; and
  • The proximity to and visibility of the concentration camp from the main roads into town (bicyclists and farmers on wagons traveling on the road could easily see what was going on inside the fence).
Somehow I had imagined that very few people knew about the concentration camps and that there were a few concentration camps hidden away in remote locations where a small number of sadistic and/or misguided people committed horrible acts in secret over a short period of time, but apparently I was mistaken.  Dachau was used from the early 1930s until the end of World War II, and most of the camp was in plain sight from the street.

Not only was Dachau not a secret, but pictures of Dachau were on the cover of magazines as a pro-Nazi propaganda tool. While the details of the crematorium and the gas chamber might have been known to a relative few number of people, many people must have seen the trainloads of people marching from the train station through the town to the camp and the emaciated human beings standing inside of the camp walls or working in the area as slave labor. Furthermore, we learned that there were over one thousand satellite camps of Dachau, not to mention the other well-known concentration camps, which also had satellite camps. You can’t help wondering what you would have done if you were an ordinary citizen of the town of Dachau in the 1930s and 1940s. Would any of us have tried to stop the madness? Or would we have looked the other way as we passed by the camp.

The final thing that struck me about Dachau was that the Nazis were so good at pitting one group of people against another that the divisions they exploited continue until this day among the survivors of Dachu. The survivors of Dachau erected a memorial in the center of the camp that contains the symbols on the badges that were used to identify the different categories of prisoners (Star of David for Jews, red symbol for communists, etc.). The survivors decided that they would exclude the badges of three classes of prisoners that had been imprisoned at the camp: homosexuals, Roma (people we might call gypsies), and criminal anti-socials.  As long as charismatic leaders can pit one group against another, it seems that there will always be a risk of another Dachau.

The next day we traveled to Rhodt, the home of one of my ancestors who immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1737.  Rhodt is a beautiful ancient village surrounded by vineyards on the western slope of the Rhine River valley.  Last night, as we walked through the vineyards and village streets, it seemed that very little has changed since my ancestors left 350 years ago. As I write this, I can her the tolling of the same church bells that my ancestors heard as they toiled in the fields. Despite its beauty and apparent peacefulness, Rhodt has more in common with Dachau than you might expect.

Rhodt, which is near the border between France and Germany, has been the scene of hundreds of years of persecution and wars.  My ancestors left everything behind when a Catholic king captured this area, which until that time contained a mixture of Catholics and Protestants under the rule of a relatively liberal Duke. If the history of the period is correct, my ancestors had a choice of converting to Catholicism, fleeing with whatever they could carry on their backs, or being killed. Even today, the region is predominantly Catholic as a result of this “religious cleansing” in the name of God.  Apparently, the seeds of Dachau were planted centuries earlier.

No comments:

Post a Comment