28 May 2017 15:56 IST

Dachau stands still

The first-ever concentration camp deals with stoicism the baggage of its role in orchestrated genocide

The sinister iconography of Nazi history goes beyond signs and symbols. The swastika or the double-S insignia of Hitler’s private army, the Schutzstaffel — these are among the obvious markers of barbarism and hate that we associate with some of the darkest years of the 20th century. But there are other reminders — memory triggers — that are more entrenched in the German landscape. I am thinking of everything the Nazis touched, every street they marched on, every house they made their home. The railroads they built and the walls they erected. The barracks they crammed with three-tier bunk beds. The concrete walls and iron gates. The buildings they fitted with chimneys…

At the Dachau Concentration Camp, near Munich, the sign on the iron gate reads Arbeit Macht Frei (work sets you free). Similar signs were put up elsewhere by the Nazis; at Auschwitz, for example. This was part of the cover-up that justified the name ‘labour camps’ initially given to these facilities. A few years ago, the original sign, along with a part of the gate, was stolen from Auschwitz. Then, in November 2014, the same thing happened at Dachau. Possibly the work of neo-Nazis, or of vandals working in cahoots with the neo-Nazis. Either way, the aim seems to have been to poke a hole in the fabric of historical truth.

Our guide at Dachau, a man named Bernhard W Shoener, told us that the original gate was recovered in a “rubbish area”, or a garbage dump, somewhere in Norway last year. The gate we had before us, with a bevy of cameras pointed at it, was a replica. The original, if installed again, might again be stolen. “The neo-Nazis are still after pieces like these. It shows that the ideology,” he said, looking towards the main camp, “is still not finished.”

Shoener has been working at Dachau as a professional guide since the 1990s. He gives you all the facts straight up, without the emotional baggage. Then, it’s entirely your job to somehow assimilate those facts, and have them work on your brain and on your soul. He is just going to show you around, not teach you how to feel.

At one point, Shoener demonstrated a common form of punishment meted out to camp prisoners here. He called for a volunteer, and gently lifted her hands held crosswise behind her back. “Tell me when you want me to stop,” he said to her considerately. This was to show how errant prisoners were hanged by their wrists, from iron hooks or trees. “One could survive hanging like this for an hour maximum, if you had enough strength,” he said. “But two hours would kill you.”

Dachau was the first concentration camp ever built by the Nazis. It was set up weeks after Hitler seized power in 1933. And it became an important detention facility for political prisoners in Nazi Germany. With time, the dance of death was resumed in Europe and Dachau played its role in the orchestrated genocide of the Jewish community (not to forget the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the disabled and the elderly). But it acted, for the most part, as a point of transit. The Nazi assembly line of human sacrifice often passed through Dachau, but it led to the more hi-tech killing machines towards the east, such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibór and Lubin among others: to which historians refer not as ‘concentration camps’, but more accurately as ‘extermination camps’.

Yet, more than 30,000 inmate deaths were recorded at Dachau. Many died because of the living conditions, and many were murdered. If an inmate died in his sleep, Shoener told us, the corpse would still be taken to the assembly grounds, with due regard for official procedure, and accounted for with the rest of the prisoners. (This unhinged fondness for bureaucracy was, I believe, central to the Nazi pathology.)

To walk through the narrow prison corridors and wide-open assembly grounds of Dachau is to shuffle between the conflicting mental states of claustrophobia and vertigo. You find yourself wondering what you would have done if you were among the many detained here, made to wear on your arm the yellow star (for Jews) or the pink one (for homosexuals) or black (for the ‘work shy’). Would you have looked above at some patch of the sky and asked the question, ‘Why?’ Or would you have said to yourself what one SS officer told the Italian writer and Auschwitz inmate Primo Levi, ‘Here there is no why’?

Suicide as a means of escape would have been an option, as it was for some who killed themselves in Dachau. The photographs of their corpses are among the exhibits: evidence that what Levi had heard was the only absolute truth ever uttered by a Nazi.

We arrived at the gas chamber, the room with the fake shower-heads (most of these too have been vandalised or stolen).

The sign above the door reads: Brausebad (shower room). The condemned were sent here, on the pretext of a shower, to suffocate to death. Zyklon B was poured into the room through external slots that still exist. After the mass murder, the corpses were taken through an antechamber to the adjacent room, which was a crematorium. The ovens still exist: four in the new building, and two in the old. Visitors, not knowing what to do, were photographing the ovens. And I, feeling sick, saw how the two chimneys were pointing at the beautiful blue sky.

(Vineet Gill is a journalist with The Sunday Guardian. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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