In October of 1969 MC and me and our less-than-a-month-old firstborn attended a family conference in Berchtesgaden, West Germany. Some friends who had gone before went with us. These conferences used to be called "Religious Retreats" by the Army. A servicemember could get three days of non-chargeable leave to take his family to the retreat where there were seminars, classes, activities and what-not, designed to help young families learn to cope with the challenges of military life or to manage their affairs or balance a checkbook or whatever. And there were speeches from church leaders that provided uplifting encouragement.
It was great to have a few days that weren't wrapped up around military duties and personnel problems and mission mania. We had a great time. MC's 21st birthday fell right in the middle of it; I found a hazelnut cake, a Bavarian sweater, and a little crystal vase and we had a party. We drove out of Berchtesgaden at the end of the conference feeling uplifted, light-hearted, and generally just happy.
I am not sure who came up with the idea to stop at Dachau, but it seemed like a great idea so we did. Dachau is a village a little way outside of Munich. The stigma of the name of the village is still so prevalent that many residents of Dachau use addresses from other towns to register their cars (In Germany, your license plate is coded to identify your town of residence). It is a nice little suburb, much like hundreds of other villages in Germany, except it has a history most others don't.
Just on the edge of town is the Dachau Concentration Camp site. In 1933, when the camp was opened, the town had not yet grown out that far so the camp was kinda out of town, in the woods. It was the first concentration camp built in Germany with the purpose of housing Hitler's political prisoners...and any others the Nazis decided were "undesireable". In its twelve years in operation, it housed communists, homosexuals, developmentally challenged souls, Catholics, gypsies, anyone the government felt should be there, and Jews. Thousands and thousands of them.
It was a blustery October afternoon, a little chilly, with gusty breezes, fast- moving clouds and their shadows. We parked near the gate, as it wasn't a very busy day, and walked down a sidewalk toward the entrance. The first thing I noticed walking through the gate was that it became very still. We walked next to a building with the barbed- wire fence on our right. At the corner of the building we could see the camp for the first time. There were only two barracks buildings standing but the pads for dozens of others were visible. In front of us there was a ditch about three feet deep and six feet across between the fence and the camp itself. I knew from books I had read on the subject privious to this visit that the ditch was a "no-man's-land"; prisoners who got close to it were shot from the machine- gun towers that sat above the fence. The former SS Headquarters building is now a walk- through museum full of pictures andartifacts. In front of the museum stands the memorial sculpture...I won't try to describe it; maybe I can find an image of it to include here. We walked through the rest of the camp; we saw the infamous ovens, the railhead where the freight cars full of prisoners were brought into the camp, the gate with the admonition "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work makes you free).
But the lasting impression of the camp at Dachau that day (and the several subsequent visits I have made there) was what I felt there far more than anything I saw. The calm and cold created an eerie kind of aura around the camp. There was a feeling of something important, something historic, something dead, and something evil there. The evidence of unspeakable events, the absolutely unbelievable cruelty, the wanton disregard for the human condition has left a spiritual stain over the whole camp.
When we left Dachau our mood was different than when we left Berchtesgaden. It was more subdued. It wasn't really as depressing as it could have been; there were some positive things from the visit. I think we all felt that there was a special spirit there, sort of like a band of angels who were assigned to watch over the place. It was sobering, but not a total downer, it that makes any sense...no more than a barbed-wire fence can stop the wind.
I have spent many years in Germany, first trip there in 1964 and was there just before I retired from the Army in 1991. Over thirteen years altogether. I love it there. I have met many wonderful people there. I have traveled all over the country with my family and on business or on military missions. In all of that time and travel, I have still never come to understand how such things as were common during the Holocaust could happen...how those wonderful people could allow their country to be so mis-managed and brought so low by thugs and gangsters who had no respect for their nation's constitution. Hmmmm