Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Gray Day at Dachau (1964)

I took a year off from school after my sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara to travel in Europe. Planned studies in the fall at the beginning of this period (Goethe Institute in a small village south of Munich) and at the end in the late spring-early summer (University of Goettingen) served as bookends for 6 months of intentionally unplanned travel. The travel began in Munich in late fall. Gowing up in southern California spoiled me for weather.  I hardly knew what it was like to have your breath visible in the cold air.  I sure had some lessons to learn about the real world, and the fact that in the winter things get very cold many places was the least of my world lessons.

I stayed mostly at youth hostels during this unplanned travel time.  One of the best things about staying in youth hostels is the local color you can get from other travelers. One evening I asked what I shouldn’t miss when in Munich. More than one fellow traveler told me to make sure I visited Dachau, which was not far to the north. The next morning I made my way to the Autobahn and hitchhiked north towards the infamous destination. Drivers who picked me up would ask where I was going. When I replied “Dachau”, the response was uniform; the conversation quieted to silence. In retrospect, the response shifted from awkward embarrassment to naked shame.

I had to walk the last 2 or 3 kilometers to the entrance, as it was far away from any settlement. There was no commerce or residence in the area. The day was very gray, and it was as if the whole countryside was sterile. As I approached, there was a very long border of high wire fence. Walking through the entrance I found no one in attendance. I moved in turn through all the buildings and the displays. I never found a soul the entire day, at least none that were living. The dead were extremely prominent. I recollect photos of bones covered by skin, of “scientific” experimentation by hypothermia, of long, unheated wooden buildings (still standing at the time) where the inmates slept and became infected with lice and typhus.

It wasn’t the crematoriums that impressed me. What hit me hard was the fact that the crematoriums turned out to be far too slow at processing bodies, so they were largely abandoned, in favor of firing squads and tossing bodies in large pits dug by bulldozer.  Although plentiful, I'm not including any photos of this, because the images are ones that I don't want in our minds more than they already are.

My other memory was the undeniable stench of rotting flesh. I know it can’t have been actual odor because this was 20 years after the war, but the smell in my nostrils was nonetheless visceral.


  1. Twenty years after the event, it was still so alive.

    I think back twenty years now and it could have been yesterday. What a sobering pilgrimage for a young man. no wonder you remember it all so vividly, enough to recall it for us here now.

    Thank you.

  2. The old TV series, The World at War, ends the final episode with footage of a bulldozer moving piles of bodies that is seared into my soul. It is not bloody or gory. It is just haunting, never to leave one's consciousness.

    I have been on an American Civil War battlefield where I swear I could taste blood, Dan. I understand that you could smell rotting flesh. Sometimes things happen in a place and leave a stain forever.

  3. Elizabeth: I'm glad that I was able to bring this to life for you. Your wonderful memoirs (I'm thinking of the 2 young sisters travelling without tickets) serve as models for me of what careful and sensitive writing can create.

    LimesNow: Yes, a stain forever. How well put. On the subject of why we write: some of what I write is for my children, to help them understand their father better, by understanding what is important and meaningful for him.