Heading for Dachau
The four of us headed to Dachau in a VW van. It was 1972, twenty seven years after the war had ended. We were young, idealistic, naïve and had much to learn about life, yet we felt we knew a lot already, as is the way of young people.
We wanted to look at the depths that mankind could sink to. We were looking for the concentration camp.
We had no plan or map. I’m not sure what we were expecting to find or how we were going to find it. We drove to the town and mindlessly circled round. Perhaps we thought we might stumble upon it, or see a signpost that said – ‘Concentration Camp – This way’.
We might have aimlessly wandered all day if a car had not waved us down. A young man had seen our GB plates and surmised that we were looking for the camp. He was friendly and casual and somehow his assumption that we, as British, had come here to visit the scene of such depravity, made us feel embarrassed. He, being German, might feel implicated.
He directed us to the site. It was out of town and unsignposted. We would never have found it without assistance.
The camp was not intact. They had left the perimeter fencing, barbed wire, gate and signs for the electric fencing; they had left the main buildings with the gas chambers and ovens, but they had disposed of all the rows of wooden barracks rooms where the prisoners had been housed. They had been burnt to the ground. All that remained was the concrete bases of those large huts. They had been incinerated in order to deal with the pestilence. Even so it was a site which still housed the horror of their purpose. This was the place where hundreds of thousands of men, women and children – Jews, gypsies, disabled and mentally ill – had been shipped to meet a gruesome calculated fate.
We were shown rooms of hair, cases, shoes and clothes. They were probably a fraction of the ‘booty’ but they served to give a visual impact to the enormity of the crime. Numbers were merely numbers but rooms of hair brought the numbers to life; they were real people who had lived, loved and died in terror.
We looked at the ledgers. They were chilling. The meticulous planning was so cold and unemotional. These were units to be processed; not human beings. These were cargo to be shipped, inventoried and disposed of. The task was as mechanical as if recording a shipment of coal. The amounts were recorded. The journeys noted. The arrivals recorded and the departures planned and executed.
We followed the journey from the rail-head to the shower rooms. We could imagine the sorting that took place – the ledgers with clerical soldiers writing names; the division into left and right – those deemed worthy being arbitrarily selected to proceed to the right where they would be worked to death and those to the left being directed straight to the shower block.
Our silent imaginations filled in the missing details. We could visualise the shuffling lines, the divided families, the anguish and the uncertainty. It was that uncertainly that had made them so compliant and robbed them of reason. The process had been so matter-of-fact, so methodical. They had stepped forward to give themselves up to a casual vetting and allowed themselves to be assigned to their fate.
We could see it.
I stood and surveyed the place where it had taken place. I wanted to shout back through time and urge those exhausted travellers, who had spent days locked in cattle trucks, in the heat without water or food, packed so tight that they could not sit, arriving so fatigued they were dead on their feet – Run!! Fight! – Better to die now from a bullet! To die fighting! Yet that was already in the past. They were too exhausted they had already given up. They were already dead.
They were directed. They shuffled off to the huts or showers. They were stripped, shorn and ushered into the long chambers. They must have stood fearful, yet hopeful, not allowing themselves to believe the worst, waiting for water to come from the showerheads. Instead canisters of xyclon B – rat poison – showered from the ceiling.
My mind wandered through the accounts. I looked into those shower rooms and could imagine the mothers clutching children to them as the gas hissed into acrid clouds around them, choking and stinging, the mad clawing for the door. They say that the terror produced a frenzy to escape as people trampled and clawed at each other to get out, piling up at the door, evacuating bladder and bowels in terror.
When it was over, and the poisonous fumes vented, the doors would be opened and the agonised stricken corpses shifted along to the ovens for instant cremation. One could not help but wonder if they were all dead? Or did that matter?
The victims were also those prisoners used to empty the shower-rooms and the guards who witnessed the events – dehumanised by the cruel repetition.
What really brought it home to me were the windows.
The gas-chambers had been designed by an architect.
Some well educated person, sitting in an office, far removed from the action, had drawn up the plans. They had their remit. They had built in the fake shower heads to reduce panic in the clientele so that they could be induced to enter the death chamber without fuss; they had designed the airtight doors and traps in the ceiling through which the xyclon B canisters could be delivered. They would have been under no illusions as to the use of the chambers. These were to be used for cheap, effective vile mass execution. The most chilling aspect was that they had built in long viewing windows, not small functional observing ports. These were not designed to merely note when the gas had done its job; the architect had designed the viewing window to take into account that the guards outside might wish to watch the gruesome desperation and terror unfurling inside the chambers.