Travel and Healing–Bronze Winner: The Distance from Dachau to Darfur

By Peter Delevett

It was Christmastime in Germany, oom-pah music and the scent of bratwurst wafting through the air.

And my wife wanted to go to Dachau.

To me, visiting the Munich suburb where some 40,000 people died in Nazi Germany’s first and longest-running concentration camp didn’t sound like a very cheery Christmas outing.

I know how that sounds. Look, I wanted to go to Dachau, someday. I’ve been to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and the former Hanoi Hilton, struggling each time to get my mind around what had happened there. Such places are a horrible part of our shared human history, and I know how important it is to stand in the shadow of atrocity and grapple with its meaning.

But it just seemed too jarring, too weird, to juxtapose all that against little old ladies selling gingerbread and lace.

My wife, to her credit, was quietly appalled by my attitude. My evening TV program of choice is SportsCenter; hers is Headline News. I tried to buck her up by showing her an article that said Neuschwanstein Castle, where I wanted to go instead with some friends, had just made the list of finalists in a contest to name the new Seven Wonders of the World. It would be a great capper to our Christmas trip.

But the night before, I started having second thoughts, not wanting to disappoint her. And when we queued up at the Munich rail station to book our tickets, the agent told us the tracks to the castle were partly out. We were looking at eight hours each way via trains and buses, with quick connections and the chance of getting stuck somewhere near the Austrian border. I began to feel someone was trying to tell me something.

So the next cold morning, we took a quick hop to one of the world’s most horrific patches of real estate.

Dachau lies 20 minutes outside of Munich, a city that sells itself as the Oktoberfest home of good cheer but that also was a stronghold of Hitler’s fledgling Nazi movement. As we stepped off the commuter train, a McDonald’s billboard read, “Vilkommen en Dachau!”which was about the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen.

A bus took us through silent streets lined with tidy bungalows, not a local in sight. “It’s always dead,” said Andy, a friend who’d been here many times. I wondered why people live here at all, what sort of reaction Dachau folk get abroad when people ask where they’re from. Perhaps they say suburban Munich.

But as the bus pulled up to the camp site, we could see walls and guard-towers, all ringed with barbed wire and a moat. I was aghast to see row houses lined up to the very walls of the camp, with a full view of the torture bunkers. From a balcony one resident had hung a German flag; I couldn’t help but wonder if it was an editorial comment, a statement of stubborn national pride.

In its heyday, the camp was ringed by a sprawling complex of SS barracks and forced labor sites. A red brick road, only recently uncovered, led from the railroad tracks through the SS compound and to the Jourhaus, the main guardhouse that’s been reconstructed from old film footage. It’s here the prisoners would come, as the visitor does today, to the black iron gates with their terrible lie, ARBEIT MACHT FREI”Work will make you free.” I was surprised by how small it seemed; in my imagination the words had loomed high over the prisoners in foot-tall letters, but I almost had to duck my head as I squeezed through the replica gates.

In front of us sprawled the roll-call grounds where prisoners were made to muster every day, no matter how sick, no matter the weather. I stood there and imagined the ground littered with wasted bodies, realized that almost every square foot was a spot where someone may have died. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned here during the camp’s 12 years in operation, and they died by the thousands from disease or malnourishment, beatings or summary execution. The camp’s first crematorium, built in 1940, was overworked within a year, so the SS built a larger version with four furnaces. Even then, the Nazis eventually burned so many corpses here that they ran out of coal.

Most of the camp today stands as vast open space. Poplar trees planted by the prisoners were barren in the December cold. It would feel wrong, I decided, to be here on a summer day, with those trees in full green.

The Nazis started locking people up here, on the site of a former munitions plant, as early as 1933a few weeks after Hitler was named chancellor of Germany and a full six years before the war officially began. The first inmates were German Communists and other political prisoners, and local officials were happy to have the jobs that had been lost when the arms factory shut down.

Glass cases in the museum that occupies the camp’s former kitchen building show off Nazi propaganda arguing that the prisoners were the worst of society but were treated well nevertheless. Some English-language reporters seem to have bought the line, their glowing reports of swimming pools and “relaxations” damningly displayed; there’s even a letter from Red Cross bigwigs extolling conditions in the camp.

But the secret of what was happening at Dachau was revealed long before the Allied liberation. Although prisoners in the early days were forced to write cheery cards to relatives, smuggled letters told of the atrocities and beatings. An escapee named Hans Beimler fled Germany and published a booklet”In the Dachau Murder Camps”in 1933.

The deeper into the old kitchen building I moved, the more plentiful and seemingly less orderly the displays become, until they almost reached information overload. So many photographs and binders of laminated documents, so much to read, I found it nearly overwhelmingand I wondered if the curators were consciously going for that effect. Each subsequent room crowded with more and more banners with stories and statistics about the prisoners: Jews and Gypsies and Soviets and Poles and a seemingly unending supply of other nationalities.

Some 30,000 stubborn, weakened souls were still alive when Allied troops arrived on April 29, 1945. Those who were left were shattered and hollow. In their horror and rage, some GIs summarily executed a handful of guards. The Allies later brought citizens from the nearby town of Dachau to the camp, forced them to see the twisted bodies stacked like cordwood in front of the crematorium.

Former Stanford president Gerhardt Casper once told me in an interview how painful it had been growing up in postwar Germany, “a country of which I could not be proud.” My own grandfather was half-German, and I knew how much joy he took in his sauerkraut and kartoffelsalad. But I wonder whether he kept quiet about those roots during and after both world wars.

Coming finally out of the museum building into the cold flat air, I wandered the memorials clustered outside. A huge wrought-iron sculpture, reminiscent of Picasso’s “Guernica,” recalled the emaciated and misshapen bodies heaped around the camp when it was liberated.

Nearby, someone had placed a soft pink rose on a kind of altar where the words “Never Again” were inscribed in Hebrew and German and French and English. It was a noble thought, but it suddenly rang hollow to me. Fifteen years ago, not very far from Dachau, concentration camps were operating in the Balkans. Ten years ago, it was Rwanda. And the morning after we left Dachau, a full-page ad in the International Herald Tribune reminded me, “SLAUGHTER IS HAPPENING IN DARFUR … 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed.”

What were the enlightened governments of the word doing about that? What was I doing about it?

I realized that the same shallowness, the same American aloofness that kept me from wanting to go to Dachau in the first place, is the same characteristic that has kept me from really paying much attention to Darfur. I know what’s happening thereI don’t

need some modern-day Hans Beimler to open my eyesand I believe my government should work to stop it.

But I’ve never written my Congresswoman to express that sentiment. I’ve never gone to a Save Darfur rally, or donated money to any of the groups working to raise awareness or funnel aid to the victims of the genocide.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” Edmund Burke is supposed to have said. It was true in 1933, when Hitler’s SS opened Dachau. And, I realized standing there, it’s just as true today.

Leaving the memorials, I walked across the barracks yard to the crematorium, which is both horrific and incongruously peaceful. There’s a small church nearby, and an Orthodox chapel; a convent and a Jewish shrine. My wife and I are Christians, but after witnessing the horror of a place like Dachau, I wondered, how can we humans maintain a faith in God? Is it merely how we try to make sense of this?

We took a late train back to Frankfurt, where we met up with our friends who had hiked the many miles to Neuschwanstein. They were exhaustedit had taken them 15 hours round-trip for a 30-minute tour of King Ludwig’s follybut happy. Even crammed with Japanese tour groups, it had been the perfect Christmas postcard.

Yet I did not envy them. I sat there quietly sipping my beer, thinking of my grandfather, of German boys and girls and men and women. I thought of the film footage I’d seen at the museum, of Hitler and Goebbels ranting and screaming, and asked myself how any reasonable person could have seen something in them to admire and believe in.

I wondered what I would have done if I’d been born in another generation, in another place. Would I have spoken up when they came for the Communists? When they came for the Jews? At what point would I have stopped believing, stopped shrugging, stopped telling myself there was nothing I could do about it?

At what point will I do that about Darfur?

It’s been almost six months since my wife and I came home from Germany. The souvenir cups are in the cabinet. Snapshots are stuck to the fridge.

And my checkbook sits here next to my bed. I write the bills. I balance the ledger. And every so often, I think of people in death campsthe ones that exist right now, not 60 years ago.

What amount would make any difference? What amount might save a life? I weigh the checkbook in my hands. It balances on my fingertips. So light I can barely feel it.

There’s a pen in the drawer there. Right next to the TV remote.

With barely an effort, I could reach either one.

Peter Delevett is an editor and occasional travel writer at the San Jose Mercury News. His writing has appeared in the Miami Herald, New Orleans Times Picayune and the Honolulu Advertiser, and he has won awards from the North American Society of Travel Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists. After graduating from Yale, he spent 14 months backpacking through 14 countries in Asia and Europe. His Web site is This story was originally published at on 5/29/07.

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