by Cara Winters
I came to Munich twicethe first time to party and the second to cry. Do not be deceived; the vast range of emotions that this city elicited in me are no fluke, for Munich, or at least the area around Munich, is home to both Oktoberfest, the annual festival of beer, and Dachau, the concentration camp where more than 30,000 people were killed during World War II. The city itself, situated north of the Bavarian Alps, on the river Isar, effortlessly combines provincial seduction with international glamour and rural charm with the atmosphere of a big cityor so they say. I only know Munich as I saw it, colored by laughter and tainted by tragedy.
It was the fall of my year abroad in Paris when I first journeyed to Munich for Oktoberfest. My five American buddies and I had booked a couchette for our overnight train ride from Paris to Munich and we were beyond excited, anticipating the unimaginable fun that awaited us in the morning. I had never traveled like this before, with a group of friends on an unfamiliar continent and without thorough knowledge of the place I was visiting. Moreover, I packed so lightly that I literally took only myself, the clothes on my back, and a small day pack with toothpaste and other bare necessities. Marie, my fourteen-year-old French host sister, almost didn’t let me leave the flat because she couldn’t believe that I was going for an ENTIRE weekend like that. I just laughed and assured her that this is how it was done.
“Je suis minimaliste!”
I was living on the edge.
We arrived Saturday morning at 9 am sharp and proceeded to run to the sight of our dreams. But none of us were prepared in the least for what awaited. We had heard about the beer tents, but these were not your typical beer tents, rather the largest, most imposing white circus tents I had ever seen, each showcasing the name of a brewery. There were rides everywhere, from colorful bumper cars and merry-go-rounds, to gigantic roller coasters that looped around in the sky overhead. Over the course of those two days, I rode an amazing quantity of these rides and sampled an even wider array of foodsausage and sauerkraut, apple strudel, steaming corn on the cob drenched in salt and butter, candied nuts, gingerbread cookies, succulent roast chicken, and more giant pretzels than the drunken stupor of that weekend allows me to recount.
Surprisingly, I am not a big lover of beer. In fact, at that point in my life, I even held a real distaste for it, but there is something about the Oktoberfest atmosphere that draws you in, beer and all. All I can say with complete assurance is that it was the most fun I’ve ever had. We danced and sang and drank and ate. And then danced and sang and drank and ate again, with more jolly, happy people than I will ever have the pleasure of experiencing again. I will always hold a soft spot in my heart for the tables upon tables of German guys all decked out in lederhosen (the traditional ensemble of knickers with suspenders and woolen sweaters and socks). They were the first to impart upon us the German toast of “Prost!,” which must be said deeply and have a guttural roar to it in order to be heard amongst the crash of fifteen stines from all directions at once, sending beer cascading everywhere.
The weekend slowly disappeared as we proceeded from beer tent to beer tent, with each progressive tent promising more fun than the last; the singing got louder, the dancing and standing on tables became habit, the crowds got bigger and swooned around us, the Italian men bought us beer and the Asian men snapped pictures with us. Even our exit from the fest was anything but ordinary. Exiting our last tent that Sunday, I had to utilize my basketball skills in the form of a spin move to escape the grasp of a German security guard who was in pursuit of our group and the stolen beer stines in our packs. Though the old five-finger discount of beer stines as memorabilia is prohibited, most partygoers at the fest come away with at least one to hold on to for posterity’s sake. My high school basketball coach can be thanked for the fact that, I, too, came away with the souvenir of my out of body experience intact. I left Munich that September weekend with real feelings of affinity for the city that encapsulated the glory and insanity of Oktoberfest.
Even so, Munich bathed in the light of Oktoberfest is a different reality than that which I experienced when I returned in January. My friend Claire and I had returned to Europe from Christmas at home in the states in order to travel before heading back to our second semesters of university in France and Spain. After a week of traveling elsewhere, we arrived in Munich with the sole intention of visiting Dachau. Though Dachau lay on the outskirts, ten miles northwest of the city, the image of Munich from this second visit remains morphed with those of Dachau, as if I transposed the tragedies of the concentration camp upon its neighboring metropolisunfair, I agree, but true nonetheless.
Opened on March 22, 1933 in a former World War I gunpowder factory, the Dachau concentration camp was one of the first installations built in the Third Reich’s vast network of concentration and forced labor camps throughout Germany and the Nazi occupied countries. Rather than being specifically intended for exterminating the Jews, however, Dachau was the place where many high-level political opponents of the Nazi government were held. Communists, Social Democrats, trade union leaders, spies, resistance fighters, religious dissidents, common criminals, gypsies, and homosexuals among others were all incarcerated here. Most visitors associate Dachau with the death of 6 million Jews, but, in fact, the majority of inmates who died at Dachau were Catholics.
Today, the Dachau Museum draws almost a million people each year, many of them American tourists such as myself. Although I walked virtually the entire compound that day in January and can remember the sparse grounds, full of brown grass and surrounded by the remains of high barbed wire fencing and white concrete barracks, most of the factual information I learned that day eludes me. I read each dreadful tableau of the camp’s history and prisoners and scrutinized every photo of the SS leaders in command, yet the only thing I remember with any clarity is the despair I felt. The short bus ride back to Munich seemed interminable and once back inside the city limits I felt the sobering effects of our brief day trip deep down in my soul. When we stepped off the bus near the train station, the streets of Munich welcomed us, shadowy and dark. I have never felt colder.
I am thus left with two contrasting visions of Munich, neither of which is realistic. In one, the city is engrained in my memory as a surreal festival ground known as Oktoberfest, while in the other, Munich remains clouded by the tragedies of Dachau. I was never one for reality anyway.