The other Dachau

Before my first visit to the Dachau Memorial Site in May 1997, I had no idea that Dachau was also the name of a town that is completely separate from the notorious horror camp. I knew all about the infamous Dachau gas chamber and that Dachau was a death camp where millions of Jews had been murdered during the Holocaust, but the town I didn't know. I had seen the gruesome scenes, filmed by the American Army after the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, which showed the emaciated bodies of prisoners who had been deliberately starved to death. I had seen the famous newspaper photograph of an American soldier standing in front of a real gas chamber door in the Dachau camp. I had read numerous books which mentioned the role of Dachau in the genocide of the Jews, but I had never seen any mention of the town of Dachau. Neither was a description of the town of Dachau included in any of the popular travel guides that I had consulted in planning my trip. It was almost as though there was a conspiracy of silence to keep the town a secret, so as not to confuse people. As an educated American, I knew everything there was to know about Dachau and what I knew was that Dachau was certainly NOT a charming town in Bavaria. The word Dachau in the American vocabulary has always meant unimaginable horror or evil of the greatest magnitude. When an American says, "you look like you just got out of Dachau," it means that you look like death warmed over, not that you look as though you have just returned from a pleasant vacation in a picturesque German town.

Before the Nazis became the universal symbol of evil, there were the Cossacks in Eastern Europe. After a terrible pogrom in the 17th century in which thousands of Jews were brutally murdered by the Cossacks, their name became the synonym for atrocities, right up to 1938 when Kristallnacht marked the start of the first modern pogroms against the Jews. Unless, God forbid, there should be another systematic plan to murder the Jews, the word Nazi will stand for all time as man's worst inhumanity to man, and unfortunately the town of Dachau will forever be associated with jack-booted Nazi thugs.

The following quote from a recent article entitled "Never Again," written by Joe McCain, the brother of Senator John McCain, illustrates how most Americans feel about Dachau:

"I stood in the center of Dachau for an entire day, about 15 years ago, trying to comprehend how this could have happened. I had gone there on a side trip from Munich, vaguely curious about this Dachau. I soon became engulfed in the enormity of what had occurred there nestled in this middle and working class neighborhood. How could human beings do this to other human beings, hear their cries, their pleas, their terror, their pain, and continue without apparently even wincing?"

Of course, Mr. McCain was referring to the day that he stood in the center of the former concentration camp, not the center of the town of Dachau.

On my first visit to the Dachau Memorial Site, the mayor of the town of Dachau was standing just inside the door of the Museum, handing out colorful brochures which pointed out that Dachau is a former artist's colony with a 1200-year-old history. After the mind-numbing experience of seeing my first Holocaust Museum at the Memorial Site, I was in no mood to see some unimportant Castle or 19th century paintings, so I didn't visit the town.

On my recent visit in May 2001, I planned in advance to spend a few days checking out the town of Dachau, as well as seeing the Memorial Site again. With the knowledge that Dachau is a 1200-year-old town, I was expecting something on the order of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which is a beautifully preserved Medieval city. However, nothing that I saw in the town of Dachau dates back to the year 805 when the town was founded, and the well-preserved buildings in the old part of town look as though they were built in the 17th or 18th centuries. The original town wall is mostly gone, and the town gates no longer exist. Only one wing of the castle is still there and it was renovated in the 18th century. People may have lived in this place for 1200 years but the present-day town itself is not 1200 years old.

I arrived at the Munich airport on a Lufthansa flight and immediately hailed a taxi to go to the town, as it is located ten miles north of Munich and is close to the airport. My taxi driver was a native of the Ivory Coast of West Africa. When I told him that I wanted to go to the town of Dachau, his face clouded over and he looked at me with a dubious expression. I had said the "D" word. On the way there, he told me that the word Dachau had a connotation of evil for him. He had never bothered to visit the Memorial Site at the former camp, he said, because he didn't need to. He already knew of its history and the very word Dachau was disturbing to him as it is to almost everyone who has never been to the Memorial Site.

Once we were in the town, he had to periodically consult his map, as he said that he had never been to the town either. Fortunately I had studied maps of the town in planning my trip, so I was able to direct him to my hotel in the old part of the city. I had reserved my hotel room months in advance but when I arrived, I saw that the hotel had a permanent "Zimmer frei" sign affixed to the wall near the door. I don't think many tourists visit Dachau. There is not much there that would interest the average American tourist, except the notorious concentration camp.

When the American Seventh Army liberated the Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945, they found 26 nationalities of people in the camp, but only one ethnic group in the town: Volkdeutsch. My first impression of the town in 2001 was that it is more multicultural and diverse than a typical town in the American Midwest. On the way to my hotel, I saw a couple of Chinese restaurants, an Indian restaurant and a Vietnamese business. I saw Africans, Asians, and many Turkish women wearing head scarves that identified them as Muslims. During my visit, I used a taxi several times, and I never had a driver who spoke German as his or her first language. Just like America, I thought.

Yet the town still has the Gemütlichkeit that the German people are famous for. Dachau is the kind of place where everyone on the street greets you with a friendly "Grüss Gott," and the kind of place where people lean out of upstairs windows to chat with people on the street below. It is the kind of place where hundreds of unlocked bicycles are left at the train station.

People still wear centuries-old regional folk costumes for special events, but you also see plenty of young girls with their nostrils pierced. Twelve-year-olds ride their scooters and talk on their cell phones on the street, but you also see lots of elderly women still using bicycles for transportation. Local restaurants still feature traditional German foods like Wienerschnitzel, but at the sidewalk tables of the Teufelhart Bakery, one can eat the kind of food that Americans associate with the finer restaurants in California. When I visited in May 2001, there was as yet no McDonald's arches desecrating Dachau's Old Town. You won't find any litter on the streets of Old Town Dachau; it is as clean as Main Street in Disneyland at 8 o'clock in the morning.

The older people in the town of Dachau have seen a lot of history: the Red Army being routed by the Freikorps Görlitz, the town uprising by the Anti-Nazis, the replacement of the German SS soldiers in the town by American soldiers, and now the hordes of tourists who arrive every half hour on the train from Munich to make a pilgrimage to the Memorial Site at the former Dachau concentration camp.

Through all this, the Dachauers have kept their sense of community and tradition, and have somehow taken it all in stride. They refer to their town as "the other Dachau." This is the unsung Dachau that is largely unknown. Since the end of World War II, the world press has dwelled on the infamous concentration camp on the eastern edge of the town while ignoring the charming town of Dachau.

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