One day, our task was to weed in and around one section of the barbed wire fence. This work needs to be done by hand because machines cannot get into the small triangular spaces created by the criss-cross pattern of the trip wire against the ground. This pattern was devised to catch prisoners’ ankles and feet if they ran towards the electric fence in an attempt to escape or commit suicide.
I knew the fences were not “real”. I could leave at any time to go to the bathroom or take a sip of water, but still, the work was sobering. I carefully placed my brown leather boots inside the narrow, rusty wire triangles. The space was tight, barely wide enough for one of my feet. I focused on my balance, not wanting to fall into the sharp mesh, as I reached down with gloved hands to pull out weeds and wildflowers. My baggy green t-shirt and heavy jeans snagged by the barbs. I discovered snails buried in the gravel and spiders running around. I was disturbing their world.
It was hard not to think about the thousands of men who had stood at attention on the role call square for hours each day regardless of heat, fog, snow, rain, hail. Some survivors reported that the morning role call was often shorter and more efficient, as the SS needed to get the commandos to work. Prisoners were counted in the morning and given “breakfast”, which usually consisted of a small piece of bread maybe with a bit of jam or butter, and a cup of substitute coffee. They were then transported to various work sites outside the camp walls sometimes by truck, but more often on foot. In the evenings they returned, forced again to stand at military attention to be counted, making sure that the numbers from the morning coincided. If a man had died during the day his fellow prisoners were expected to place the body where he had stood alive that morning. If someone had escaped, all prisoners were forced to stand on the square while the surrounding areas were searched and the missing prisoner found; on several occasions the hunt lasted for days.
Sometimes I paused to stand up straight and stretch my back from the constant bending. I looked out onto the roll call square, covered in white gravel. When the camp was in operation it was dirt. Dusty in summer. Muddy when rain fell. Frozen over in winter. We learned that it was mainly a men’s camp, some women were brought here, but very few. At one point when work productivity was particularly low the SS introduced a sort of reward system in the camp and established a brothel. As a reward for working hard, male prisoners were allowed to visit women in a small building in one corner of the camp. The first four women who came to “work” in the brothel were prisoners from Ravensbrück, the main camp for women and children, ninety kilometers north of Berlin. They had been promised freedom after six months of “work” in the Dachau brothel. When the four women arrived they were forced to march slowly down the Lagerstrasse (the camp street between the barracks) for all the men to see. According to eyewitness accounts it was a shock to see women in the camp and in the name of solidarity, most prisoners refused this so-called reward. Eventually the brothel was closed. It was impossible for me to picture this even as I stood in the actual place. I bent down again and got back to work.
After a few hours, we noticed how clean the fence looked. Rusted, bare wire, the grey cement wall just behind. It was almost austere. Nothing green left. We looked around to find our Teamers who nodded in agreement that we were finished. Still silent, we removed our sweaty gloves and passed around a bottle of water. We put the tools in the wheelbarrow and walked solemnly out the side entrance. The bus would be there any minute to pick us up.
Lunch was waiting for us when we got back. I remember drinking tangy apple juice and I know I ate something, not because I was hungry, but because I needed to do something normal. The bread and cheese sandwiches brought me back. I can still feel the warm sun on my back as I sat on the bench that afternoon, looking towards Dachau’s castle up on the hill.
That night when I showered, I noticed dozens of scratches on my arms and felt grateful for the tetanus shot I’d had the year before.
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