I often felt that time had stopped in Dachau’s Altstadt. Except for the latest Hollywood film posters at the small cinema to remind me, I could have been walking through another time. Compared to hundreds of other Altstadts across Germany, Dachau was not destroyed in the war. Even in contrast to Munich whose city center was 70% destroyed and later rebuilt in the fifties and sixties, Dachau is the real thing.
The well-preserved Baroque castle sits up on the hill, narrow cobblestone streets leading to it. Painted a warm yellow and cream, the castle is illuminated at night and dominates the town’s landscape in an almost romantic way. On Sundays, its Schlosscafé hosts the locals who enjoy long afternoons of Kaffee und Kuchen, followed by slow walks through the botanical gardens, down the hill and home. On clear days, you can see the Alps in the distance.
This Altstadt is exactly how most visitors probably imagine Germany: red roofs, cobblestone streets winding this way and that, charming, two storey buildings with shops below and flower boxes hanging from shuttered apartment windows above, a slow, easy-going pace. There are outdoor cafés for Milchkaffee (café latté) or beer. Most of the shops close in the early afternoon for the Mittagspause, a midday break that can last two hours. The shops are filled with fine quality items to buy: books, linens, wine, wedding bands, hand knit sweaters, antiques, Swiss watches, paintings and stylish baby clothes.
St. Jakob’s Catholic Church marks the center of town and its bells ring every quarter hour. The church shares the market square with vendors selling tomatoes, onions, apples, hand-produced sausage, brown farmer’s bread and fresh cut flowers. Trees line the streets offering just the right amount of shade on warm summer days, encouraging you to indulge in one of the several Italian gelato shops.
Dachau is buried in snow several months out of the year and in winter, the streets are plowed and sanded to make walking easier. The Amper River meanders through town completing this idyllic picture. No wonder, that before the First World War, Dachau enjoyed a community of painters who came to capture these romantic images on canvas. Many of these pictures are now displayed in various civic buildings depicting the same houses and streets that were part of my daily routine.
The river itself has a quiet connection to the camp. One of its offspring, a tiny creek known as the Würm, acted as a natural barrier between the concentration camp and the SS training school. Dachau was not only a camp for prisoners. The SS also established a training facility adjacent to the camp creating a spacious military compound where tens of thousands of young recruits were indoctrinated.
How much did they know — about what was going on in their town? A lot of people ask this question and it is hard to know how much every person living in Dachau (or in other towns across Germany and Europe) at that time knew. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, approximately 20,000 camps were established between 1933-45; the system was a vast and intricate web.*
In Dachau, the camp was located about 3 kilometers away from, just down the hill. An official press announcement from Heinrich Himmler was printed in local newspapers when the camp opened. In fact, early on, local businesses in Dachau hoped that the SS would bring enough “business” to jump start the local economy, which had suffered since the First World War. The memorial has several photographs (taken by local people) of prisoners being marched through town. SS recruits and prisoners were transported to Dachau on a regular basis. Hitler was very clear about removing people from German society who were not “worthy of life”. The camps in Germany were presented as an extension of the prison system. I could present dozens more examples here, but based on what I have learned, I must conclude that it would have been difficult for the average citizen of Dachau to not have known what was going on in their town.
- Legacies of Dachau by Harold Marcuse is an English text that includes a detailed description of Dachau prior to the SS establishing the concentration camp;
- The Artist Colony (in German) on Dachau’s official site.
*On March 1, 2013, the New York Times published, “The researchers have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe…”. Read complete article.
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