Dachau today

Dachau license plate (2010).

Something that makes Dachau unique is that the concentration camp shared the same name as the town. The other camps in Germany were different: Buchenwald is located near Weimar, Sachsenhausen is in Oranienburg (north of Berlin) and Bergen-Belsen is positioned well outside Hannover, the closest town is Celle. Sixty-five years after war’s end, the citizens of Dachau continue to live with this. Dachau was also the only camp in operation all twelve years of the regime from 1933-1945. The camp opened on March 22, 1933 (Hitler came to power on January 30) and April 29, 1945 is the date American troops liberated the camp.

One of my main responsibilities at the memorial (former camps are now called memorials) was leading guided tours in English. Visitors sometimes expressed their assumption that due to its history, Dachau must be a cheap place to live. But it’s not. Basic three room apartments (around 800 ft²) cost upwards of 1000Euros per month to rent, including utilities. The high cost of rent surprised me too, at first. It seemed strange that Dachau is locally regarded as a community that offers a high quality, upper middle class lifestyle with everything one needs: doctors, dentists, a women’s clinic and hospital, restaurants, clothing boutiques, beauty salons, super markets, two Irish pubs, two movie theaters, a community college, good schools and a modern public swimming facility.

I lived in Dachau because the Church of Reconciliation at the memorial offered me housing in exchange for my time as a volunteer. They maintain an apartment for young volunteers that come to serve in the memorial site each year, on the other side of town from where the memorial site is. If finances had allowed it, I would have preferred to live in Munich, to have some distance to my work, but as a volunteer I could not afford it. Munich is one of Germany’s most expensive cities and Bavaria one of its wealthiest states.

Looking back, daily life in Dachau gave me something valuable – time and space to listen, observe and absorb the Bavarian surroundings that frame the darkness. Local friends told me about mothers who make the conscious choice to deliver their children in Munich hospitals. That way they avoid the name Dachau being listed on their child’s birth certificate and official documentation.

There was another story of a young woman from Dachau who traveled to New York and while shopping, went to pay for some purchases with her Visa card. The cashier refused the card, thinking it was some kind of joke because the name Dachau was next to the name of the German bank.

I took private guitar lessons for several months from a man in his mid-thirties who had been born and raised there. He was a natural musician, but after starting a family, opted for a more secure living and opened up his successful guitar shop in a renovated building tucked just below the castle up in the Altstadt – the old part of town that dates back to the 1200s. He was one of the most laid-back, friendly people I met there. I always looked forward to my weekly lessons.

In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, daily life in Dachau, the time and space to understand, helped me learn how to live with my questions.

Click here to read the next story: Walk to the memorial