A hometown

In red, a silver spur. In black, a lion with red claws and crown. In silver, a blue serpent with red tongue. Source: http://www.dachau.de (2011).

Living in Dachau never became normal for me. It always felt strange to go “home” there after seeing a movie or hanging out with friends in Munich. The train system is automated now, but when I lived there, the conductor (usually male) would announce the name of each stop a minute or two before arrival. It was jarring to hear the voice, shout out in a gruff tone: Nächster Halt! Dachau – Next stop! Dachau.

Dachau was not an isolated place between 1933-45. It was the center of a web that included the concentration camp, SS training school, 169 satellite camps, a shooting range where thousands of Russian prisoners of war were murdered and Nazi Party Headquarters in nearby Munich. As I came to know the Nazi topography of Bavaria, I began to recognize more sites and locations each day. Two stops before Dachau, for example, is Allach, the site of Dachau’s largest satellite camp where munitions and porcelain were produced by slave labor. Just around the corner from the coffee shop in Munich where I worked part-time, was the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, replaced by a modern bank. One of my favorite museum spaces, Haus der Kunst, was originally designed to showcase the art deemed degenerate by the Nazis. On weekends, I often took day trips and everywhere I went, whether it was Salzburg or a tiny village, there was some kind of war memorial with a list of soldiers who did not come back. Was there any corner of Bavaria, of Germany, not touched by the National Socialists?

Tourists sometimes get a different impression after a few days in Munich to see Neuschwanstein, drink at the Hofbrauhaus and watch the Glockenspiel. In fact, Dachau can feel disconnected, almost separate. But Munich was the Stadt der Bewegung — the capital of the Nazi movement. And Dachau was an integral part of that system.

Within a few months, I started noticing small things, like this sign warning drivers to look out for children because they are walking to school.

Careful! Children on their way to school (2010).

I also started judging. For example, this sign explaining that Dachau school children planted trees to celebrate the “Day of the Tree” on May 9, 1985. The location of this sign is situated directly on the old railroad tracks that led to the camp (see picture below of the bicycle/walking path). Why were local school children busy planting trees when the town should have been behind the building of the youth meeting center?

Dachau school children celebrated “Day of the Tree” by planting trees in 1985 (picture taken in 2010).

The asphalt path covers the original railroad line to the camp. Today, visitors can follow this path to the memorial (2010).

How to describe walking home from the Irish Pub after an evening of engaging talks and laughter with German and international friends, busy planning the next youth meeting? Which survivors will we invite to talk next year? What workshop topics do we need to research? Were the packages of medication sent to the former prisoners in Russia? How to capture in words the energy that often struck my gut as I left the pub, stepped out into the night, to walk the peaceful path back to the apartment? I think I was always aware of where I was and why I was there. Surreal would be an understatement, but probably the only word that fits.

A friend of mine, whose mother did not opt to give birth in a Munich hospital, reminded me one evening that in contrast to him, I was there by choice. I could always leave Dachau, and I would someday. But he could not. He was rooted there by birth. Even if he chose to live and work in other cities, other countries even. His mother would stay there and that’s the place on this planet he would always come home to.

Dachau’s old town up on the hill (2004).

Click here to read the next story: Dachau today