One of the most common reactions to the memorial, especially at the beginning of tours is, “It’s so clean.” The intonation in the visitor’s voice reflects surprise, doubt and disbelief. “It doesn’t look that bad,” is another common reaction. Cynical visitors snicker and take it one step further, “That’s what the Germans want us to believe, right? That’s why they cleaned it up so good, nice and orderly. Like we don’t see through that!”
These reactions are fair. At first glance, the memorial is a well-manicured place (“like a park”) and that can be misleading. But beyond cultural belief that Alles in Ordnung (everything’s in order), there are reasons for this clean and orderly appearance. The memorial today reflects some aspects of the camp’s history, as well as decisions made around the memorial.
One is that when the memorial was established and created, the goal was to create a memorial and not to re-create the camp. Dachau was used as a displaced persons (DP) camp for twenty years after the war from 1945-65. The barracks where prisoners had slept when the camp was in operation had been converted for various purposes and used by refugees. These refugees were not camp survivors, but mainly Eastern Europeans who had no homes to return to. Before the memorial opened in 1965, the barracks were destroyed and symbolic foundations laid in their places.
Dachau was also considered to be a “model camp” by the SS meaning that other camps would replicate the systems and designs that were effective in Dachau. There was a time when flower boxes hung from the main administration building (now the museum). There was a lending library for prisoners and a small shop where prisoners (in theory) could buy over-priced items from the SS. When the International Red Cross came to visit, Dachau passed with flying colors because it appeared that prisoners were being treated fairly; the SS had also been told of the visit in advance.
I once heard rabbi Michael Berenbaum speak about, what he calls, the “Olympics of Suffering”. Survivors of Auschwitz survived the worst. Survivors of Dachau, well, it wasn’t that bad. Based on my observations, visitors also sometimes get the impression that it wasn’t “that bad”. Look below the surface.
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