Visiting Dachau, memories from the Holocaust

    January 2010            
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By Jeannette Katzir

exerpted from Broken Birds, The Story of My Momila

The next day, we headed to Dachau. We all knew it was going to be the most upsetting, yet most important, part of the entire trip . . .

My first impression of the camp was how clean it was, almost park like. The pathway was covered with gravel, and the outlying perimeter was carpeted in freshly mowed grass. In the center of the grounds stood a lone barrack, the others having all been torn down. This structure stood as a reminder of what the housing was like.

"This wasn't what it looked like at all," Dad said, shaking his head. The only indications that other barracks had ever stood on the grounds were large cement blocks with numbers chiseled into them. There was no explanation of what the numbers represented, but Dad knew. He walked across the gravel with his head down and his hands behind his back and then stopped at a block number seven. He stood there quietly.

"This was where my barrack was," he explained with desperately sad eyes. Part of him had never wanted to return, but he also needed to come, he needed to show us this place. He also needed to show himself and the world that the forces that had destroyed his family and threatened his very life had not won. He had lived on and triumphed. We were his living proof.

We walked the full circumference of where his barrack once stood, Shlomo a few steps behind the rest of us. All around the grounds, encircling the concrete slabs, was fencing with spiral razor wire bunched up in multiple rotations at the tops and bases. Every twenty feet or so, a solitary sentry structure stood. Each one was identical to the next. Each contained a single door, a single four-paned window and, a viewing platform. I easily visualized some Nazi smugly sitting there, well-fed and cozy, his gun pointed at the walking skeletons below.

We made our way to the lone exhibition barrack. The wooden door had a plain metal pull handle that clicked the door open when pressed. There was a single step up, and suddenly we were inside, walking on plain wooden plank floors that creaked with each step. The small entrance area was spotless, with windows that cranked open to the courtyard. Opposite these windows was a wall filled with lockers.

"There were no lockers!" Dad blurted out, disgusted. "They took everything from us; we didn't have anything to put in lockers!"

The walls were spotless and even appeared freshly painted. A small area off to the left featured five brown toilets lined up against the wall. Again, Dad shook his head.

"These weren't here either! All we had were holes in the floor boards!"

But the biggest farce was the sleeping accommodations. They were clean, newly constructed wooden bunk beds. Where were the original beds? The ones stained with urine and blood? Where were the original bed frames, carved with messages for the new arrivals? Where were the bunks that broke under the weight of two or three men trying to sleep in a bed wide enough for one? No, this was not a realistic representation of Dad's death camp, but an advertisement for a children's summer camp.

When a young German guide walked through the barrack, reciting her script about this "work camp" to a group of English-speaking tourists, Dad could not contain his anguish.

"Why are you lying to these people?" he asked loudly.

"Excuse me?" she answered with a German accent.

He held out his papers. "I was here in barrack number seven. I am a survivor of this camp, and what you are showing and telling these people is a lie!"

Shocked by his accusations, she walked off without a word, taking most of the tourists with her. Some visitors remained behind and spoke with Dad. They asked him questions about what it was really like to be there, how he had escaped, and what his life had been like to this date. Some had Jewish stars hanging from their necks. They seemed to be close to my age and were there to see what their family members had had to endure. Two tourists asked if they could have their photographs taken with him. He stood proudly with his papers in his hand as his photo was taken repeatedly. Steven pulled the video camera to his eye and captured every moment.

Dad was not happy about the way the camp was portrayed to the public, but he felt vindicated that day, if only by a small number of people. As I watched my father, then looked at those bunks and out the windows to the common areas, my eyes welled up. I hated that my father had to suffer so, and as I stood right where it had happened the reality hit home. Man is so cruel, I thought.

There was one other building we had yet to see . . . the one with a chimney.

"I'm going to stay here," Dad told us as he sat down in the shade of a tall eucalyptus tree. "I don't want to see it."

We understood. A part of me did not want to see it either, but I needed to. I needed to see the horrible place where the individuals who had been so important to my Dad had been so unimportant to others.

The crematorium was hidden from view, sitting beyond another collection of gates and further shielded by tall trees. From the exterior, it looked like a charming little cottage with dark, red-brownish bricks and a lovely chimney that reached to the heavens. The building's purpose was still concealed as we entered. The entry room was the area where the prisoners were supposed to undress so they could take their "showers." It seemed pocket-sized for the number of people it had had to accommodate, with no real place for them to put their things. Then again, they did not have very much. I followed a tour group into the next section, which was the shower room. Mock showerheads protruded from the walls, hiding the gas piping behind them. The room was so clean. Where were the scratch marks on the walls from the dying who had tried to claw themselves upright? No, these walls were plastered, pretty as you please. I tried not to listen to the tour guide's blathering; she did not marginally represent what had really happened here. Instead, I stood for a while looking at the walls and tried to envision what it must have felt like.

We left the gas chambers for the oven room. Two brick pizza ovens with iron doors sat on the cement slab floor. Again, it was cleaner than clean, with no hint of the innocent ones that had been burned to ashes. My stomach turned.

"These ovens were used to dispose of persons who died while in this work camp," the guide recited dispassionately.

"Death camp!" I said, correcting her dim-witted statement. "If this was only a work camp, then what were the gas chambers in the other room for?" I added, knowing I would get no honest reply here. The guide ignored my correction and continued delivering her memorized diatribe. I was increasingly enraged as I looked around—this sanitized version of the camp was an insult to the survivors, as well as the dead.

The only place that truly reflected what this "work camp" had really been like was the officers' quarters, which had been converted into a museum. Here, large black-and-white posters told the real story. The images here contradicted the "evidence" we had been shown so far. Although the photos told the heartbreaking truth, their message was greatly diminished by the fact that the camp itself presented such a different version of the events that had transpired here. An accident? I did not think so.

We were quiet during the train ride back to our hotel. Dad leaned against the window and gazed out at the scenery, but I do not think he was seeing anything. I wondered what he was thinking about. Was he remembering his family and what they looked like the last time he saw them? Or was he reliving those terrible emotions he must have felt as he lay in those cots beside the dead and dying? Perhaps he was even questioning why and how he was lucky enough to make it out. What could I say to him after an afternoon spent in a place like that? We did not speak about Dachau again. By bringing us here, Dad had done what he felt he needed to do, but I am not convinced he would ever find the closure he sought.

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from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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