We spent Friday morning, our last full day in Munich, touring the Dachau concentration camp. I knew it would be a somber way to end our vacation, but I felt it was important to expose the girls to what happened here during World War II. It also held special significance to me because of Russ Anderson. He was the grandfather of a set of twins in my 5th grade reading classes several years ago. Every year when I taught literature circles with the common setting of World War II, Mr. Anderson and his wife Betty would come in to share their footlocker program with the kids.
Mr. Anderson was a 16-year-old teen living in the Midwest when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. He always recounted hearing President Roosevelt's famous "day that will live in infamy" speech on the radio to my students. He had all sorts of interesting hands-on artifacts from this era that the kids oohed and aahed over, including military jackets and hats from the war. It was a real honor to the students who were selected to come up during his presentation to model them.
To make a long story short, Mr. Anderson enlisted a couple years into the war and served in Europe. He was with the American military that liberated the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich. He never shared this with the students because it's hard to condense such a horrific aspect of the war into a 45 minute presentation, trying to explain the inexplicable hatred that was heaped upon certain people to innocent 5th graders. In talking with the Andersons while not in the presence of students, I remember Mr. Anderson telling me that it was the most pitiful sight he had ever seen. He recalled giving a hideously thin survivor some food on liberation day, which he inhaled and then perished because his starved body was unable to handle it.
Here is the entrance gate to the concentration camp with the infamous phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei", which translates to work making you free. This concentration camp was established in 1933 right after Hitler came to power and immediately became the site to house enemies of the Fuhrer, both religious and political. It served as the model for the concentration camp system for the next dozen years.
This is the famous remembrance sculpture that is on display at the camp.
This is a pic looking from the camp admissions and bunker area across the roll call area to the rows of barracks, over twenty in all. These are replicas since the originals were torn down in the 60s.
This picture was taken behind the replica barracks. You can see the foundations for the rest of the barracks all lined up in a row. It was a beautiful day and very peaceful, considering the anguish and sorrow of its past.
The word "BRAUSEBAD" above the door translates to showers. The "showers" at Dachau served as the model for extermination camps like Auschwitz, where the victims were herded into rooms on the pretext of getting clean. In reality, deadly gases were released into the rooms to kill them. In a strange twist, the camp that established this heinous system of killing never actually used gas chambers to kill its inhabitants.
You can see the person in the bottom right of my picture taking her own picture of the faux shower head in the gas chamber. It's a sad reminder that the Nazi extermination camps ran like a well-oiled machine.
Obviously this picture doesn't need any explanations. I gave our youngest daughter the PG version of the concentration camps, but didn't gloss over the purpose for the ovens. We recalled how my mother had her old pug Winston cremated and thus it softened the significance of what really happened here.
Scattered around the perimeter of the camp were a few existing guard towers. And the barbed wire fence that was electrified, oftentimes serving as a means of suicide for the occupants that could no longer hold out under the numbing mental and physical tortures they suffered.
I found this American quote on a display board in the museum that talked about the liberation of the camp in April 1945. Mr. Anderson was 20 when he witnessed man's inhumanity to man and it was something he was loathe to talk about 60+ years later.
During the course of the war, Mr. Anderson began smoking to calm his nerves. Conveniently enough, the military provided cigarettes as part of their daily rations. Mr. Anderson was suffering from emphysema when I met him and he always warned the students about the ill-effects of smoking. Unfortunately, Mr. Anderson took a downturn due to surgical complications and passed away last summer. This blog post is dedicated to him, may he rest in peace, and all of the other American troops that witnessed the barbarism and horrors of World War II to ensure our freedom.