On a dismal day in Munich in December 1945, I and others engaged in caring for the survivors of the Holocaust convened in Hitler's smashed citadel. We were there to organize their exodus to Palestine. We knew about Dachau; it was eerily near. But we didn't visit it then.
Forty years passed until chance brought me again to Munich. The train ride to Dachau was short, but the way to it was far, like to another planet. Buses waited at the station for arriving travelers, but none of them was going to Dachau itself. Except for a small notice saying that the site was closed to visitors on Mondays, nothing indicated its nearness.
A group of young people inquired about transport. I joined them. An elderly woman pointed toward a bus stop two blocks away. And after a short ride through old and new residential quarters, the driver announced, "Zum Konzentrationslager, to the concentration camp, everybody out."
We trekked along the Roemer Strasse, where two days before the liberation of Dachau, SS troops had dragged columns of human wrecks, shooting the stragglers.
Dachau looks today rather like an orderly, clean, sanitized evacuated quarantine station. It presents no physical traces of its former inmates. There were 206,200 of them by "official account," but who knows how many tens of thousands more succumbed there "unofficially"? The visitor to Dachau is spared the heinous sight of piles of children's shoes and extracted teeth. Not even a last cry of despair, scratched into the wall by a dying hand, is visible.
The memorial site is clear. A rebuilt barrack stands alone in a space where as many as 25,000 human beings were packed in 15 similar barracks. Even the refurnished interior can be studied: the three-tiered bunks, the latrines and the camp orders on the walls. Everything is clean and well aired. The horrors of the past are left to the imagination of the onlooker and to exhibits in a museum.
The museum introduces the visitor, visually, intellectually and emotionally, to Hitlerism: from the beginnings of Nazism in the historian von Treitschke's adulation of Teutonic lust for battle to the text of Himmler's address to his SS killers: "What it means to have seen 1,000 corpses" -- thus spoke the Reichsfuehrer -- "and to persevere and remain decent, made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which will never be written."
Pictures show the first Hitler Putsch and the last convulsions of his thousand-year Reich; a mother leading her children to the gas chamber; an application by Dr. Siegmund Rascher to transfer his experimental work to Auschwitz "because the objects scream terribly when exposed too long to freezing. In Auschwitz the freezing process is faster, because it is colder there. Moreover the camp is bigger, so that their howling can hardly be heard."
When a gas chamber was built in Dachau, Dr. Rascher proposed to Himmler to try out there the new war poison gas, "because until now it had been tested only on animals."
What did the world around Dachau know about the happenings only 15 minutes from the town? Nobody had ever seen the specters who day in, day out passed through the gate adorned "Arbeit macht frei" -- work liberates -- on the way to their places of slave labor. The director of the adjacent porcelain factory submitted a compensation claim to the camp commander: "The reduction of the number of prisoners sent to work daily has caused the firm a monthly loss of income of more than 100,000 reichsmarks. The management cannot recognize the typhoid quarantine imposed on the camp as a valid reason for the absence of workers. The loss can be made up by sending prisoners from other camps."
The crematorium, discreetly located in a remote corner of the camp, worked with full capacity for years. The installation was reliable, its fuel consumption low and its output high. The firm "Cori Berlin Abfallvernichtung" -- garbage incinerators -- had boasted in its written offer "that all installations it had built in occupied Poland had proven themselves exceedingly successful."
On the way from the crematorium to the exit gate stand houses of worship, three Christian, one international and one Jewish. If they do keep alive the remembrance of the horror and its victims, and fortify the resolve never to let it happen again, these places of devotion will have fulfilled their purpose.
The gate bears a frightening resemblance to the Berlin Wall: the guard towers, the electrified barbed-wire fence, the strip of grass, a death trap for those who dare to step on it. The wall of Dachau -- model for the wall of Berlin.
The bus driver of Dachau had called: "To the concentration camp -- everybody out." On a recent visit to Jerusalem, the lord mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, declared: "From history one cannot get out at will." How right he is. The individual may succeed in evading his responsibility, yet a nation cannot escape the historic consequences of its actions. This holds true for those who built Dachau in 1933 and murdered, maimed and tortured there for 12 years, for those who tolerated it, and for those who come to Dachau now with remorse in their hearts and leave it shocked to the depth of their souls.