07 October, 2014

Lindsay's Visit, Munich and Dachau

It's been a while since my last post, and for good reason: my sister Lindsay was visiting me! :) She stayed with me and my host family in Karlsruhe for two weeks, during which time I served as her tour guide around Karlsruhe and the surrounding area. Unfortunately I still had to fulfill my au pair duties while she was here, so we had to fit in our sightseeing around my schedule. We still managed to get a lot done, though, including a day trip to the nearby city of Baden-Baden on the weekend.
(Lindsay already wrote a blog post on her blog about that, which you can read here: http://somanycountries.blogspot.de/2014/09/baden-baden.html)

The highlight of my time with Lindsay, besides getting lots of sister time, was our trip to Munich this past weekend. Friday was a holiday in Germany and I had the day off, so we took a long weekend to explore Germany's most expensive city. Friday was mostly spent traveling; since we were both trying to spend as little money as possible on transportation, we opted for the cheapest option of taking regional rather than express trains from Karlsruhe to Munich. Of course, this also ended up taking much longer than desired, since we had to change trains multiple times with wait times between each. Then, once we had arrived in Munich we had to take yet another train out to one of the suburbs to pick up the keys to the apartment we were staying at.

After about 8 hours of traveling, we finally made it to the apartment and then promptly went in search of some typical German food. There was a German restaurant not far away, where we ate the obligatory Schweinsbraten mit Knödel (pork with potato dumplings, which was an absolute requirement for Lindsay to try) and Käsespätzle (the German version of mac and cheese). After our meal--hard to tell if it was a late lunch or an early dinner--we visited the Olympic Stadium, constructed for the 1972 Summer Olympics. Then before we knew it the day was over and it was time to get some sleep in preparation for the following day.

A panorama of the entire Olympic park from the top of a nearby hill.
The following day was really the reason Lindsay wanted to come to Munich in the first place: Oktoberfest! I had already gone to the Cannstatter Wasen, a similar celebration in Stuttgart, last year, but this was the real deal and I wasn't going to miss it. We woke up early, although not as early as Lindsay would have liked, and arrived at the festival grounds at around 8:30am. It was already crowded with people, and even though we got in line for entry to a tent at 8:45 (before the tents had even opened), we ended up waiting in line for an hour and a half. Then, after waiting all that time in the cold and desperately looking forward to going inside the warm tent, we were told, in very rude German, that the tent was full and we would have to sit outside in the Biergarten. I was so cold and and grumpy from waiting in line for so long and I was pissed at being turned away, but sitting in the Biergarten ended up being a blessing in disguise. Not only were there heat lamps above the tables to fend off the worst of the chill, we ended up overhearing a group of people speaking English and went to sit next to them. Three of them were from Belgium and two of them were from Germany, so the addition of us two Americans made it quite an international group. We spent a fun and entertaining morning and afternoon with them, and then in the evening we walked around the festival grounds with the Belgians and went on a few carnival rides. All in all, a very successful Oktoberfest, despite never setting foot inside a tent.

Sunday was quite different: we visited the former concentration camp in Dachau, slightly outside of Munich. The site is now a memorial, with a museum, two reconstructed prisoner barracks and several monuments and chapels. Between the museum, the informational signs placed around the site, and the audio guide, I learned a lot about Dachau and the concentration camp system that surprised me. The first surprising thing I learned is that the prisoner compound, which is the part that is open to the public, was only a small section of the camp. Most of the area of the camp was used for military barracks and administration buildings.

The prisoner compound itself was less striking than I expected, until I remembered that horrible things happened there. As we walked through the gate inscribed with the words "Arbeit macht frei" ("work will set you free") and started across the large open area between the main building and the barracks, I couldn't help but think about (and simultaneously try not to think about) how many people had died on the ground I was walking on. Probably a lot, since that ground was where the prisoners were made to stand, sometimes for hours and in all weather, every morning and evening for roll call. Prisoners who were too weak often collapsed during these grueling sessions, and no other prisoners were allowed to help them.

After crossing the roll call area, we entered the museum. The exhibits were extensive and covered the history of events leading up to World War II, the history of Dachau and the concentration camp system as a whole, what life at Dachau was like, and what types of people were sent there. One of the surprising things I learned from the exhibits was just how many concentration camps there were. In school we learned about a few major camps and I assumed there were probably a dozen or so more that we didn't have time to cover. Before this visit, I could name Dachau, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Riga off the top of my head as sites that had had concentration camps there. It turns out I was very wrong about the number. In reality there were thousands of camps of various sizes and with various functions which operated at various times before and during the war. Dachau just happened to be the first and was the only camp to operate for the entire 12 years of the camp system (1933-1945).

Another surprise for me was just how well-known the camps seemed to be during their operation. They were usually placed close to towns or cities, so the trains bringing in prisoners and even the camps themselves could potentially be seen by the local residents. I think I had this idea in my head that the camps were top secret and that most people in the area only found out about them after they were liberated, but that idea is blatantly false. People knew about the camps and had at least an idea of what was going on inside, and the fear they instilled in people was a powerful tool used to control not just those inside but those outside the camps as well. The people who spoke up probably ended up prisoners in the very same camps they objected to. The forced labor of the prisoners was also necessary to the war-time economy, which made those who benefited from their labor very unlikely to object to their workers' living conditions. Many companies, including BMW, "hired" large numbers of prisoners from the concentration camps.

Even though a lot of the information contained in the museum was quite disturbing (going into detail about it isn't really within the scope of this post), the most physically unsettled I felt during the visit was when we walked through the crematorium. This building was used primarily for cremation of deceased prisoners, which is morbid enough as it is, but it also contained one of the gas chambers that have become a powerful symbol of the atrocities committed at the camps. Even though the visitor information states that the gas chamber at Dachau was never used for mass murder (this doesn't exclude the possibility that it might have been used for small numbers of executions), being inside the room made me feel physically uncomfortable and anxious. I couldn't stay inside for more than a few seconds. Up until that point I had been taking in the information and scenes around me with varying degrees of detachment, probably for self-preservation more than anything else. But standing in the gas chamber, it was hard to keep things at a distance. I couldn't stop myself from thinking about how it would feel to be a prisoner in exactly the place I was standing, facing certain death for no other crime than having the wrong race, nationality, religion or physical ability.

Even among all the deaths, some people survived the concentration camps, and many were even released over the course of the camps' operation. I had assumed that everyone who entered the camp system was either killed there or was freed when the camps were liberated at the end of the war. In fact, not all the camps were extermination camps, although plenty of those existed. Many people were held in the camps for various lengths of time and then released, with orders never to talk about the camps to anyone and to check in with the police in their town or city every day thereafter. I'm sure this was done with the intention of further spreading fear of the camps and discouraging others from stepping out of line.

Knowing that people were released doesn't make what happened within the concrete and barbed wire walls any less barbaric, though. The last building we visited served to further drive home the depravity of the camps. When I first saw the name on the sign, I almost couldn't believe my eyes: "Prison." I was stunned. Concentration camps had prisons? Seriously?? I thought the whole camp was already a prison! As if it wasn't bad enough to hold people en masse in inhumane living conditions and subject them to arbitrary mistreatment and torture, there were even people who were deemed so undeserving of human decency that they were separated from their fellow prisoners and thrown in tiny dark cells in a prison-within-a-prison. I can't put it into words, but somehow seeing that one word, "Prison," in front of the building disturbed me in a different way than anything else that day. It pushed me past the point of sickened belief to where I could barely comprehend that what I was seeing was possible.

I didn't take any pictures in Dachau. Somehow it just didn't feel right. It's not a typical beautiful tourist attraction and it felt almost disrespectful to treat it like one by snapping photos with my iPhone. Instead of looking at pictures, I suggest that you visit it to really get a sense of what it's like.

Luckily we had a bus ride and a train ride to recover from the concentration camp experience, so by the time we got back into the city we had the energy and motivation to continue on. We stopped at Marienplatz in the heart of Munich to look at the buildings and then stopped at a nearby cafe that I remembered from my previous trip to Munich for hot beverages.

Marienplatz. I took this picture and the previous one when I visited Germany for the first time in April of 2013.
Then it was time to eat some Currywurst (the last of the typical German foods I wanted Lindsay to try before she left), head back to the apartment, pack our stuff, return the apartment keys, and wait for our respective forms of transportation. I had found a ride online (ride sharing is fairly popular here), which got me back to Karlsruhe significantly more quickly than I had gotten to Munich -- in less than 3 hours vs. 8 hours on the way there. I didn't want to leave Lindsay, but it wasn't so hard since I know I will see her in 3 weeks in Amsterdam when we start our travels together. Let the countdown begin!

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