Towns have personalities too.
Let me tell you the story of one.
A little Bavarian “GroBe Kreisstadt” (Country Town) of 45,000 is located in southeastern Germany. It’s a quiet, dreamy country idyll nestled not far from Munich, the metropolis with over a million inhabitants.
It’s also a town with a long and rich history. The Celts settled the land from the 5th
Century on and gave the rivers the names that they still bear today: Amper, Wurm and Glonn.
Then came the Romans for a period.
In 805 A.D, the community was made up of a manor, a church, a mill, and 6 farms. It was located at the junction of two landscape regions: in the south, a broad area of impenetrable marshland; in the north, wooded, fertile, hilly country. If you go down to the foot of the Old Town today, you can visit the tavern which still bears the name of that ancient mill, marking the start of communal history: the “Steinmuhle.”
From the 12th century on many Bavarian kings would rule the area. At the death of Count Konrad II in 1182, his possessions passed to the House of Wittelsbach. For over 700 years, the Wittelsbach dukes and electors governed the fate of the market town and its inhabitants-for better or for worse. Between 1558 and 1573 Duke Albrecht V ruled and built the huge four-winged Renaissance palace in place of the old Gothic fortress. Part of this palace remains today as a superb attraction. Under Maximilian I (1573-1651), the market town experienced its worst time. It was plundered by Swedish troops 4 times within a period of 15 years.
With Napoleon, the little town’s era as the summer residence of the Bavarian princes came to an end. Still, it remained what it actually was: a small town where the farmers came to the cattle market and a town with renowned breweries and comfortable taverns.
Then came an unexpected period of glory of a completely different kind.
The painters arrived.
Only a few painters arrived in the 40’s and 50’s, but then starting around 1870, they stormed into town. Painters had discovered the landscape; they wanted to get away from their studios and out into nature. Hundreds of them made the pilgrimage from Munich, fascinated by the nuances in color of the moor landscape, in love with the rural idyll. There were famous names among them: Carl Spitzweg, Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, Ludwig Dill, Adolf Holzel and Arthur Langhammer, to name a few. It would become the most important German artists’ colony.
A huge powder factory was built during World War I on what was then the eastern edge of town. Thousands of workers came during the war to manufacture ammunition for the battlefields of Europe. After the war they lost their jobs. The Treaty of Versailles prohibited the manufacture of war materials. It became a needy community. In 1928, 1,400 of the 7,100 inhabitants were dependent on public welfare, but a strong labor movement was also developing across Germany. What was soon to happen was not destined to bring good to the little town.
The lovely little Bavarian country town has a name.
The name is Dachau.
The presence of the empty halls of the powder factory was one of the reasons why Heinrich Himmler, the Munich Chief of Police, chose to erect the first Nazi concentration camp in Dachau.
The Nazis seized power on January 30, 1933. The concentration camp became operational on March 22, 1933. This became the first among other camps throughout Europe to isolate enemies of the National-Socialist regime: political opponents, clergymen, so-called undesirable elements and offer a “final solution to the Jewish question.”
I had the opportunity to visit Dachau in 1993 and witness firsthand the memorial site of this reign of terror. It is an experience not soon forgotten.
In 1937, the camp originally planned for 5,000 persons proved to be too small. The prisoners were forced to build a larger camp, completed in 1938.
Between March 22, 1933 and April 29, 1945, more than 206,000 prisoners were registered in the official records, however, many prisoners were taken to Dachau without being registered. The exact figures are unknown.
Over 32,000 died, through torture, execution, hunger or epidemics. Horrible atrocities took place here. The experimental station of Dr. Rascher was set up in Block 5 where high pressure and exposure experiments were practiced on defenseless prisoners. Professor Schilling had prisoners infected with Malaria agents. Bio-chemical experiments were also carried out, many resulting in death.
The mortality rate among the prisoners increased so rapidly that the crematory constructed outside the compound in 1940 proved to be too small and the prisoners built a larger one in 1942.
Upon orders of the SS Economic Administration Main Office in Berlin, a gas chamber was installed. This gas chamber, camouflaged as a shower room, was not used. The prisoners selected for gassing were transported from Dachau to the Hartheim Castle, near Linz (Austria) or to other camps. In Hartheim alone, 3,166 prisoners were gassed between January 1942 and November 1944.
The name Dachau, the lovely 1200 year old town became synonymous the world over for the inhuman terror of the Nazi regime. On the 29th day of April 1945, American troops liberated the concentration camp. The surviving prisoners in their weakened condition cheered their liberators, and the town, too, could hope for a new and democratic start.
At the end of our visit, we paused for a moment of silence as my wife, Rebecca, placed a single red rose beneath the statue of “The Unknown Prisoner” memorial at the former crematorium.
If you were to visit Dachau today, perhaps you would be welcomed, as we were, with a message similar to the one offered by Mayor Dr. Lorenz Reitmeier:
“You have come to Dachau to visit the Memorial Site in the former Concentration Camp.
I should like to welcome you on behalf of the town of Dachau. Innumerable crimes were committed in the Dachau Concentration Camp. Like you, deeply moved, the citizens of the town of Dachau bow their heads before the victims of this camp.
The horrors of the German concentration camps must never be repeated or forgotten!
After your visit, you will be horror-stricken, but we sincerely hope you will not transfer your indignation to the ancient 1,200 year-old Bavarian town of Dachau, which was not consulted when the concentration camp was built and whose citizens voted quite decisively against the rise of National Socialism in 1933. The Dachau Concentration Camp is a part of the overall German responsibility for that time.
I extend a cordial invitation to you to visit the old town of Dachau only a few kilometers from here. We would be happy to greet you within our walls and to welcome you as friends.”
A horrible reality seemed burned into the collective conscience of a little country town with pity, a village with the knowledge of both good and evil.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. A historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.