Dachau Concentration Camp

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So last weekend I had the pleasure of going to Munich, Germany because I wanted to go to a concentration camp from World War II. I think that while that isn’t really a very fun thing to do while I am abroad it is definitely something that I knew I needed to do while I was in Europe.

When we got there the first thing we did was go to the visitor’s center which was outside the actual camp. There we talked inside about some more of the history. They had a cafe there so I got a coke and then felt sort of horrible to be sitting in a cafe with the camp so close by… It just seemed sort of… I don’t know really how to describe it, just knowing so many people a couple hundred feet away starved to death 70 years ago. It was just kind of not a good feeling.

After that we started out. We went and talked about the front gate with the famous work will set you free phrase that you can also find at Auschwitz/Birkeneau. It was originally true because this camp was originally a work camp where you would be released if you did good work. But then after the second and third phase it was just a sick joke. The original barracks have been destroyed but there are two which have been rebuilt with consult from survivors. We went through the entrance of how getting into the camp worked. First you are met by the admin of the camp who tells you that only the devil laughs here and that he is the devil. Then random people are beaten and then you are taken into the maintenance building to be shaved, showered, numbered, and given a uniform. The uniform had pants pockets which you weren’t allowed to use or else you were shot or beaten.

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The maintenance building still stands and the paint has been taken back to what it would have been like. It was pretty horrible. The shower room they would also tie the prisoner’s wrists together and then hang them by their wrists with their whole body weight which was really painful and could cause permanent damage. In this camp you weren’t tattooed with your number but rather given it on a piece of cloth. So I guess that was something that they came up with later. There were also some numbers given as to the prisoner count in the camp but we know those numbers now to be a very low guesstimate.

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After that we watched a little documentary which was about 3 minutes long with footage of the camp right after liberation. It was pretty sad. Obviously. But it was hard to watch. We also saw a beating table where each SS had to everyday beat a prisoner 25 times. Most of them actually looked forward to this part of their day. But the terrible part was that the prisoner would have to count out each strike in German and if he wavered or slurred it would start back over at one. This wasn’t as bad in the beginning days (as bad… Bad word choice as either way it’s horrible) but as the camp went on and they got polish and Czech prisoners who didn’t speak German it just got worse. Prisoners would have to learn to count to 25 perfectly or else they would be pretty much beaten to death.

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After that we went to the Bunker which was where political prisoners that they couldn’t really kill were taken. This was one of the worst places in the camp though because even though you wouldn’t be killed, you would be tortured. They had over 70 little rooms where the prisoners lived which each had toilets and a heater furnace. The switch for these heaters was on the outside of the cell. In the winter it would get to be like -20 degrees outside and because the building was made of just concrete the cells would get really cold. So whether you were well behaved or liked would determine whether your heater was turned on or not. They also would turn the on in the middle of summer when it was blistering hot. Pretty horrible. They also had some cells which were called standing cells where they divided the already closet size room into six and then made them shorter so that you had to hunch to stay standing. There wasn’t enough room to sit or to stand straight and prisoners would be left in there for up to 72 hours. It sounds horrible. Also they cut most of the rooms in half so that you couldn’t stand or sit, and most of the cells were black. Some had windows, which just let more cold in. The guards would run up and down the halls all the time and threaten the prisoners. Pretty scary stuff. There was a little portable alter which could be put in different rooms of the higher up political prisoners here so that was kind of nice. Mostly prisoners here were like Austrian Princes and more known people that the government just couldn’t kill. It was pretty terrible.

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Then we went outside and saw the two memorial statues that have been put up by the Maintenance building. One is a sort of warped human body sculpture which also looks like barbed wire. The other was a chain that was made with the different triangles and stars the prisoners wore. This sculpture still misses the green triangle, pink triangle for homosexuals, and the black triangle for asexuals or pretty much anyone who didn’t fit in society’s box. This would include beggars, hermits, and gypsies. These are missing because in the 60′s when it was put in, it was still illegal to be a homosexual so they are still missing. I think it is pretty sad that lessons weren’t learned from the holocaust and that those are still not included.

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After that we walked across the big space used for roll call which was probably a bit bigger than a football field, to get to the model bunkers. The first room showed what the beds were like in the first phase where each prisoner had a separate bunk with a shelf. The shelf was to be a constant reminder that they had nothing to put on their shelf. They also had mattresses made with straw which every morning had to be made in perfect rectangles with their blankets stretching down the line with perfect stripes that matched up from one bed to the next. This was pretty hard to do so there were special people that were in charge of doing it. If it wasn’t perfect everyone would be punished. There were also wooden benches where the prisoners could sit before bed. Next was an example of beds from the second phase where there were no partitions between beds and also no sides on the beds. There were also no benches. Lastly was the room from the third phase on where there were just a top, bottom, and middle bunk with no breaks or anything. I don’t think they had straw mattresses on the last two phases. It didn’t look like they did anyways. There was also a bathroom where the toilets all faced each other and a really inadequate wash room with two fountains like sinks. It was pretty horrible. There were like 8 toilets for four rooms of prisoners. Each which had like over a two hundred people in them at minimum. It was pretty horrible. There was an example of a call for that bunker which showed that at minimum there was 800 something people and on that sheet the max was 2800 people. We know that number now to be a low number for the camp.

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The prisoners would get 3 rations of soup per day which was really just water with a few vegetables (if you were lucky) in addition to a small pieces of bread which would need to last you all day. There was a debate in the camp whether it was better to save it to last all day or to eat it all at once to feel full.

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After the barracks we went down the line of where the barracks were to get to the shrines. There were over 25 barracks. The outlines of the foundation are still here and now are marked with each barracks number. At the end of the line there are four shrines that have since liberation been put up. There is one for Catholics, Jewish, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox. The protestant one looks all wonky which was their way of saying screw you to the Nazis who made the camp with perfect angles and stuff like that. There are still the authentic guard towers and such though the fences have mostly been redone with the exception of one section which has stayed intact to show the area on the outsides of the camp. So first there was a grass section which if you were seen on you would be promptly shot and considered to be trying to escape. The SS would sometimes take a prisoners hat and throw it on the grass and tell them to go get it. If they did they were shot and if they didn’t they were shot for refusing orders. Pretty messed up… But if you got through the grass you had to go down and back up a canal. After which were rocks and barbed wire, after which was the barbed wire fence, then a river stream, and then after that if they survived they found themselves in the SS School of Terror. Needless to say, no one ever escaped after the first phase. Only one person is known to have escaped but then he fought in the war and died so we don’t know how he did it.

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After that we crossed a bridge which did not exist at the time but has now been added, and went to see the crematoriums and gas chamber. These were definitely used but it is still unknown as to what extent. The first crematorium one had two opening to put in bodies. It is low ball estimated to have been used for 11,000 people. Low. I cannot even imagine. Later a second one was made which also included a gas chamber. It was so emotional to see and walk through. The “shower room” had 30 shower heads of which only one remains. The poison crystals were put in on the sides after the doors were locked. These would take anywhere between 3-30 minutes to take effect as they would react from the heat. It was pretty terrible. The room was very short and not very big. We know that the gas chamber was one of the later ones added as it has outward opening doors. Next to this room were two chambers where they would pile the corpses before burning them. The new crematorium had four oven openings and the smoke would be cycled underground and then out of the chimney. Behind this building which is surprisingly small for the terror it caused, are now memorials for the dead. There were many mass graves for the ashes from the crematoriums. It is impossible to tell they say by the remains of the ash how many people were victims to this but it is presumed to have been a lot.

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This camp was one of the final ones to be liberated and is one of the longest standing. The people in the surrounding were well aware of the camps existence but operated under a don’t ask, don’t tell policy when it came to what actually happened within the camp. The Nazis even went so far in the early days as to publish photos of the prisoners on the cover of a Munich magazine. The public of Munich was well informed about the prisoners as they were not trained directly to the camp but rather to Munich where they were then paraded through the city while the public was encouraged to throw things, beat, insult, and attack the prisoners. They were shown to the public as ” the criminals who wanted to see Germany burn to the ground”. The atrocities at this camp cannot be duplicated and I present this blog to you in such detail so that you as well will remember what happened and will help ensure that this doesn’t happen again in the future, though it is already happening in other countries right now. The holocaust was the cause of losing one third of the world’s Jewish population. Though I am not a Jew, I do believe it is wrong to prosecute those of other religions solely based on this fact. It is important for all of us to remember the events that led to this discrimination and watch for the beginning signs of this behavior in the life around us. This kind of hatred for other people didn’t happen overnight but was based on a growing discrimination.

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Berlin Pre-departure

I am physically and mentally exhausted so no photos right now.  Lately, my only respite has been in airports and I still have 20 hours to go.  I’m excited to finally get to Berlin, I’ve spent the last 30 days hating life at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington for the ROTC LDAC.  After spending half of that time in the field and living deprived of all electronics and any other facet of normal life (simply for the sake of being unpleasant), the return to civilization will be a welcome change, provided Berlin isn’t a sensory overload for me.  This will be a difficult transition and a slow start, I left during finals week and couldn’t touch my computer until the day I left for Germany, and I haven’t taken a language class in over a year.  To make sure I was prepared I did my best to research German customs and culture.  My intent is to blend in as best I can and not look like a tourist foreigner.  I’ve been in Germany three times before but only for a few hours flying through, and even then I was locked down in an isolated terminal.  From what little experience I have and from what I’ve read/heard Germany should seem pretty familiar to me; organized, clean, polite.  I’m expecting there to be an ever-present stark contrast between modern Germany and centuries old Germany.  I definitely don’t feel prepared for this but that’s my first challenge and half the fun.

Week 4 Storming the Castle

Being a history person at heart as well as by major, I was interested in the history of Tübingen. I was particularly interested in the history of the castle at the center of the old town, ’cause let’s face it castles are just plain cool. One day after classes I took a walk up to the castle. The ‘old town’ in Tübingen is something of a maze to a new comer and can be confusing. Finding the castle, however, is a simple matter of heading uphill. The castle being on the highest point in Tübingen, if you keep going uphill you will eventually find it. When you do find it this is what you are rewarded with; a view of the outer gate of the castle.

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I know that a number of the castles in Germany that are still in good shape were built during the late renaissance, long after they were needed as military fortification, which was the original purpose for a castle. Many others were redone after the renaissance, and although they look like castles they really don’t function as fortification, they were simply ‘Story Book Castles’. I was curious to know if the Castle in Tübingen was for real or simply one of the Story Book Castles. After going through the Main gate you come to an inner gate and a mote that would have served as a formidable barrier. Once inside I discovered that there was a museum and that it was open.

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The museum did a great job of telling the story of the castle and it was pretty clear that it had been a military structure from the beginning. I suspected that given the very real nature of the defenses that I saw as I entered the castle. The castle was originally built on this spot sometime in the 12th century, and then it was no more than a wooden palisade that was about the size of the inner court yard of the castle today. It was large enough to protect the knights and their horses. Because of its location on top of the hill, it was a military strong point even then.

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Like most castles it was added to over the years and improved. Looking closely at the gate to the inner courtyard you can see older stones alongside newer more decorative stone work.

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Week 3 Mega Study

Week 3 found me deep in learning the German language. Grammar and vocabulary in the morning and then a tutorial in the afternoon where we basically reviewed and practiced what we learned in the morning. I noticed that I was extremely tired at the end of the day and not physically tired but mentally exhausted. I wondered if any of the other students were feeling the same or if it was just my age that made me so tired. I asked around and without exception the other students said they felt the same. This was something that I remember being told about in our orientations, but I didn’t realize just how tired I would be. Someone brought this up in a class and it was pointed out to us that of course you are mentally tired at the end of a full day. When you are learning a new language, you are using a part of your brain that isn’t used for ANYTHING else except learning a new language. And in an intensive environment like we are learning we are using that part of the brain to the max. We were told that it would be at least a month before we became used to this and didn’t feel so tired.
During the third week we also had our first test and that was a real shock for me. In all my other courses I’ve gotten As and Bs, but on this first test, I barely got a C. In other classes, I read the material, do the assignments and can count on at least a B (and that’s if I am, for me goofing off). Learning a language doesn’t work quite like that. The grammar concepts were easy enough for me to get a handle on, but that has to be backed up by rote memorization of words and verb conjugations and articles, etc… etc..
I used to have a good memory for rote memorization when I was younger, and while I still have a good memory in general, not when it comes to rote memorization. I found that I was spending three to five times as much time on homework as I did on any other class and was making Cs instead of As. Now don’t take this as a complaint, it’s not, just a report of the facts. I expected this to be a lot of work and it is. I am also really glad that I applied for this program.
As far as the studying goes this is an area where my age seems to be a factor. While the other students (all of which are 19, 20 and 21) aren’t exactly having an easy time of it, they don’t spend near as much time on homework as I do and get better grades. At 56, I feel like I am constantly in catch-up mode. I also learned that while I only had two terms of college German before coming here some of the students have had more. A number of them took German in high school. That actually made me feel better, less incompetent. In any case I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything; hard work is good for the soul.
The highlight of week three was a hike to Wurlmlinger Kapelle and the small town of Pfäffingen. Wulmlinger Kappele, or Chapel is on the top of a hill in the Neckar valley that affords a great view of the surrounding area. Here is a picture of the chapel from a ridge line near bay:

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These are some pictures from the top, looking at the surrounding area:

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We finished the hike by hiking down the hill and into the town of Pfäffington and to Silvia Kunze-Ritter’s house where we were treated to an excellent Swabian dinner. As well as good conversation and an all around great time. We then walked to the train station and took a train back to Tübingen. The hike, someone said was about 13 kilometers. I think that was pretty close and it was easy going terrain and a pleasant day with wonderful weather. Although slightly physical it was somehow relaxing after the mentally exhausting week we had just had.

Week 2 Stuttegart

I am really behind on these blogs, so I’ll be trying to catch up in the next week. We have been really busy, so much has happened and that is partly the reason why I’m behind. (bet no one else is having that problem, hehe).
The Medieval castle that is the center of the town of Tübingen, sits atop a hill. And much of the rest of the town is on hilly terrain, something that I noticed as I had to walk up and down those hills. Bikes are real popular here as a form of transportation, but to me all those hills make the bikes somewhat less than useful, but they sure seem to work for the locals. Thinking about this lead me to the thought, I wonder if all the cities in Germany are as hilly as this one. I found out this week.
For me the highlight of the second week here was our outing to Stuttgart. I flew into Stuttgart, but really all I saw was the airport and autobahn, nothing else. We went there by train which is how people get almost everywhere in Germany. There are no high speed trains between here and Stuttgart, so we took a slower commuter train. It made a lot of stops but the ride was smooth as silk. And one of the big advantages to taking the train, is that you can study or talk or read while you get where you are going. It beats the heck out of driving as far as I’m concerned. Here is the train station that we left from in Tübingen:

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Here is the main train station in Stuttgart where we arrived:

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This is Koenigsstrasse it is a long flat wide street that is for pedestrian traffic only, with shops and café’s on both sides. The street must be over a mile long and is where the real upscale shopping is. And this street is flat, as most of the old downtown part of Stuttgart is. So not all German cities are as hilly as Tübingen is.

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This is the “New” Schloss or New Palace. In an earlier blog I mentioned the fact that the term new, doesn’t mean the same thing her as it does in the US. This palace was built originally about the same time that our country was founded, but it is the new one because there is an old one from the middle ages, which is now a museum. In general, however, new seems to mean anything built after the Second World War. When the Germans talk about new buildings this is usually what they mean.

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Just How Old, is “Old”?

This first week has been kind of a blur. The first day we walked from the dorms all the way to the down town area where we will be taking classes. There is a reason that we will normally be taking the bus, it had to be every bit of three miles. The steep downhill slope was no fun on my knees, but I made it there. We had biometric photos taken for our student ID cards and visas. We also waited in line to apply for our visas and in between we had a walking tour of the down town part of the city, because apparently we hadn’t walked enough. By the end of the first day I was exhausted and sore, but still very excited. After all of the walking and paperwork and orientation we headed back to the dorms. I got lost trying to find a bus stop to get back to the dorms, then when I did find the bus stop, I got on the wrong bus and had to wait for it to make a complete circuit of the city to get back. The upside is I had a nice, unguided tour of the city and I didn’t have to walk anywhere.

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One of the first things that struck me about Tübingen was the apparent age of the buildings. Most were built in the 14th and 15th centuries. The City hall was currently undergoing renovations to ensure that it would last another 600 or 700 years.

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I asked one of the student teaching assistants how old this wall was and her response was, “It’s not really old at all, only about 200 years.” There are a few buildings in the US that predate the founding of our country, but darn few, and any building that is 200 years old is definitely considered to be old.

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Arrival in Germany

My arrival in Stuttgart, Germany was much like I expected. Navigating any airport these days is fairly easy. Most signs are international symbols, in addition I was able to read the German signs and there was usually an English sign right next to it so there was basically no excuse for getting lost. A very interesting element of my arrival that I didn’t expect was the chatter from the passengers as we got off. Some of it was in German of course, but most of it was in Danish as we had just come from Copenhagen.

The Airport itself was like any American airport anywhere with the exception of the German signs. I didn’t encounter any unusual smells like I did during my arrival in Korea years ago. In just about every way the arrival was much less of a shock to my senses and much less confusing than my first trip to Korea in 1975.

Not long before my departure my wife learned that old friends of ours were living in Germany. He is a Colonel in the US Air Force and I knew that he had been stationed in Germany, but I thought his tour was over and he had returned to the states. It turned out that not only was he still in Germany but was living in Stuttgart! He and his wife picked me up at the Airport. I’m not certain of course, but I don’t think too many study abroad students get picked up at the airport by Air Force officers. They drove me straight to Tubingen and gave me a quick tour of the town, including the castle at the top of the hill in the old part of the town. Then they took me to lunch which was wonderful, but I found that I wasn’t able to finish eating it. My friend pointed out to me “Of course you can’t finish it, its the middle of the night for you, not lunch time!” The jet lag thing hadn’t really caught up with me but it did soon after.

My friends then took me to the dormitory where I checked in. We exchanged phone numbers and they said good by and I went to bed and Crashed for a couple of hours until it was time for a get together dinner with the program director, students, and staff.

In my rush to meet up with my old friends I didn’t take any pictures at the airport on arrival. I completely forgot about that. I did have them take a picture of me at the castle just before lunch, so I’m including that picture.

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What I’m Expecting

This post is my pre-departure post. What I’m expecting to encounter when I get there is illustrated by the pictures I’ve selected. I’m expecting to see narrow pedestrian friendly streets, and old buildings. I’m expecting the people to look a lot like me, in terms of dress and appearance.

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I also expect to see picture postcard river sides like this one.

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And beautiful pastoral country sides.

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In terms of culture I’m expecting the German people to be a little more reserved and conservative than most Americans, in short ‘my kind of people’. I’m also expecting to encounter some cultural differences that I haven’t expected. Every new country will have that as an element of a persons travel there. There isn’t anyway to get around that, you have to be willing to go with the flow and adapt.

I’m also expecting this experience to be a lot different than my first time over seas. The first time I went abroad was almost 37 years ago, I wasn’t quite 19 yet and the Army sent me to Korea. I immediately experienced three, very much in my face. forms of culture shock. The fist was the smell that assaulted my nose when the door to the plane opened. The second was the fact that I literally stood out in a crowed, at 6’3″ I was head and shoulders above everyone else, not to mention the only one with hair that wasn’t black. Third, I couldn’t read any billboards, and the only road signs I could read were those with international symbols.

I’m expecting this to be a very different experience. First, I’m fairly certain that even if Germany smells noticeably different, it won’t be as bad as Korea was in the 70′s. Second, in terms of dress and physical appearance, I won’t look all that different than everyone else. My age will make me stand out among the student population, but that is a different thing altogether. Third, I may not be fluent in German yet, but I have enough of a background in the language to at least be able to read signs.

While I do expect some very noticeable differences in the culture, Germany will seem like my home town by comparison to my first tour in Korea.

I am also very excited about this trip. As a History major, I am looking forward to seeing all of the history around me. I’m also looking forward to making friends in Germany that I can compare notes with about our two cultures. As well as getting to know my fellow students I am hoping to meet some locals that are about my age, people that I will have some things in common with in terms of family and experiences.

No matter what my experience turns out to be I know that I am going to enjoy every bit of it, even the challenging parts.

Dave