Dachau death camp revisited

During the summer of 1965, between my junior and senior years at UCLA, I traveled to Western Europe with a friend and, among other things, visited the former concentration camp at Dachau, in the German state of Bavaria not far from Munich. This event changed my life, because it brought home to me man’s potential inhumanity to man.

Dachau was one of the first extermination camps established by Adolf Hitler. It was where thousands of Jews, gypsies and other “undesirables” (in Hitler’s mind) were gassed to death, and then cremated en masse. And it was also a place where perverse and sadistic “experiments” were performed on human beings by demented so-called doctors.

In other words, this was a place where terrible things were done with the sanction of the laws of the time. Dachau should always stand as an example of what can happen without the vigilance of good people. Therefore, it is a place that should never be forgotten.

Recently a friend and neighbor of mine in Newport Beach, whose name is Don Pewthers, spoke with me about his recent and long ago visits to Dachau, and how they compared. I asked him to write them down so that I could share them with you, and he agreed. So the following comes from my friend Don, with a few edits from me:

This past summer my wife, Carole, and I were planning an extended trip to Europe. I wanted her to experience Bavaria, as she had not been there. It was suggested that we include a visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich. I was opposed.

In 1960, as a recent college graduate, I traveled in Europe for several months and spent a lot of time in Germany, where I had an American lady friend. Driving to Munich from Stuttgart, I had seen a small road sign which said “Dachau 10 km.” We decided to visit as I had just finished reading a book on Adolf Eichmann and was interested.

When we arrived at the camp, we found that we were in the area where the gas chambers, the cremation ovens, and a mound with pansies in the form of the Star of David were located. The mound, a circle of some 25 feet across and four feet high, contained the ashes of 6,000 Jews who had been cremated. We were the only people visiting at that time. It was very emotional to enter the area where so many had died. You could see the barn-like building where families undressed, hung up their clothing, and prepared for a “shower,” during which they were gassed to death.

After the shower, doors on each end of the barn were opened and bulldozers were used to push the bodies out of the chamber to the crematoriums a short distance away. There were two of these crematoriums with ovens that would accommodate about 12people at a time, with four in one and eight in the other. It was a very emotional experience and one that I did not want to repeat or expose my wife to. I was shocked that people who were my ancestors could be a part of this.

So now, in planning for our upcoming trip, I contacted an old college teammate and friend who has a business based in Munich, but lives in Atherton, Calif., most of the time. When the subject of Dachau came up he recommended that we add it to our plans. He said it was very interesting, etc. On his recommendation we planned for the visit. I had covered all of the gory details with my wife to prepare her for the visit.

But when we arrived there we found almost a “Disney World” atmosphere. There was a very pretty park-like walk from the parking area to the entrance where we were greeted at a reception area and given Audio guides. We noted that there was a restaurant and lots of high school age students who were there on an “outing,” eating ice cream and enjoying a fun time. We started on the tour, which took us through the museum in what had been the administration building. They had the usual pictures we had seen since World War II, but most of the pictures were of people who were alive. We heard a recording of the prisoners’ choir, saw the chess sets that the prisoners used, and were told that there were “comfort women” for the “good” prisoner workers. It sounded like a summer camp.

The barracks had been removed with the exception of two that had been left “as an example.” The conditions in the barracks at the time must have been horrible. The bunks were constructed three high and nine across to accommodate 27 prisoners. But because the camp was designed for 8,000 to 10,000 prisoners, and there were 30,000 in the camp, three people had to sleep in the same bunk. The bathroom was open with 12t people using the toilets at the same time. Privacy was non-existent.

I was unable to locate what I had seen on my prior visit, so I asked about the gas chamber, crematorium, and the mound in which 6,000 people were buried. I was told that they were at the far end of the compound several hundred yards away. We would find a gate to that area. One of the crematoriums had been removed. We were told they were “experimental.” The mound had been removed as well because it was “too stressful” for the local people.

It was stressful emotionally to think that human beings could commit crimes of this nature on other humans. Dachau was the first of these camps. It was constructed in 1933; the same year Hitler was elected chancellor. It could happen again, even in America.

After we returned from our trip, I had an opportunity to visit with my college friend who had suggested we visit Dachau. When I told him our impressions, he said that there is now a movement to remove the remaining parts of the camp. He said his son is married to a German girl and they live in Munich. He added that the attitude of the young people now is that anything that happened so long ago was done by their great-great grandparents and not something related to them. Naturally they would like to believe that it never happened. I would, also, like to believe that it never happened — but it did happen. And I think that everyone should be reminded from time to time that it could happen again. As a history major (who obtained a master’s from Stanford in 1958), I keep reminding myself that history does, in fact, repeat itself.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)