Like many young Americans, I first visited Dachau during a college vacation abroad. That visit, in 1977, had a powerful effect on me, probably because I realized that my Jewish grandfather might have ended up there if he had not presciently emigrated with his four-year-old son in 1933. I have been back to the Dachau memorial site many times, but I still remember some impressions of that first visit. The camp seemed much larger than I had imagined, and the huge photographs in the museum left a lasting impression. I also remember seeing the film with footage of Dachau citizens leading horse-drawn carts laden with corpses after liberation.
My experience was roughly typical of that of most young American visitors. I didn't know much about the concentration camps or the Holocaust, although I had seen films on the Nazi era, such as "The Diary of Anne Frank," and "Night and Fog." I remembered little of such films, except for the piercing tatu-tata of the German sirens at the end of the former, and the shocking concluding pictures of vintage bulldozers pushing piles of naked corpses into huge pits in the latter.
Much less typical was the role that my brief visit eventually came to play in my life. I did not return to Dachau again for six years, but in the intervening time other experiences resonated with the impulse I received during that visit. One such experience was meeting the war-generation parents of my German friends, who were uncomfortable when they learned I was Jewish. I still remember how one mother sat me down on the kitchen bench when we were alone. She drew up a chair opposite me and clasped her gnarled hands nervously on the table. "You know, Harald (she was speaking German), back then there was nothing we could do. I (or was it 'we'?) saw them at the train station, but what could we do? We were helpless." And so on. I was uncomfortable, too, and I reassured her that those were hard times. It was like a scene in a bad movie.
While numerous similarly awkward encounters with other Germans from my generation on up made me much more conscious of the Holocaust and the presence of history in Germany, it was a meeting with American Jewish friends that finally prompted me to return to Dachau in 1983. A friend of my parents, Anita S., had visited me in the Freiburg, where I was studying, a year earlier, and I had given her a tour of the city's gothic cathedral. When I stopped by to see her at her home in the U.S., she took me to her studio to show me some works inspired by Freiburg's stained-glass windows: twisted barbed wire covered with smoky gray plaster was arranged on sheet metal cut to the shape of the gothic pointed-arch windows. Entwined in the barbed wire were attributes of Christian saints, such as a wheel for St. Catherine, and a tower for St. Barbara-the instruments of their martyrdom. I was impressed by both their aesthetic quality and their symbolism. A vague image of Dachau came back to me, a memory of Christian churches in the memorial site. I thought these reliefs would be ideal in such a church, and I promised to find out who might be in charge of the Dachau chapels. And that is what set me on a quest to find out how, and why, the former Dachau concentration camp came to have the rather improbable form it has today.
In the intervening years numerous individuals have helped me to research, conceptualize, and write this history. In addition to thanking all of the friends, colleagues, librarians, archivists, photographers and artists who are too numerous to name here, I would like to express my gratitude explicitly to Barbara Distel, the director of the Dachau memorial site, for all of her help and support, and to my family, for their forbearance during the many years I worked on this project. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the University of Michigan, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Center for German and European Studies at UC Berkeley provided financial support.
This book is dedicated to everyone who worked and is working to preserve the former concentration camp at Dachau as a place to remember the past and work towards a better future.
prepared for web by H. Marcuse, Sept. 2000; picture added, Feb. 28, 2003
back to H. Marcuse's Dachau page