Commentary Magazine


Return to Dachau:
“Not All the Perfumes of Arabia. . . .”

Alfred Werner was born in Vienna in 1911, and was well launched on a literary career before the Anschluss with Germany landed him in the Dachau concentration camp. Immediately after his release, he emigrated to this country. 

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One bright spring day of 1939 two odd-looking men walked down from the Munich Central Station toward one of the restaurants on the other side of the square. With their battered hats, unshaven faces, dirty winter coats, and dusty shoes, they looked like tramps. As they removed their hats and sat down for a quick meal, their short-clipped hair made them easily recognizable as prisoners—concentration camp prisoners, to be precise.

One of these men was myself—former Schutzhaftjude Nr. 27660, picked up by a Nazi agent in a Vienna street in November 1938 during the pogroms that followed Grynszpan’s assassination of Ernst vom Rath in Paris. Actually, we were special prisoners, neither free nor unfree: we belonged to a group of Viennese Jews who had just been released from nearby Dachau but were under strict orders to wait in the station for the next train to Vienna. Our leaving the station could have meant reinternment.

It was this little Munich episode that I remembered when, in the summer of 1951, I returned for the first time to the erstwhile Haupstadt der Bewegung, that is, the “capital” of the Nazi movement. Long an American citizen, I was on a European holiday, and really had no reason for stopping at Munich. It is no fun to see ruins.

All the same, I had an itch to see Dachau again. Dachau had been the turning point of my life. When I entered it I was a young writer with ideals that not even the effects of the Anschluss had been able to kill. I had written poetry up until the day I was handcuffed and shoved into a makeshift Gestapo jail in Vienna. When I left Dachau I wasn’t much wiser, but I felt older—almost old. I felt like a man who had successfully undergone a dangerous operation, and who now grasped at the new life leased out to him, and held fast to it with all his strength. Dachau was the “dark forest” of my Inferno, where I found myself midway in the journey of life. Once I had left it, everything seemed beautiful and desirable by comparison—except perhaps death. In America I would write into my curriculum vitae, with all sincerity, that I was a graduate of the Dachau concentration camp.

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Yet I never really left it behind. For twelve years “Dachau” had been a trauma, a wound that I feared might never heal. Whenever I saw the word “Dachau” in print, or heard it uttered, my entire body would recoil. It mattered little that in the spring of 1945 the headlines reported “Infamous Dachau Falls; 32,000 Freed”; as a phenomenon of my soul, Dachau continued to exist.

When a child, I had lost my mother in an accident; she was burned to death while lighting one of the old-fashioned Viennese stoves. Until I was about twelve the very sight of a flame would make me shriek—even the tiny flash when my father lit his cigarette. And although there were no gas chambers in Dachau in 1939, I could not think of the place at all except in images of roaring fire and red ashes. I had to return to see with my own eyes that the fire no longer burned in the crematoria furnaces, and the chimneys no longer smoked. I was told that thousands of ex-Dachauers now come back as I did—ostensibly to see that the memorial is kept in order, but really, I suspect, to make sure that the fire is out.

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The 20,000 people of the town of Dachau, I discovered, are of two minds as to what ought to be done with the camp. On the one hand, they would like to see the buildings razed—at least the crematoria, which act as a constant reminder to them of their own ambiguous attitude toward the horrors that went on in their neighborhood. But the camp has been good business for the town. It has been good business for twenty years and it is good business now. First, there were the big shots of the SS who had villas around it, and whose families did a lot of shopping in the town. Now ex-prisoners—Frenchmen, Belgians, Dutchmen, and Jews (“Those Jews have again amassed a fortune,” I overheard it said in a Munich café)—provide the local railroad, the bus company, the newsstands, and the restaurants with many customers.

One might think that the good citizens of Dachau would at least demand of the city council that the place change its name, as criminals often do after release from jail. But the Dachauers still cling to a name that smells of blood throughout the world. And an official brochure invites people to spend their summers in its beautiful surroundings (“Dachau erwartet dich!”); it relates Dachau’s history from the time of the Romans up to 1934, when with great pomp (and large swastikas) the village was elevated to the status of a city. At that time the concentration camp, built in a peat bog by five thousand slave workers, was already a year old. The brochure makes no mention of any camp, but, instead, hospitably invites you to drink the local Dachauer beer, to eat the original Dachauer pumpernickel, to dance at the Café Restaurant Ludwig Thoma (Thoma was a Bavarian writer who loved the gemütlich Dachau landscape, as did two noted 19th-century painters, Spitzweg and Leibl).

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I boarded the bus that leaves Stiglmeierplatz in Munich at regular intervals. The people inside, farmers and middle-class men and women, showed as much interest in my American suit and tie as in my features. A bearded, elderly man who looked like Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria advised me to see an exhibition of paintings—Dachau School—at the Dachau castle. “No, I’m not interested in art just now,” I explained politely. “I don’t even expect to attend the Volksfest with all the fireworks and music I came here to see the crematoria.”

The old man was not surprised at my answer. In fact, he seemed to have a stock of ready-made phrases for such an occasion; they rolled smoothly and glibly. How wonderful it was that the Fatherland was rid of Hitler at last. But would he have come to power without the aid of the Western democracies? As for the camp, it was a Schandfleck for Germany, but the people of Dachau—like himself—were quite innocent, and it was unfair to blame them for what had gone on in the camp. Anyway, he had heard about the unpleasantness only in 1945. He had never seen any prisoners himself, though of course he and his family had often given food to the slave workers toiling in the fields.

I nodded politely, but did not fail to observe the landscape. On many houses, some of which were badly damaged, arrows pointing to air-raid shelters could still be seen, half washed away by the rain. A movie theater where Ingrid Bergman was featured in ]oan of Arc; whitewashed red-roofed farm houses with neat flower gardens; American Army Ordnance posts; inns with quaint names; small groups of pine trees. Finally the railroad station, on the outskirts of Dachau town. As I said goodbye to the old gentleman he was still trying to convince me of his and his fellow townsmen’s innocence.

A taxi driver approached me, one of a dozen waiting at the station. “Der Herr wünscht das Krematorium?” (“Does the gentleman want the crematorium?”) I could not help laughing. No, I wasn’t quite ready for the crematorium as yet, but I wanted to see whatever could be seen of the camp and its surroundings. The driver, in his broad, musical Bavarian dialect, explained to me that he was well trained for that mission, having shown the camp to numerous visitors, including some “israelitische Herren.” After a short while we stopped at an American Army post. A sergeant rushed out, quickly examined my passport, and told us to proceed farther on the Strasse der KZ Offer, or “Road of the Concentration Camp Victims.”

The large, pink stucco houses scattered over a wide area were familiar to me: until 1945 they had been dwellings of the SS officers, the Sturmbannführer and Standartenführer who had lived riotously at the expense of the German nation. Once it was a model community, with a beautiful playground for children, a fine swimming pool, and lovely gardens; the soil had never lacked for fertilizer—there was always enough bone dust from the crematoria. There had also been, side by side with the idyllic family life, sybaritic orgies, sex, drugs, and champagne. Today, alas, the glory is gone, and the American military is using these buildings as offices.

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We drove to what looked like a nice fast-flowing brook: it was the moat that for twelve years separated the prisoners from the rest of the world. I recognized the bridge leading over it and the big entrance building behind it. Once there had been an iron door bearing the paternal exhortation “Arbeit macht frei,” the letters forming a piece of superb craftsmanship in wrought iron. Since the Nazis were very thorough in keeping their records, we know that between March 1933 and April 1945 exactly 221,930 people were “processed” through this very door; about 7,000 more arrived shortly before the debacle, when there was no longer time to attend to the records. People from nearly all parts of Europe had entered this gate, some to be released after a while, others to fertilize the gardens of the Elite Guard families. When American soldiers liberated the camp on April 29, 1945, there were 31,432 inmates still there, many of them more dead than alive. They belonged to forty-two different national groups, mainly Poles, Russians, Frenchmen, Slovenes, Jews, Italians, Czechs, and Germans—their relative numbers going in that order. There were also people from Arabia, Persia, Malta, and Armenia.

I looked again at what had been my Lebensraum for a dreary half-year: a compound of sixty-odd wooden huts, plus a number of stone buildings that had served as offices, kitchen, bath, and for the storage of clothes and supplies. Whether the most dreaded institution of the pre-war camp, the Bunker—dark prison within a prison—was still in existence, I could not ascertain. Having been turned over to DP’s a couple of years ago, the camp now looks like a shanty town, a German version of a Hooverville. The machinegun towers were razed, but the barbed-wire fence around the camp was still standing.

The inmates now were displaced persons from Eastern Europe who refused to return to their former homes. None of them was a Jew. I had seen camps like this one before, with the same community kitchen, laundry, sewing room, makeshift school and makeshift hospital, with the same atmosphere of boredom, hopelessness, the same tendency to petty crime. “They have been waiting long for a chance to emigrate,” the cab driver remarked drily. “Long, but not long enough. Perhaps they’ll be there next year, too, or even two years from now.”

The little moat, bluish and clear, will be there, too, and nobody will know what anguish it once caused so many human beings. I remember the week before the Christmas of 1938, when the snow was very heavy. A tall, beautifully lit tree was placed in the center of the camp, but it did not make us happy. For it was our task to clear away snow and ice, and all work had to be done at double-quick, with not a moment’s pause, under the eyes of storm troopers who kicked those who slipped or collapsed from the strain. I was one of the thousands of antlike human animals who hurriedly loaded their wheelbarrows with snow and dumped it into the river. One elderly man slipped and his loaded wheelbarrow slid into the water. A Nazi guard kicked him in after it. Days later, the body was removed from the water.

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What I had seen so far was “old stuff.” New to me, however, was what I saw when we turned to the right, into what looked like the entrance to a tastefully landscaped American state park. The pretty little house on the right surrounded by evergreens might have been a gardener’s cottage, but the driver dismissed it. “Oh, that was only the kleine Krematorium.” Wait and see the real thing!

The “real thing” was built only after the start of the war. There had been no need for crematoria so long as Hitler had hoped to conquer the world by intimidation alone. Only after 1940 did the furnaces begin their work at Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, and elsewhere. In front of the long whitewashed one-story brick building that had been the grosses Krematorium now stood a small statue portraying the type of hollowcheeked, emaciated prisoner who “went up in smoke” in the early 40′s. It had been unveiled on April 29, 1950, in an impressive ceremony on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the liberation of Dachau. Thousands of people had been present, most of them Dachau survivors.

I let the car wait for me and entered the building where a sign said “Museum.” The large room was filled with photographs, a model of the camp, and maps showing the location of the cemeteries, Christian and Jewish. This had once been a waiting room for prisoners marked for death. They were made to believe that they were just going to get a bath, ordered to strip, each given a towel and a bit of soap, and sent through a doorway marked Brausebad (“shower”). How could one suspect anything printed in black and white, especially when it came from a Kulturvolk like the Germans?

I was met by a guide who looked undernourished and pale, as though he had spent most of his life underground. He hastened to assure me that he had been persona non grata to the Third Reich, and that his wife had been arrested by the Nazis. But he had, inevitably, a certain callousness in common with all guides who show visitors through cemeteries, battlefields, and the like. I certainly cannot blame him for the sober, unemotional way he showed and explained the whole death factory, but I could not help feeling something weird in the matter-of-factness with which he pointed out the dummy sprinklers set in the pipeless ceiling; the gratings in the floor, deceptively resembling water drains, through which the gas was sent; and the glass peephole in the control-room wall through which the SS man in charge could study the scene.

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I was shown the morgue; when the Americans had arrived, the storage room was still piled to the ceiling with corpses. Then came the furnace room—the climax of the tour. Wreaths hung on each furnace and on the walls, put there by visitors in memory of dead comrades. When the guide volunteered to show me how the corpses had been pushed into the ovens, I said, rather harshly, that I had had enough.

All over the building inscriptions had been left by ex-prisoner visitors. Ordinarily, one might have objected to this as the defacing of a public building, but in this case the scribblings on this aesthetically uninteresting edifice added a new dimension of significance to it. The writings were in German-Gothic and Latin script, in Cyrillic and Hebrew letters; they revealed the hands of sophisticated intellectuals and of simple workmen. Geographically, they ranged from Amsterdam to Belgrade, from Milan to Oslo. Beneath the name and the prisoner’s number (e.g., Häftling Nr. 23801) were words of contempt and fury—“Das waren keine Menschen sondern Bestien”—or verses from the Bible: “Je suis la Resurrection et la Vie.”

It had begun to rain heavily, and, perhaps a bit too brusquely, I declined my guide’s routine offer to show me the trenches on the pistol range in which prisoners had been forced to stand as living targets. Nor did I care to see the fir tree that had served as a gallows—“One of the lower branches still shows the deep mark left by the hangman’s rope.” I was tired and felt sick, and wanted to shake the cursed soil of Germany from my shoes.

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