I am in Munich at the moment, on a brief holiday with my husband. It is snowing and we are resting after a fabulous morning exploring the Neue Pinakothek (mainly 19th century) and the Pinakothek der Moderne (mainly 20th and 21st century ) art and design.
So different from the only other time I have ever been in the area over 50 years ago.
In 1965 my father took me on my first visit abroad to Poland. I have written bits about this trip before as it made a great impression on me. We took about four days to get there and each day was more horrendous than the last. Prague was bad enough but Munich was life changing.
We were on the outskirts of the city and suddenly my father began to slow the car down. He was looking for signs to Dachau, the first of Hitler’s concentration camps. There were no signs. We edged to the forest. Still no signs and no people. My father was beginning to be agitated. Everything to do with the war -and at that time it had only been over for twenty years -no time at all as far as he was concerned- was of utmost interest to him. And here we were, a stone’s throw away from the most cruelly gruesome theatre of war, and he couldn’t find it. He was not to be deterred, however, and began to ask local passers by. No-one wanted to talk to him let alone tell him. Obviously no one was proud of the camp or what it stood for. But he knew it was there. Eventually he noticed – of maybe I did – a small wooden arrow with Dachau carved into it. We followed the arrow and there it was in all its horror.
It had already been turned into a museum. Everything was neatly labelled and explained. Everything was on show, ready to be remembered and learnt from. As it no doubt should be. It was horrific. I was eleven. Totally unprepared. Yes- I’d heard of the atrocities. But here I was confronted with them in the most stark way. Of course, it would have been worse if I had been one of the actual victims. I know.
But my father was upset. He knew what to expect. But although his own war time experience was different it wasn’t much better in Siberia. But he survived. Maybe he was feeling survivors’ guilt or some sort of post traumatic stress. I don’t know. All I remember is that he was angry. With everything and everyone. Me. I was crying. The most awful day.
So when I came upon this brochure yesterday in our hotel, all these feelings suddenly came back to me. Revulsion at the war and the atrocities, the shock of confrontation when I was so small, and now the distaste when I saw the guided tours to the camp, just like any other attraction.
I think maybe I’m not being fair. It is better that people, 72 years on, can learn about it more easily. It is also better that children under 13 are not encouraged to go. Yet these consequences of war should be made known to everyone. Human cruelty to humankind can hardly be imagined, which is why, I suppose, it is so rarely reined in.
This must be my saddest most serious post so far.
Yet I am happy to be here in Munich. Happy that Dachau is not a secret any more. Happy that people are willing to see and learn and promote peace wherever and whenever possible.