It had been raining for most of the day, and for the first time you could really hear the birds chirping.
It’s what stood out for me at the time.
The birds were so loud, and it didn’t seem right.
We hesitated outside the nondescript brick building. There were hedges and a lovely green garden that you only seem to find in Europe. The surrounding tree-lined grounds were park-like, an irony considering what happened all those years ago.
I wanted the birds to shut up.
Didn’t they know?
When you turn right off the path at the entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp, you are face to face with the swinging wrought-iron gate and the words of advice for all Nazi political prisoners at the time — Work shall set you free.
Dachau was the first concentration camp.
This was where it started, with Nazi political prisoners doing forced labor, and where the first of the Jews were brought, where torture was perfected and medical experiments begun.
This was starting point of the Holocaust.
When you pass through the gate — as all visitors do now — you can be overwhelmed by the scope of the grounds that stretch on endlessly, with only the outlines of the foundations for the prisoners’ barracks and distant guard towers that have been rebuilt.
Appropriately, the skies were gray with a steady drizzle the day I visited.
It should always be raining at Dachau.
Located a short train ride from the Bavarian capital of Munich, Dachau was established weeks after Adolf Hitler took power in 1933.
The Munich police chief — Heinrich Himmler — designed the camp as a place where German political prisoners were initially housed, then male Jewish citizens.
Torture and murder followed.
What I learned was that rule of law still existed in Germany in 1933, and that the horrors didn’t happen all at once, but gradually and over time.
Three weeks after the camp opened, four young prisoners were shot and killed. It was said they were trying to escape.
A young German prosecutor was sent to investigate the case, along with a regional medical examiner. Autopsies were done on the victims. The wounds suffered by the victims did not match the guards’ accounts.
The prisoners had been murdered.
The prosecutor persisted in pressing the case, despite political pressure, and eventually filed arrest warrants against “unknown perpetrators.”
But the indictment papers were intercepted before they could be delivered.
Himmler, a rising lieutenant to Adolph Hitler, had been alerted to the work of the young prosecutor, and Adolph Hitler stepped in and ordered the warrants shelved.
In a display case at the Dachau museum, it says simply that the brave prosecutor was dismissed in 1934 and his replacement closed the investigation.
It is just a footnote to what happened at Dachau.
The fact that there was once rule of law at Dachau is overwhelmed by the monstrosity of the crimes that happened later.
It is estimated some 206,000 prisoners spent time in Dachau. Another 30,000 died there.
The stories tell of torture, medical experiments, rampant disease and a prison population of over 60,000 when the camp was liberated in 1945.
It is all a nightmare, yet it is all too real with the rain coming down.
Through the gate and to the right is a building where the prisoners were brought, stripped of their clothes and possessions. In the beginning, their possessions were catalogued and their money put away for safe-keeping.
Early on, some were even released, but soon there was a saying around Munich: “Dear God, make me silent, that I may not come to Dachau.”
We go on to visit the barracks, the religious memorials on the grounds, stepping around the puddles.
And it is quiet.
Few of the visitors are saying anything.
Then we turn toward the brick building on the other side of the fence, where the rain has stopped and birds are chirping madly.
There is a sizeable chimney coming from the roof of the brick building.
I approach a doorway inside, where over the archway of a swinging metal door, is written a single word — Brausebad.
It means showers.
There is total silence in this room, and I notice I can no longer hear the birds.
It’s hard to imagine they ever chirped here.
It’s hard to imagine why they would now.