Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Day 7: Munich & Dachau

We woke up to dreary, cloudy, rainy München skies...but it didn't dampen our spirits. Let's go, kids, we gots all kinds of stuff to do today! We rounded up our umbrellas and headed off in the drizzle and rain for the Residenz, the former royal palace of the Bavarian monarchs. We actually got there a little bit early, so instead of standing in the damp ickiness, we sought refuge in a Starbucks (it was right there! We tried to go local, but it wasn't open! So...Starbucks it is) and took a few minutes to enjoy our cups of coffee/tea. I thought it was impressive that we got actual mugs for our beverages since we were in staying in rather than "to go" - this is something I haven't encountered at any American Starbucks. Way to go green, Germany! Anyway, Trinity jotted some notes in his travel journal, we sipped away, and we headed off to the Residenz once it was open and our beverages were gone. Honestly, the extra caffeine probably did me some good. I need my coffee.

The Residenz is...enormous. And while it was a daunting task, we opted for the long tour that gave us access to quite a few more rooms throughout the palace. We did have the handy audio tour (same nifty device as the Hohenschwangau castle guide - nice work, whoever manufactured that gizmo) to guide us along, which offered some insights in the plethora of rooms, halls, and grotto courtyards we visited. The level of detail in the Residenz is just amazing - the intricate artwork made out of shells in the grotto, the sheer amount of porcelain and silver the Wittelsbachs accumulated, even the frames around the artwork - this place is enormous and also detailed at every level. A large amount of the Residenz was heavily bombed in World War II, and I can't tell you how many times we came across the sign saying "xxx was originally xxx. It was destroyed in the Second World War, but later rebuilt in the style...". On quite a few of the ceilings there were large frames enclosing blank areas where some amazing work of art used to be...except that it was destroyed in World War II, and we can't really recreate it, so it's just been left blank. It really made an impression on me about how much was lost in World War II - not only beautiful art and amazing buildings, but also life and history and stories. Still, the Residenz has an amazing collection of rooms with impressive pieces - I really enjoyed spending our morning here.

After our tour of the Residenz, we had a little extra time before meeting Steven and Megan for our train to Dachau, so we walked through the Court Gardens (Hofgarten), which are, of course, just beautiful. Sculpted hedges, peaceful fountains, beautiful fountains, wonder we came across a bride and groom having pictures taken here. After a little wandering, we then headed towards the Marienplatz to meet Steven and Megan and catch our S-Bahn to Dachau, which is just northwest of Munich. Only after grabbing a tasty pastry (Trinity) and a bottle of water (me...although, yes, I did have two bites of said pastry...I can't resist buttery, flakey goodness) were we ready to head out. After grabbing a quick sandwich in a Dachau, we climbed onto a bus and made our way out to the site of the camp.

I went into this experience with some amount of background knowledge, if for no other reason than I'd gone on a World War II reading/movie kick in the past few months. If you've been keeping an eye on the "I currently have a bookmark in" and "The last movie I watched was," then you know I've been pretty fascinated by Band of Brothers in both print and film form as well as The Greatest Generation. The whole concept of war is somewhat mystifying to me, and I know we picked up some of this information along the way in assorted junior high and high school history classes, but it makes a somewhat more significant impact when you're there. A rather more significant impact, really. The first thing that struck me was how close to the town the camp at Dachau was. You didn't have to go too far from the camp perimeter to find homes that would have been there in the 1930s and 1940s.

We opted for the guided English tour at the camp, and I'm so glad we did. Alun, our tour guide, spent about two and a half hours taking us through the history and different functions of the camp, and he had obviously spent a significant amount of time learning everything he could about the camp and the surrounding area - I appreciated his insights. Dachau was the site of the first work, and later "concentration," camp, and it was founded in 1933. The majority of the early prisoners in the camp were political prisoners, and I think it's important to remember that those first imprisoned and sentenced to work camps were not necessarily Jews, but so many others...political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, and anyone who appeared to offer any threat to Hitler.

Dachau served as a prototype and model for other concentration camps that followed. This was where they trained officials to run the other camps - in fact, in the maps and displays we saw of the camp at Dachau, the majority of the camp grounds were dedicated to training facilities, not necessarily imprisonment areas. In a small ironic twist, many of the training facilities are now used to train the German riot police.

Spending time at the camp at Dachau was emotionally moving for me. Being on the same ground where so much had happened before me really made an impression on me. We walked our way up the entrance of the camp, with the iron gates marked "arbeit macht frei" - "work makes you free." What a contradiction. Every prisoner who walked in saw those words as they made their way into the camp...and barracks and medical testing facilities and numerous other daily monstrosities. For most of the tour I was completely absorbed...and had absolutely no desire to pull my camera out of my bad - who wants pictures of overcrowded barracks and gas chambers? We did walk through reconstructed barracks and over the ground where they had roll call every day and through the gas chamber. The gas chamber had a much shorter ceiling than any room anywhere else in the facility...I'm guessing this was to contribute to the extreme efficiency of the Germans, giving them a smaller area for the gas to disperse.

We also made our way through the administration building and a separate building with single-confinement cells for high-profile prisoners, primarily clergy and prominent political prisoners. One of the more prominent and uplifting features of the camp at Dachau are the monuments and memorials. The camp, while it does hold reconstructed barracks and original buildings, features a large numbers of memorials which have been supported and constructed by a number of churches and individuals. Additionally, so many parts of the camp serve as a memorial without any true "memorial" in place. We crossed a small bridge over to the crematorium portion of the camp, passing several feet of grass, a small moat, and then a large fence strung with wire. If prisoners stepped on that small strip of grass, they were immediately shot. If they wanted to dash across the grass and possibly miss bullets, they were immediately met by an electrified fence with a deadly voltage.

We were at the camp just after the 54th anniversary of its liberation. American troops from the 20th and 42nd armored divisions arrived on the eastern and western sides of the camp on the same day. One of the main memorials at the camp, a somewhat graphic sculpture of bodies entangled in wire, was lined with memorial wreaths put in place during the liberation celebration a couple of weeks earlier. The incredibly detailed museum we toured also included a memorial room, which included several memorials dedicated to all of those who perished at the camp (approximately some 40,000 - 45,000 in all) as well as specific family members. The camp wasn't actually closed until the 1960s because of the displaced prisoners who continued to stay because they had nowhere else to go and imprisoned camp officials who were on trial. Only then did the process start to turn it into a memorial ground. I really appreciated our time at the camp. It was certainly a moving experience.

After completing our tour, we couldn't quite manage to cram ourselves onto the overcrowded bus headed back to the train station in Dachau, so we decided to just walk the two-ish miles or so. Ummm....we made a small circle, losing the faith of some fellow American travelers who didn't want to wait for the bus and then decided to go ahead and wait for the bus after following us in a circle...but I would like to say that we made it to the train station BEFORE our fellow travelers who waited it out for a bus. Way to walk it out through Dachau, my groupies! We caught our S-Bahn back to Munich and split up for a little while - Steven and Megan headed out to meet a friend who was flying in that evening, Trinity made his way to a bookstore, and Diana and I struck out for one last memorial and another walk around the gardens at the Residenz. We also stopped in at St. Kajetan-Theatinerkirche for one last glimpse inside a beautiful old church. The last memorial we visited had a tribute to the "fallen heroes" of World War I...and the "fallen" of World War II. Good recognition of the faulty logic that precipitated World War II there.

We had agreed to meet Trinity at a cupola/temple structure in the middle of the just happened to be outfitted with with amazing acoustics and a rather moving cello player around 7:00 when we met up. Beautiful music. I could have sat there as long as he played and just listened. However...we were hungry. And in need of some good times for our last night in Munich. After consulting Rick, we made our way toward Jodlerwirt, a pretty local place. We made our way into the empty bar area, realized our small mistake, and headed upstairs to the packed and rollicking tiny restaurant area. There weren't any tables available, so we proceeded to sit at the bar and appear as German as possible. This was my favorite question of the entire trip - "do you want to drink the beer?" We responded with a resounding "yes!" and proceeded to drink plenty, oh plenty, of Ayinger beer for our last German hurrah. We had a fantastic evening. Amazing food served on cast-iron skillets...I had this great cheesy noodle thing with leeks and ham and who knows what else thrown in there. It was so good. And for dessert? These amazing apple fritters with ice cream...I was in dessert heaven. Ok, enough about the food. There was a bachelorette party taking up about 1/3 of the restaurant (this place was tiny and awesome!), and we sent over a round of shots at some point in the night...prost, ladies! An accordion player leading the crowd in rousing rounds of song also complemented his performance with what we could only assume were humorous moments. With our extremely limited grasp of the German language, we could only hope he wasn't making fun of the Americans sitting at the bar.

What a fantastic way to end our time in Munich - great food, great beer, great friends...and some new German friends along the way. There were quite a few "ich liebe dich" proclamations thrown around, and we also learned how to say "excuse me" with some proficiency. I'm going to miss Germany.

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