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Dachau 1974 by Beryl Korot

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A Record of Dachau

 

In the Fall of 1974 I was invited by Steve Reich to join him in Berlin where he was a guest artist of the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD) (the German Academic Exchange Service). Though I looked forward to that prospect, I had deep hesitations of traveling to Germany.

It had been less than 30 years since the liberation of the concentration camps in Europe and essentially the destruction of European Jewry. As someone born in New York City, far away from those catastrophic events, I had grown up in a household with immigrant grandparents with relatives who had perished in the camps. From a tender age I was acutely aware of what had happened in Europe and had seen early film footage of the liberation of the camps.

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By the early 70s there were still few survivors who had told their stories, there was as yet no Holocaust "entertainment" industry, few documentaries dealing with the period, and a German education and political system suffering from a deep case of amnesia. My own feelings were quite raw and automatic. In order to go I had to figure out exactly how. And as I contemplated the how, I decided to pack up my relatively new Sony reel-to-reel portapak, fly to Berlin to meet Steve, and during my stay to drive from Berlin to Dachau, the site of the former "pilot" concentration camp.

What struck me was that here, in this place, in this country, where memory was still so repressed, a bizarre tourist site had been resurrected literally on the ashes of its dark past.

Dachau had been the first of the concentration camps established in March 1933 shortly after the fire in the Berlin Reichstag on February 27. At the beginning it functioned among other things, as a training camp for SS officers and as the special project of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS. It was the place where psychological and bureaucratic techniques were perfected for use in other camps to create the most efficient circumstances for killing and controlling slaves. The invidious Arbeit Macht Frei (Work makes you free) decorated the entrance gate to the camp as it later would at Auschwitz. It was one of the places where political opposition leaders, communists, misfits and anyone else actively involved in opposing Hitler and his cronies, were sent. Jews were part of the focus, but getting rid of all political opposition of whatever stripe was tantamount.

I actually arrived at Dachau in late September on Yom Kippur, a dreary, cold, rainy day. I arrived without camera and fasting. I spent the day simply walking through the space absorbing what I could of this now relatively antiseptic environment inhabited by tourists. What struck me was that here, in this place, in this country, where memory was still so repressed, a bizarre tourist site had been resurrected literally on the ashes of its dark past.

And thus the subject matter took shape in my mind: a record of Dachau in 1974, with its present visitors walking amidst the architecture that remained.

Continued

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