Munich: Ohel Jakob Synagogue, Michael Jackson Memorial, Old Town Hall, Glockenspiel, Dachau
May 19, 2019
This afternoon I went to what is now called the Dachau Memorial Site, the site of the former Dachau concentration camp. But, before getting to that you’ll have to plow through what I did in the morning. Or just scroll down. It’s up to you.
Ohel Jakob Synagogue
I started my day by taking a look at Ohel Jakob Synagogue. It is smallish and austere.
From a distance, it looked plain. But, up a little closer, the lower portion is quite evocative, even though I’ve only ever seen pictures of the place it’s intended to evoke. (At least one reader of this will get a bit of a chuckle out of that. You know who you are.)
According to Rick Steves’ Germany tour book, the “lower stones of travertine evoke the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, while the upper section represents the tent that held important religious wares during the 40 years of wandering through the desert.” (Note to self: When transcribing the preceding quote, be careful not to do your usual typo of typing “dessert” when you mean “desert.” The Israelites did not wander 40 years through bread pudding.)
The first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet appear prominently on the synagogue doors, representing the Ten Commandments.
Again according to Steves, in the early 1930s there were about 10,000 Jews in Munich and this was the site of the main shul. In 1938, Hitler ordered that the synagogue be torn down. This new one was constructed in 2006. Because Germany welcomed Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union countries, Munich’s Jewish population is now roughly back to what it was in 1930.
I assume for security reasons, only worshippers can enter Ohel Jakob Synagogue. So, I have only these external photographs.
Michael Jackson Memorial
A park sits in front of Hotel Bayerish Hof. In that park sits a statue of the Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso. Pictures of the late Michael Jackson now cover the base of that statue.
I kid you not.
Michael Jackson stayed at Hotel Bayerish Hof whenever he was in Munich. Fans congregated in the park hoping he’d appear at the window, which he sometimes did. When he died, fans took over the statue of di Lasso and turned it into a shrine to Jackson.
Poor Victor di Lasso. He doesn’t get any respect.
The flowers at the base looked freshly placed. True, most were potted and growing. Thus, they wouldn’t wilt quickly, but untended they wouldn’t look as hale and hearty as they did. And their pots wouldn’t be as clean as they were. Fans must keep the shrine going even today.
People, people, people. Beyond the disrespect to di Lasso, no matter how much you liked Jackson’s music, it turns out he was far from the most stellar of human beings. Maybe worshiping him isn’t entirely appropriate. Just saying.
Old Town Hall
Here’s something I didn’t know when I visited Marienplatz yesterday. The building at one end of Marienplatz with a pointy piece on top of it and a pointy tower attached to it is the “Old Town Hall.” It’s the building in the picture to the right.
Technically, Old Town Hall is at least four decades newer than New Town Hall (pictured below). During the Second World War, the Allies heavily bombed Marienplatz, the location of both town halls. That bombing destroyed he Old Town Hall, but the New Town Hall survived.
What’s called New Town Hall is a reconstruction built after the war.
Old Town Hall being newer than New Town Hall reminds me of a few lines of a monologue in Woody Allen’s firm Love and Death.
Of course there was Old Greggor and his son Young Greggor. Oddly enough, Young Greggor’s son was older than Old Greggor. Nobody could figure out how that happened. And everytime I asked they’d slap me.
Yeah, yeah. I know. Hypocrite, right? Above, I mocked fans of Michael Jackson for erecting a shrine to him in Munich, but then I quote Woody Allen, despite some horrible accusations being made against him. Here’s the thing. I admit to enjoying many of Woody Allen’s films, but I’m never going to erect a shrine to him. Ever. Period. See the difference?
Yesterday, I said I would try to get back for one of the three daily performances of the glockenspiel mounted on New City Hall. I succeeded.
Below is a brief videos of some of the 10-minute performance. Sorry, that’s as much zoom as I could achieve with my old iPhone.
I also did some walking around this morning. Some photos appear below, but first an aside:
Aside: One thing I noticed in Munich is that every hour of every day seems to be beer time. I don’t know if it’s locals, tourists or both, but at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all times in between and beyond I saw people sitting at tables in squares and on patios quaffing beer.
Beer appeared to be the most frequent beverage of choice in Vienna, Prague and Regensburg as well when I was in those cities, but Munich seems to take it to a higher level.
I’m not a much of beer drinker, so I haven’t followed their example much—no beers in Vienna or Prague, two in Regensburg and one so far here in Berlin. I have one more day in Munich before heading back home, so maybe I’ll try another beer tomorrow just to get in the local spirit. Or not. We’ll see. (If my sister is reading this she’ll know what “we’ll see” more often than not means. But, we’ll see.)
Deciding to Go to Dachau
Since deciding to end my trip in Munich, I agonized over whether to take a side trip to the site of the Dachau concentration camp. No that’s not quite true. I agonized over it initially, but then somehow managed to put it out of my mind because the decision was too wracking. As I headed for the train from Regensburg to Munich I could no longer put off thinking about it.
Here’s the thing. I believe my great-grandparents brought my grandparents to Canada at young ages, decades before the Second World War. (I’m certain that’s true for at least a couple of my grandparents.) I wasn’t born until more than seven years after the war ended. So, I have no direct connection to the war. And my progenitors largely escaped the holocaust, already well ensconced in Canada.
What’s more, I’m devoutly atheist.
Nevertheless, I was Bar Mitzvahed and go to seders. I self-identify as Jewish, solely cultural though that may be. I’m perfectly happy and comfortable with both by atheism and my Jewishness, if that makes any sense—and even if it doesn’t. (And I not someone who is perfectly happy or comfortable with many things. In fact, that might be it.)
The point is that, despite lacking a direct connection to the Second World War, my background is such that Nazis and the holocaust occupy an inordinate number of my neurons and synapses. And, obviously, not in a good way. To say the absolute very least.
Dachau was not nearly the most murderous of the Nazi concentration camps. But it was the first of them. Most of the other concentration camps were modeled on Dachau. And many of their commandants were trained at Dachau.
I honestly didn’t know what emotions I would go through if I visited Dachau. Just the thought of going distressed me well beyond my normal exceptionally high level of angst.
Yet, there I was. At Dachau.
Getting to Dachau
First, for the benefit of sticklers, yes, I know Dachau is not in Munich. But it’s an easy five-hour trip, including spending three hours touring the former concentration camp. Getting there takes less than an hour each way. Because I went while staying in Munich, I decided that, rather than create a separate category here just for Dachau, I’d include it in this Munich post.
You can go to Dachau on your own on public transit from Munich. Admission to the site is always free, as is the case with all German concentration camp memorials.
Instead, I decided to take a guided tour that took me out there and provided information and commentary on a walk through the camp. The company I bought the ticket from offered two tours a day to Dachau, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. When I bought the ticket the day before, I chose the afternoon because I’m not very good at moving in the morning and I didn’t want to push myself on the off-chance I slept in.
The guide, Eric (or maybe Erik, but I’ll go with Eric here), was an American who has lived in Germany for 44 years. He has been giving these tours for 44 years. He’s a freelancer contracted by the company I bought the tour ticket from.
Eric met the group in Marienplatz, counted how many people bought tickets, then took us to the underground where he bought public transit tickets for 30 travellers. He then took us on a regional train to the town of Dachau and a regular town bus from the train station to the concentration camp.
The town of Dachau. I never considered it before going on the tour, but Dachau is not just the former concentration camp. It’s also a functioning town today. Yet, the rest of the world will always associate it with something else, something horrific. As evidence of that, despite it being a workaday town today, I’ll use “Dachau” here to refer to the concentration camp.
My emotions weren’t as battered as I thought they’d be. I found the place too sterile for that.
It’s not that they tried to gloss over reality or sanitize the facts. The texts throughout were honest and brutal about what went on there. And Eric was the same in his commentary. There was a brief film that described the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and the goings on at the camp. It showed some very brutal filmed images. (Those films came from the Allies during liberation. The SS also took films of the camp, but they’ve never been found.)
It’s just that, walking through the camp I didn’t get any sense of the brutality that went on there. The current visitors entrance is on a short path through a peacefully treed area. That’s a picture of it to the right. (Eric’s back figures prominently in the picture.)
That is not where prisoners entered when it was a concentration camp. They came on trains that stopped on the other side of an SS base, marched past the base and through a gate emblazoned with the lie, in German, telling them that work would set them free. It didn’t. For many, it killed them.
Inside Dachau today, none of the original barracks exist. Two recreated barracks are as they were at the time, one on either side of the camp road. Behind the recreated barracks are (now) low concrete rectangles. I didn’t count, but there must have been at least a dozen of these rectangles in rows behind each recreated barrack.
The rectangles mark where barracks used to stand. These are not foundations of the original barracks, as they had no foundations.
The camp road was tree-lined. Eric said that it also was treed when it was a concentration camp.
A museum and the theatre where the film played occupy what used to be the maintenance building. In its concentration camp days, new arrivals were registered and assigned barracks there.
The maintenance building also held showers. But, in this case, they were literally showers. The showers were where some punishments were performed—whipping, 25 times—so they could easily clean away any bloody mess.
We also went into a building that contained detention rooms, a gas chamber, and the crematorium.
There’s no evidence that the gas chamber at Dachau was ever used. A letter from a camp doctor asking to use the gas chamber for experiments was found, but there’s no record of a reply. The liberators found some bodies in the gas chamber, but it was thought they were dumped there, not gassed there. Prisoners who were gassed were generally shipped to other concentration camps. No one knows why the gas chamber at Dachau was likely not used.
A wood beam attached to the ceiling in front of the furnaces in the crematorium serves no structural purpose. There are rings affixed to the beam. Prisoners who were executed by hanging were hanged right in front of the ovens they were burned in.
(Out of respect, guides are not allowed to present their commentaries inside the crematorium because people were murdered there. Eric waited for us outside.)
Something I didn’t know: At first, most of the prisoners at Dachau were not Jews. They were political opponents of Hitler. That’s how Hitler was able to go from a weak coalition government to a dictatorship. He used a crisis to pass laws allowing him to arrest people without charge. Then he used that power to put his opponents in concentration camps, giving him a majority in government so he could pass whatever laws he wanted to pass.
The Jews (and gypsies, homosexuals, Seventh Day Adventists and priests who opposed Hitler) were sent to Dachau shortly thereafter. However, Jews represented only about 25% of the prisoner population at Dachau. Most Jews were sent to other concentration camps, many of which were even more brutal killing machines.
There is now a memorial at Dachau. It consists a number of elements. One was a sculpture that is the original of one that is at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, when I was at Dachau there was scaffolding and a translucent sheet with a photo of the sculpture in front of it because they were repairing a crack that was discovered the foundation. Therefore, I didn’t take a picture of it.
Another element of the memorial had two components. This, interestingly, was where I fought back tears. One component was words printed with metal letters mounted a stone wall. The words were, simply, in five languages, “Never Again.”
The other component, just in front of “Never Again” was a stone box with a metal lid. The box held the ashes of the “unknown concentration camp prisoner.” It was put there because, in German law, that made all of the Dachau concentration camp a cemetery. And, in German law, once a cemetery, always a cemetery and no developer can ever build, say, the example Eric provided, a shopping mall on the site.