Dachau concentration camp remains a potent symbol of evil

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DACHAU, Germany — The crow leads the way to the crematorium.

Past the "Arbeit macht frei" (Work will make you free) sign at the front gate of the former Nazi concentration camp that's a 20-minute train ride from Munich.

Past the 10-meter-by-100-meter rows of gravel that once held the wooden barracks where the enslaved were kept between 1933 and 1945 and where an estimated 32,000 persons lost their lives.

Past the guard towers and barbed-wire fence.

Past the gardens and religious shrines — present-day memorials on neatly trimmed ground atop heaps of dead from generations past.

It's early, and there are few visitors to the ovens. The silence is an appropriate companion while viewing the solid brick reminder of man's inhumanity to man.

The concentration camp was established in the buildings of an unused munitions factory. The first inmates were political prisoners and those of mixed ancestry. After 1936, the proportion of Jews rose dramatically.

They were brutally beaten and inadequately fed. For medical experiments, they were injected with pus and made to drink seawater.

Some inmates were used for slave labor. Others were sent to gas chambers in the East, mostly in Poland.

Dachau became the model for other Germany concentration camps. It was where top-ranking Nazis learned the secrets of mass killings.

In all, more than 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries were housed at Dachau. An epidemic of typhus in early 1945 claimed hundreds of the already weakened victims. More died in a forced march during a hasty evacuation not long before the arrival of Allied troops.

After the war, Dachau was converted into an internment camp operated by the American military. Persons suspected of war crimes were held in separate units.

The memorial site was opened on May 9, 1965, on the 20th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp. More than 800,000 people visit every year.

You can stand on the roll-call parade ground. Twice a day, the entire camp population stood here at attention until everyone was accounted for. If someone was missing, everyone had to remain on their feet until the inmate was found (often dead).

You can tour an old building that's been converted into a museum. Individual stories of some of the victims are told here. You also meet some of the persecutors.

You can walk through a reconstructed barracks and see mock-ups of the stacked bunks. If brutalizing their charges wasn't enough, the Nazi guards had exacting standards on how the housing units were to be maintained and now the prisoners were to display their belongings. Punishment was meted out for the slightest infraction.

I spent most of my time at the crematorium.

Only when you understand the twisted logistics can you fully grasp the horror.

There were many more people to kill than Hitler's minions could handle with just standard cruelty. Simply put, the inferior ones took up too much room. They not only had to be exterminated efficiently, they had to be reduced in size so the next wave of victims on the next wave of trains could be duly processed.

So the Nazis burned the bodies. Ashes take up less space than flesh and bones. Problem solved.

What makes this place even more sorrowful is the knowledge that this double-shot of sadism and terrorism didn't take place in the dusty back pages of our history books.

People are still breathing who were on the receiving end at places such as Dachau.

The solid brick reminder of that evil — that recent evil — weighs heavily on our collective psyche.

As it should.

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