A Town Complicit: Dachau Faces Holocaust Past With Some Help From Auschwitz

Dachau politicians have been looking for a way to deal with the Nazi heritage of their German city. That eventually led them to the Polish town of Auschwitz. Notes from a difficult journey.

Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Helmut Zeller

OSWIECIM, POLAND — They went unnoticed. And that’s what the Dachau town councilors had most hoped for. Among the mass of tourists who visit the former Auschwitz concentration camp near the Polish town of Oswiecim every day, the 26 local politicians from Germany stayed off the international press radar. When they arrived in Poland, the local city guide had tried to reassure them they would, saying they were visitors like any others.

It was a well-meaning sentiment but not entirely true. “Our visiting this place has a different significance than, say, if the Stuttgart city council were to visit,” says Dachau Town Councilor Christian Stangl. The name Dachau, a town of 43,000 inhabitants about 20 kilometers (11 miles) northwest of Munich, is associated worldwide with Nazi crimes.

But in Auschwitz on this day in August, only a pair of Japanese tourists are taking pictures as Dachau Mayor Peter Bürgel lays a wreath at the foot of the reconstructed execution wall, at what is now formally known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The sun is burning down. It’s 36° C (98.6° F), an there's no shade in which to take refuge. Bürgel wears a black suit and tie. But despite these conditions, the visitors from Dachau spend a long time here. Twenty years ago, this whole thing would have been unthinkable — at least at home in Dachau.

Barbara Distel knows a thing or two about it. The former director of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site fought for more than 30 years for a gesture of this kind to be made and met with nothing but hostility in Dachau (although when she retired in 2008, the city did award her a gold Bürgermedaille, civic medal of honor). That was a step in the right direction, but the resistance of earlier years was still palpable. Distel sees this Auschwitz trip “most certainly as a sign of a changed approach on the part of local politicians” toward their town’s history.

As late as 2012, a planned visit had been called off because of reservations on the part of the councilors, who feared they'd be criticized for mourning Holocaust victims even while the town knowingly, and even tacitly approved, of similar atrocities taking place in their own backyard.

But this time the mayor didn’t give in, and in the end over half of the 40-member council accompanied him. It wasn’t that Dachau’s politicians refused a visit to Auschwitz outright, but there were many fears of “scandal.” Having decided to make the move, however, they were eager to get it right, even asking the mayor for advice on how they should dress for the occasion.

A town complicit

Their concern had its roots in the many things Dachau politicians got wrong in former years. On April 29, 1945, units of the Seventh United States Army liberated the concentration camp that had been built in 1933 three kilometers (1.86 miles) from the medieval town. More than 206,000 prisoners from all over Europe were sent to Dachau, and over 41,000 did not survive the terror and forced labor in the main camp and its 140 satellites and sub-camps. Town officials and particularly local business people worked closely with the Nazis.

U.S. Army observers were certain that Dachau locals had a least some inkling of the crimes being perpetrated there, but people pretended they hadn’t known. In fact, Dachau presented itself as a victim of the Nazis. It was only due to the pressure of concentration camp survivors that Dachau’s former camp was turned into a memorial in 1965. Today, with 800,000 visitors every year, it is the most-visited concentration camp in Germany.

Non-partisan Dachau Mayor Lorenz Reitmeier, who served from 1966 to 1996, was less concerned about paying tribute to the victims of the camp than he was in Dachau’s reputation. At a memorial service in April 1985, he expressed regret that the concentration camp had ruined the prestige of what had been a city of the arts (in the 19th century, Dachau was a famous artists’ colony). Reitmeier was on the trip to Auschwitz with the councilors: a big step, although at a restaurant in Krakow, about an hour east of Auschwitz, he said heatedly that “this whole thing is in the past, this doesn’t interest anybody in Dachau anymore.”

Back in the day, the now 82-year-old Reitmeier wasn’t the only one who opposed creating a memorial at the site of Dachau’s concentration camp. In 1948, Bavaria’s parliament had voted to turn the place into “a labor camp for asocial elements.” In 1955, County Commissioner Heinrich Junker had the crematoriums destroyed — amid worldwide protest.

In 1986, Dachau voted against building an international youth guest house for memorial visitors. Just a year earlier, German President Richard von Weizsäcker had made headlines in a speech abroad by saying Germans should accept their past. Dachau was not yet ready for that.

Survivors paved the way

But then a civil movement ensued. Concentration camp survivors stood up to local politicians and paved the way for a change in attitude, and the youth hostel opened in 1998. Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to make a campaign visit to Dachau this week, and she will visit the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial in the company of 93-year-old Holocaust survivor Max Mannheimer.

If Dachau’s history is no longer being stubbornly suppressed, that’s mainly thanks to Mayor Bürgel. In 2005, he gave a noteworthy speech in Dachau Castle that set the course for change. He recalled how on a visit to Auschwitz “meeting Holocaust survivors changed me.” Bürgel found a way for locals to face their difficult heritage: enlightened commitment to their hometown.

Even members of his own party were skeptical at first about Bürgel’s trips abroad, including many to Israel. Bürgel’s greatest wish, an Israeli partner city, has so far remained unfulfilled. In 2009, a planned partnership with Rosh HaAjin near Tel Aviv failed because of protests from Holocaust survivors. Bürgel says he can understand this, and is pursuing his “policy of small steps.” In May of this year, cooperation between clinics in Dachau and Rehovot in Israel began.

Small steps also marked the meeting with Auschwitz Mayor Janusz Chwierut. The meeting was the second one scheduled on the trip and was kept informal in the interest of avoiding outside media attention. The mayors had wanted to meet for a while as their towns had for 25 years been regularly exchanging artists and vocational trainees. They explored common ground. Auschwitz residents also suffer from the fact that their town’s name is associated with unimaginably gruesome acts, and that this reputation overshadows everything else. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum welcomes a million and a half visitors a year, but as is the case with Dachau, only a small percentage of these tourists actually visit the town.

The trip fostered reflection on Dachau’s sensitivities and reluctance to fully own up to its past, and even yielded an interesting admission from Town Councilor Christian Stangl, an official with Germany’s Christian Social Union (CSU): “The CSU put this development off, that’s clear, we’re responsible for that,” he said in Kracow. Now Dachau’s local politicians are relieved that their fears about making the trip have turned out to be unfounded — so much so that they’ve almost forgetten that they’ve just make an admirable gesture.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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