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