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SHAPIRO: No Dachau? No Auschwitz? Ignoring just as evil as denying

Rejecting part of history is rejecting all of it

- - Thursday, October 17, 2013

Last weekend, I flew from London to Munich to visit Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, built in 1933. I'd never been to Germany before, and since I was already in London on business from the United States, I decided to use my weekend to make the journey.

My British Airways flight out of Heathrow Airport went smoothly, but when I approached a bus driver at Munich Hauptbahnhof Central Station for directions, it was the beginning of a bizarre series of events that left me wondering why so many Germans insisted they did not know what and where "Dachau" and "Auschwitz" were.

"Is this Bus 710?" I asked a driver standing outside his bus.

"There is no Bus 710," he answered coolly, as he blew smoke from a cigarette. "Where are you going?"

"Dachau," I answered.

"Dachau?" he asked curiously.

"Right, the camp."

"Camp?"

"The concentration camp."

He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.

"Dachau is a train station," he answered. "You need to take the train there."

Assuming there was a language barrier of some kind, I walked back inside to find the right train. When I arrived at the Dachau station, though, I found a police officer outside, and the same thing happened.

"Can you please tell me where the memorial is?" I asked.

"Memorial?" he parroted.

"The museum."

He looked at me blankly shaking his head, and a woman from an information booth came over.

"I'm looking for Dachau."

"This is Dachau," she said, pointing to the train station.

"The concentration camp."

They both shook their heads.

"Fine, I'm looking for Bus 710."

They smiled and pointed to an area nearby. Confused, I walked in the indicated direction, found Bus 710 and climbed aboard.

The drive was pleasant as Dachau turned out to be a very pretty town. As we passed by rows of Austrian-style houses shaded by trees, I wondered how the residents felt about living in a place memorialized by such an evil past.

I was even more surprised when I got to the camp and saw houses built right against its walls. I wondered what it would be like to have a bedroom view of a gas chamber.

I spent four hours at Dachau, and when I left, I wondered if I should a take a train to Poland to see Auschwitz on Sunday before I flew back to London. So, I returned to the Central Station and approached an information booth to ask which train stops there.

"Ausch what?" she asked.

"Auschwitz," I said in disbelief.

"I do not know what that is," she said in a matter of fact tone.

I repeated the word, several times while she and her co-worker looked at one another quizzically, throwing their hands up in confusion.

"Do you know what Dachau is?" I asked.

They both nodded.

"Auschwitz is a similar place by Krakow in Poland."

"You want to go to Dachau?" one of them asked.

"No, I want to go to Krakow, and then go to Auschwitz," I said.

"Oh, you say Dachau, so we think Dachau."

"Forget it," I said and asked a nearby police officer and then a train conductor. Apparently, they hadn't heard of Auschwitz, either.

The next morning, I shared an airport shuttle from my hotel with three pilots and told them my story. I explained that all of the people I spoke with were professionals whose job it is to direct tourists. How could they not know about the camps?

"They don't talk about it," a Spanish pilot whispered, turning around to see if our driver could hear us. "You have to be careful," he warned me. "You can be jailed if you say the wrong thing."

He was talking about the denazification laws that made it a crime to use Nazi imagery, promote National Socialism or deny the Holocaust.

When my British Airways flight from Munich took off, I opened a copy of The Daily Mail and saw the headline, "Bank nearly banned Churchill 5 note — in case it upset Germans."

British officials warned that "the recentness of World War II is a living memory for many here and on the Continent."

It suddenly became clear to me that the response I received was a passive-aggressive reaction, refusing to be associated with something that they had nothing to do with. I sympathize with how unfair it is for Germans today to be associated with the Holocaust, but I also know that disavowing history is not the answer.

Those Germans may have been surprised to know that of all the things that left the most indelible impact on me at Dachau was not the evil acts of the Nazis, but the heroics of a young German girl named Sophie Scholl.

Scholl was not Jewish, but she organized the first student movement against the Nazis, declaring, "We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience."

Like Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, who lost his life in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Scholl and every member of her White Rose movement were executed. White Rose members knew they never had a chance, but like thousands of other courageous German citizens who were killed for resisting, she gave up her life to take a stand for my people — the Jews.

Disavowing any part of history means disavowing all of it, which also means ignoring the courage of the German resistance. Those heroes must be remembered, not forgotten. Their courage is something all German people can and should be proud of.

Jeffrey Scott Shapiro is an investigative reporter and former Washington, D.C., prosecutor.