Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The weather report is calling for rain today, so when I stretch my aching limbs and draw aside the drapes in my room I’m surprised to see a bright blue sky and warm sun.  This will give me a good chance to make a day trip outside the city this afternoon.

After a hearty buffet breakfast at the Hotel Platzl, I decide first to visit the interior of the Frauenkirche, and then the tomb of “Mad” King Ludwig II in St. Michael’s church while I wait for the 11:00 AM glockenspiel show back in Marienplatz.

Munich’s famous glockenspiel on the new town hall dates from 1908 and consists of 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures that reenact two stories from the 16th century.  At the top is the wedding of Duke Wilhelm V to Renata of Lorraine.  In honor of the happy couple there is a joust with knights on horseback representing Bavaria, in white and blue, and Lothringen, in red and white.  The Bavarian knight wins every time, of course!  The bottom half depicts the Schäfflerstanz, or cooper’s dance.  According to myth, 1517 was a year of plague in Munich.  The coopers are said to have danced through the streets to “bring fresh vitality to fearful dispositions.”  The coopers remained loyal to the Duke and their dance came to symbolize pervereance and loyalty to authority through difficult times. 

After the festive music and the dancers have once again fallen silent and the tourist crowds have dispersed, I head underground and buy a day pass for the S-Bahn and ride the train to Dachau station, where I transfer to a free shuttle bus to take me the rest of the way to the remains of Dachau concentration camp, about 10 miles northwest of the city. 

Like so many other S.S. camps during the Holocaust, the slogan on the iron gate at Dachau makes a cruel promise: ARBEIT MACHT FREI, which means “work sets you free.”  Established by the Nazis in 1933 and run continuously until its liberation by American troops on April 29, 1945, more than 200,000 Jews and other political prisoners were interned here. More than 30,000 died–of disease, malnutrition, and murder.

A sculpture by Nandor Glid, erected on the parade grounds in 1968, represents the scale and human cost of those sins.  It is a massive wall of twisted metal, blending haunting human forms with fence posts and barbed wire.  Nearby, a plaque translates a simple message into a multitude of languages:


I spend the next few hours in solemn thought, walking quietly through the interior of museum.  There are displays that attempt to explain the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, a mundane office desk that was once used to register prisoners, a pile of chain from which prisoners were hung from, and a crematorium known ominously as “Barrack X.”

Before I go, I walk out past guard towers and rusted barbed wire fences and a row of reconstructed barracks towards the Jewish memorial on the far edge of the camp.  It slopes gently into the ground, allowing only a narrow beam of light to seep through an opening in the ceiling, revealing a menorah high above.  Chiseled over the entrance is a psalm: “Put them in fear, O Lord: that the nations may know themselves to be but men.” 

As I leave the cool air and dim light of the memorial and face the full glare of the afternoon sun, I squint and brush away a tear.  It has been hard, this visit, but it must be so.  How could it be otherwise? 

I ride the train back to Munich, where at 4:30 the day’s expected rain finally starts to fall.

For dinner, I want to stay close by and the promise of Italian food at Trattoria La Valle just down the street sounds like a refreshing change of pace.  Truth be told, I am growing weary of beige Bavarian cuisine.  I order a caprese salad and veal saltimbocca, which pale in comparison to a similar meal I once had in Rome, but for now it is more than good enough.  Afterwards, I turn the corner and walk down Tal street to Bäckerei Aumüller so that I can buy something sweet for later.

The sky is still spitting rain, but the cooler night air is pleasant, so I continue on to Odeonsplatz and the Theatine Church and the Feldherrenhalle, modelled after the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.  In the Hofgarten nearby, I duck under the cover of the Diana pavilion and then circle back to the Platzl Hotel, where a dry robe and a slice of lemon cake await.