This is a piece about a photograph I took in the gift shop at the Dachau concentration camp a couple of weeks ago.
Before I go any further, a confession: This photograph would get me fired by the Associated Press, which has strict rules about manipulating imagery. I manipulated this image by moving the Philip Roth biography to the spot just below the Woody Allen biography in order to intensify the deep ridiculousness of a concentration camp gift shop selling biographies of Philip Roth and Woody Allen. The Roth biography had previously sat on an adjacent rack, alongside biographies of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud.
I visited Dachau one afternoon during the Munich Security Conference with a friend, Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post. Visiting Dachau seemed like a particularly appropriate thing for us to do: At a panel discussion about Syria the previous night, a succession of very powerful people argued that they, and the governments and institutions they represent, are powerless to stop Bashar al-Assad from murdering Syrian citizens with whom he disagrees.
At this discussion, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former State Department official, became exercised, comparing this attitude to the indifference of the world to the Holocaust as it was taking place. “In the United States, we often ask, ‘Why didn’t Roosevelt bomb the trains?’ We aren’t very different,” she said.
I should underscore that this discussion about the West’s powerlessness in the face of fascist evil was taking place in Munich.
Though I am sometimes critical of attempts to compare current-day atrocities to the Holocaust, Slaughter’s analogy seemed appropriate. The Holocaust is the Holocaust, a sui generis, industrialized and scientifically advanced attempt -- and a partially successful one -- to exterminate an entire ethnic group without regard to nationality or borders. But Slaughter is right to argue that Syria exists on the same continuum of horror and that the response of the so-called civilized world should be a source of shame.
A field trip to Dachau would have been a good thing for more of the attendees to undertake, but that wasn’t going to happen. I got the sense that conference-goers were mainly interested in looking for reasons not to do anything about Syria. Besides, it was raining. And the conference served delicious macarons.
Visiting concentration camps -- for anyone, but I think especially for Jews -- is a kind of absurdist undertaking. Asking a Munich hotel concierge for the easiest way to get to Dachau, hearing a taxi driver discuss the price of a ride to Dachau -- these are interactions that launch a thousand miserable jokes. I made some of these jokes while eating lunch at the Dachau cafeteria.
Unlike the Nazi concentration camps and death camps in Poland, Dachau is sparklingly clean, well-lit and distressingly organized. The reconstructed barracks building is airy and antiseptic, which makes it difficult to imagine it overcrowded, reeking and desperate. But the reality of the crematoria overwhelms the ability of even hyperorganized and exquisitely sensitive German curators to tidy up successfully.
I admire the country's willingness to memorialize its atrocious past and to make sites like Dachau accessible to tourists, especially when compared with Austria’s unwillingness to do the same. But I’m not sure I’ll ever warm up to the idea of concentration camp gift shops, particularly those that sell Woody Allen biographies. (The last time I visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, the gift shop was selling key chains, so this isn’t just about Germany.) In the absence of dispositive answers but knowing a bit about how modern-day German culture objectifies Jews in odd and somewhat disconcerting ways, my best guess is that these biographies are meant to suggest to visitors, especially German ones, that Jews are, in fact, really quite excellent -- for one thing, they’re funny! -- and therefore the Nazis were idiots for trying to annihilate them.
I’ve tried to call the Dachau shop manager a number of times since leaving the site to better understand the rationale behind the store’s collection of biographies of putatively great Jews (that “putatively” is directed at Allen, not Roth or, God knows, Einstein), but I haven’t been able to reach her yet. I should have asked someone during our visit about the shop’s fascinating selection of merchandise, but my photography and bookrack hijinks caused the gift-shop manager on duty to become upset. Apparently, one thing you don’t want to do as a foreign visitor is upset the order of German concentration camp gift shops. It’s just one of those unspoken taboos, I guess. Kind of like making too big a deal of modern-day massacres while attending an international security conference in a city whose name provokes memories of both fascism and appeasement.
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