One of my favorite exhibits at the 45th Infantry Museum is the one we refer to as the Dachau Room. It is set back from the main exhibits and preceded by two posted warnings that alert visitors to what they’ll see. Inside the room, a video plays on repeat and tells the story of what happened on April 29, 1945. The walls are lined with the horrifying images of concentration camp survivors from that day of liberation. There are also photographs showing evidence of some of the unspeakable things that took place at the Dachau camp: Open cattle cars with bodies stacked on top of one another; medical experimentation rooms occupied by inmates who look dead, but they’re not; American soldiers capturing the Nazi camp overseers who didn’t escape in time.
Only a handful of Nazis were killed that day, but try and put this in perspective – when they marched into Dachau, the men of the 45th Infantry were met by over 30,000 inmates who were malnourished and skeletal, diseased and near death. The Americans had no idea what they’d just discovered. They had no idea this place, or even this kind of horror, existed.
While the room itself makes most people uncomfortable (as it should), there is one item of absolute beauty that stands out. Below is just one of the many works of art produced at the Allach Porcelain Factory in the town of Dachau:
The Schutzstaffel (better known as the SS), managed to acquire control of the original Allach Porcelain Factory located in Allach, just outside Munich. As time went on, though, and the Third Reich became more established, a small factory in Dachau was outfitted to produce the porcelain artwork.
Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, insisted that the factory create fine art pieces that were representative of Germanic culture. The pieces celebrated Germany’s strength through its myths, mostly featuring peasants and animals and, later, military heroes. Some of Germany’s best artists were brought in to work on sculptures, candelabras, and other ceramic items. A few of these artists were inmates housed at the concentration camp in Dachau, where slave labor was plentiful.
Until a few years ago, the sculpture pictured above sat alone in that glass case. Many visitors to the museum used to comment only on the exquisite beauty of the porcelain, never on the events portrayed. It was probably done so out of discomfort, of wanting to say something about the room but without having to address the horrific images that fill the room itself. Germany’s treatment of its prisoners and Hitler’s intention to dispose the world of what he considered human filth are obviously still sensitive subjects. But they happened and they must be acknowledged.
Our curator only recently added the Zyklon-B tickets to the glass case. Zyklon-B was the Nazis’ preferred method of mass murder. We’ve all heard the stories of cattle trains that arrived at a camp’s entrance packed with Jews, gypsies, and political outsiders. The men, women, and children were separated, “processed in”, disrobed, and shuttled into the showers. There, the holding rooms filled with gas instead of water. The Zyklon-B entered the body through the nose, the lungs, even through the skin, and everyone began to asphyxiate. Hundreds of people choked, gasped, panicked, vomited, and, finally, died. All within minutes. All in one building.
This is also what happened during the last days of Dachau’s operations. The Nazis heard the Americans were just days away and went on a gassing spree to try and complete their mission of ethnic cleansing. When the 45th infantry entered the showers they saw they were filled with pyramids of bodies. Those who managed to make it to the top before dying were usually the last ones to die. They had managed to find some of the only remains of oxygen in the room in their desperate scramble to the top of the dead-body pyramid.
That is what the fine artwork of the Allach Porcelain Factory also represents: fine craftsmanship and mass murder. The Zyklon-B tickets were placed in that glass case to remind visitors that even such stunning pieces of art are tainted with Nazi brutality, and a painfully slow death.