Max Mannheimer will never forget the words of his block leader when he entered the gates of Dachau concentration camp on 6 August 1944. "You're veterans at this by now," said the prisoner, a communist. "You know that the most important thing is not to draw attention to yourselves if you want to survive."
Behind Max, then aged 24, and his younger brother Edgar had lain a long and gruelling trudge through Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, and the Warsaw ghetto, during which the siblings had lost their entire family, most of them in Auschwitz, simply for being Jewish.
In Dachau, Mannheimer was assigned the prisoner number 87098. "It was the last camp number I would ever have," the 93-year-old said. "But I took the block leader's message on board: 'You've got this far, just keep your head down, as the SS will pounce on you for the smallest violation'." He was liberated nine months later by US troops from a Dachau sub-camp, where one of his last jobs had been to cart the corpses of prisoners into the mortuary. Stricken with typhus, he had been reduced to skin and bones, weighing just 47kg. "I was a skeleton," he said. "I cried with both joy and despair."
Mannheimer returned to the camp with the smattering of fellow survivors still able to make the journey, to mark the 80th anniversary of the first and one of the most notorious of the Nazi camps. In a memorial service they remembered the estimated 41,000 victims, mostly Jews, who perished in the main camp and its many satellite sites.
On 22 March 1933, just weeks after Adolf Hitler came to power, the first political prisoners were interned in Dachau. The world was informed of the fact by the SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, who, as the Manchester Guardian reported, called a press conference in Munich to say that it would be used to keep in custody "communists, Marxists and Reichsbanner leaders who endangered the security of the state".
Five days later the Observer's correspondent in Munich, quoting a local eyewitness, reported that "preparations are going on apace with the new concentration camp in the neighbourhood of Dachau, a village not far from here".
The location, near Munich, was chosen because of the derelict first world war munitions factory on the site, most of the machinery from which had been destroyed under the terms of the Versailles treaty. The Observer reported: "One hundred and forty prisoners are now there, but after alterations have been made there are to be 2,500." Its inmates would sleep on straw, it remarked.
Dachau's establishment was something of an experiment, the first "branch" of the Nazi network that would eventually cover a large swath of Europe; that a recent US study included as many as 42,400 camps and ghettos in a network that claimed the lives of between 15 and 20 million people.
While there were widespread denials by ordinary Germans that they had known about the existence of internment and death camps, Mannheimer said the Nazis had published the facts themselves. "The population of Dachau and the whole of Germany knew through newspaper articles that the concentration camp existed."
Not only did the Nazi publication, the Völkischer Beobachter, deliver the news, but also the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten (MNN), which reported matter of factly: "On Wednesday the first concentration camp was opened. It has the holding capacity for 5,000 people." What few knew, Mannheimer insists, is what went on behind its highly fortified walls. "They did not know about the torture and medical experiments that happened here," he believes.
He witnessed the punishments meted out by SS guards – Dachau was used as a school for torture techniques – as well as the widespread medical experimentation carried out by doctors of tropical medicine, aviation experts and creators of poisonous gases. "Dachau was the nucleus of National Socialist terror," said historian Wolfgang Benz.
Details of some of the atrocities must have begun leaking out to local people early on, if a report on 18 August 1933 from the Manchester Guardian's correspondent is anything to go by. The Bavarians, it said, had a "new prayer", which ran: "Dear Lord, O make me dumb,/ Lest to Dachau camp I come!"
Work to convert the buildings of the former munitions factory into what would become the blueprint for all concentration camps had begun on the night of 13 March, when light and water supplies were installed. At 10am on 22 March, the first 50 prisoners, who had been rounded up in Bavaria two weeks before and held in a workhouse, were brought to Dachau by lorry. It arrived around midday to be greeted by a small gathering of onlookers, according to a report in the MNN.
Prisoner number one was a law clerk called Claus Bastian, the founder of a Marxist students' club. Around 209,000 people, including political prisoners, Jews, gypsies and Jehovah's Witnesses would follow him through the camp's gates during its 12 years' existence.
Mannheimer remained deeply traumatised by his experiences for nearly 40 years, a situation not helped by the fact that in Germany – "the land of the perpetrators", as he calls it, where he reluctantly chose to settle near Munich with his new German wife – "no one wanted to know anything about former concentration camp prisoners; there were no discussions about the Nazi era".
For years he suffered from panic attacks, depression and "survivor's guilt". Then in the 1980s he started telling his story to German schoolchildren and leading tours of Dachau.
"At the start I had to take pills to calm my nerves," he said, "because all my fears, the indignities I'd suffered, the pain, came to the fore again. I could not enter the crematorium." Now, despite his age, he holds several tours and talks a week.
"I have no intention of lecturing people on the sins of their fathers and grandfathers," he says. "I don't see myself as a judge; I am simply an eyewitness and want to enlighten them. No one is better placed to do that than someone who has personally experienced the camps."
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