Descent into Dachau: Why I Visited a Concentration Camp

On April 29, 1945, American troops liberated the survivors of Dachau concentration camp in Nazi Germany. This anniversary is much on my mind lately because one of the characters in my novel-in-progress is 18 years old when his unit discovers one of Dachau’s Kaufering subcamps, where emaciated prisoners lived underground.

Entering the gate into the historic site of the WWII-era Dachau Concentration Camp. The words “Arbeit Macht Frei” are ironic. They translate to “Work will make you free.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

I’ve studied and written about the Holocaust since I was young, but I didn’t visit a Nazi concentration camp until a trip to Germany in 2017. I was spending several days in the beautiful city of Munich, where I was enjoying the food, the opera, and museums. There were so many enjoyable options in the city—and then there was Dachau, the original prison camp/concentration camp that Hitler opened in 1933 to detain political prisoners.

Though it’s built 19 miles outside Munich near the village of Dachau, this hellish camp casts a long shadow. It was the dark side of Munich, a city best known for its jubilant Oktoberfest celebration, overflowing with Bavarian beer, pretzels, and sausages.

I see-sawed: Yes, I would go to Dachau. But no—why drag myself into the horrors of history when I could enjoy far more lighthearted pastimes in Munich?

A guard tower and barbed wire at Dachau Memorial Site. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Gates of Dachau

Ultimately, I took the S-2 train from Munich and caught a bus to the Dachau Memorial Site. I have never regretted it. Admission is free, although there was a charge for the guided tour in English.

First I watched a film that covered some of the history of Nazi Germany, including the intense nationalism and anti-Semitism whipped up by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It explained that the camp was for men only, and that at first most of those incarcerated there were political prisoners—anyone who opposed Hitler—including Catholic priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (gypsies), and conscientious objectors. After Kristallnacht (a pogrom in 1938), more and more Jews were arrested and sent to Dachau, where they did slave labor, often working on armaments.

The tour in English, led by a wonderful interpreter named Rafaela, was so wonderful, especially since I was traveling alone. First, Rafaela emphasized that Dachau is now a memorial site where we come to honor those who suffered and died there. Like any sanctified place, there is no eating or smoking on the grounds, and appropriate attire and a quiet demeanor are requested.

The grounds of the enclosed camp are vast. They were once filled with barracks except for an open area where prisoners lined up for roll call twice a day. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dachau served as a model for all later Nazi concentration camps. Essentially, it was a school of brutality and fanaticism for member of the SS who ran it. During its twelve years of existence, more than 200,000 men from all over Europe were imprisoned here and in its numerous subsidiary camps in the outlying area. Though Dachau was not a mechanized “death camp” like Auschwitz in Poland, 41,500 were murdered there.

Rafaela led us through the concentration camp’s notorious iron gate which says in German, Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work will make you free.”). Passing through that gate made me swallow hard, because the only “freedom” Dachau offered was death, and men were literally worked to death.

Survivors of Dachau called it “The lie on the gate.” The reality was that Dachau marked the beginning of genocide, planned by Nazi leaders and carried out on a massive, industrialized scale.

Survivors in Dachau packed into overcrowded sleeping quarters, where seven men had to share two small beds. The bunks were three-tiered, and anywhere from 350 to 800 men slept in a single room crowded with 120 beds. Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Inside the camp, we had a history lesson about how Germany went from being a democracy to a dictatorship in just months. As Hitler and the Nazi Party took power, the nation’s constitution was abolished. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to a fair trial were revoked. It reminded me that the freedoms afforded to us by democracy are not to be taken for granted or lost because of apathy.

History and the Politics of Hate

The grounds of the enclosed Dachau camp are vast. They were once filled with prisoner barracks (all destroyed except for historic recreations so that visitors can witness the cramped conditions), and an open area where the imprisoned men were lined up for roll call twice a day—morning and evening.

Large signs at Dachau show WWII-era photos. In this one, Dachau prisoners are lined up for roll call. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rafaela described how roll call sometimes lasted for hours if the number of prisoners present didn’t match the number on the roster. Sometimes dead corpses had to be dragged out for the endless counts. If someone was missing, everyone stood motionless outside until the person was found. Sometimes roll call lasted all night, and people often died from exposure to the elements.

My tour group stood on the gravel-paved site of the roll calls. It was early February and semi-overcast with a slight breeze, and I was cold even though I was wearing a down parka, a wool hat, and gloves. I can’t imagine how the men felt with their bare heads shaved, wearing only thin shirts and trousers and clogs made of canvas. Survivors reported they got cramps in their toes from trying to keep the loose shoes on their feet while they were running.

The Dachau Museum included extensive information regarding the lives of the men imprisoned there, including everything from music in the camp (including choirs and an illegal orchestra) to medical experiments performed on live inmates. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We also toured the “bunker,” the euphemism for the prison, which also acted as the center for torture and detention. Our small group walked in silence down the Bunker corridor, and our shoes on the cement echoed, sounding like harsh SS jackboots in the hall of cruelty. We passed various types of cells, including hunger cells, total-darkness cells, and a vertical “coffin” cell too small to sit or lie down in. There were even cells for SS men who had discipline problems or were too lenient on the prisoners.

One of the more famous prisoners held in Dachau’s prison was Georg Elser, who tried to blow up Adolf Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels in 1939. He was kept alive so that Hitler could mock him after he won the war, but when it was apparent to the Germans that they were losing the war, he was executed in Dachau just 20 days before liberation.

The crematoria were built in summer of 1940, after prisoners from countries other than Germany were arriving at Dachau and the camp’s mortality rate increased. About 11,000 bodies were cremated here. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If Dachau’s prison and the torture center (in the large and gripping museum) weren’t enough to sober me up, Rafaela led the group to the area where we saw the camp’s crematoria—so familiar looking if you’ve seen any Holocaust-era photographs or documentaries. They epitomize the evil of extermination camps—which Dachau was not—although with our guide’s help, I realized that any concentration camp has massive fatalities due to starvation, overwork, murder, and rampant dysentery and disease.

Next, I was shocked to learn that Dachau had a gas chamber. Rafaela did not lead the group into the building with the gas chamber, but she gave us what little information there is about it while we stood outside. The gas chamber is disguised to look like a shower room and some accounts claim that it was never used to kill anyone, just that it was for training SS officers who would later be posted to extermination camps in the East. Other scholars think the gas chamber was used just once; still others say two or three times. Regardless, not viewing the gas chamber is always an option. Indeed, only a handful of people on our tour, including me, walked into this ultimate tool of evil. It was sterile, and did appear like a shower room. There were holes in the ceiling, where there once were mock showerheads—but instead of water they flowed with prussic acid poison gas, called Zyklon B.

I did not take a photo of the gas chamber. I did not linger. Perhaps some people could feel the dead. I could not, though I could feel my own anger and fear at the disastrous consequences of state-sanctioned hatred, hyper-militarism, and racism.

The first memorial at Dachau was this sculpture, known as the “The Unknown Prisoner,” a bronze by Fritz Koelle. It was erected on April 29, 1950 (the fifth anniversary of the camp’s liberation) north of the old crematorium. ©Laurel Kallenbach

During the Nazi regime, Dachau was termed a “protective custody” camp. Meaning, I suppose, that it protected those of the so-called “Aryan race” from those who believed in peace not war, from those who spoke out against tyranny, from homosexuals, from those of Jewish or Slavic or Roma or African cultures.

Why subject myself to the pain of witnessing the relics of inhumanity? When I was 16 year old, I wrote a lengthy research paper for my Honors English class about the literature of the Holocaust. I remember having a dream while I was writing it: an image of a single flower poking up its slim shoot from the trampled-down soil in a Nazi concentration camp. I knew the next morning that the title of my paper was meant to be “A Flower Grows in Auschwitz.”

The flower is a symbol of hope amidst hopelessness, of a sliver love against an empire of hate. I’m not nearly so idealistic as I was at 16, but I do cling to the idea that nothing good comes from suppressing the vicious, ugly side of human nature. Yet, if we acknowledge that we have the capacity for extreme evil, we also possess the capacity of unshakeable love.

Near the crematoria, which is in the back of the Dachau site, are several churches where people of faith can seek solace. Our tour guide pointed out the Jewish Memorial, the Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel, the Protestant Church of Reconciliation, and the Russian Orthodox Chapel as places individuals could visit after the tour. Then our somber group ambled back toward the camp’s entrance to the  International Monument, the place where people have created art to express the lesson that something like this should never happen again. (However, it’s no secrets that atrocities occur in locations around the world, including prisons and detention centers in the United States.)

Art and Remembrance

Except for the crematoria, most structures on the stark grounds of the former Dachau concentration camp appear fairly mundane at first glance. Birds swoop from the trees; cars drive by on roads at a distance. But Dachau’s artwork shatters any sense of normalcy. At the end of the tour, Rafaela led us to Dachau’s International Monument, a place of art, where people come to pray, meditate, and remember. “Never Again” is the place’s mantra.

The visceral bronze sculpture by Holocaust survivor Nandor Glid ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Monument is dominated by a huge bronze sculpture of skeletons caught in barbed wire, designed in 1967 by Yugoslav artist Nandor Glid, a Holocaust survivor. Though a solemn quiet reigns over the Dachau Memorial Site, Glid’s sculpture screams of the horror of this place. Visceral, it’s impossible to deny, and it epitomizes the horror of this place.

I gulped back tears and walked from end to end of the massive sculpture. The closer you stand to it, the less you can see of anything but those skeletons looming against the sky. I zoomed in on smaller details of the memorial art through my camera lens: empty eye sockets, finger bones that look like barbed wire.

There’s also an art installation showing the various prisoner badges that imprisoned people were forced to wear. The triangular cloth insignias, worn on the shirt, labeled each man according to his so-called “crime.” (People could be arrested for something as minor as graffiti or saying something against the Nazi regime.)

In the Dachau Monument is a piece of art recalling the triangle badges that marked every prisoner after 1937. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Red was for political prisoners, yellow was for Jews. Blue marked immigrants and purple labeled pacifists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Black was the badge for “asocials” including Roma people (Gypsy), hobos, and prostitutes. Green marked “professional” criminals. Pink was worn by homosexuals. A dot below the triangle meant that the prisoner was to receive extra punishment in the form of hard labor.

Rafaela pointed out that the art installation does not depict the green, black, or pink triangles because the monument was created in 1968 by the International Prisoner Committee that represented former political prisoners. It honored only the categories of prisoners from “recognized” persecuted groups at the time, which were only those who were persecuted for political, racial, or religious reasons.

I also paused to contemple at the “Never Again” memorial, where those words are carved in five different languages. Ashes taken from the Dachau crematorium on Liberation Day were ensconced in the memorial.

The “Never Again” memorial. Those words are carved in five different languages. Ashes taken from the Dachau crematorium on Liberation Day were ensconced in the memorial. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Liberation of Dachau

The first Nazi concentration camp was also one of the last that was liberated—on April 29, 1945. Nine days later, on May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe was over.

According to Rafaela, when U.S. troops arrived in the area, the first thing they noticed was a putrid stench coming from a train full of dead bodies. Prisoners from other areas of Germany had been locked in the cars for 21 days without food or water. The Americans were also appalled by stacks of naked corpses, stripped because their clothes were needed for the constant influx of prisoners evacuated from other concentration camps. Enraged American soldiers executed several of the remaining SS guards, some of whom were 14 or 15 years old. By this stage of the war, the only German males left to conscript into the army were boys.

The soldiers brought civilians of the village of Dachau to the garish site. Rafaela told us of accounts that those villagers and families of the SS officers, who must have turned a blind eye. When they saw the emaciated corpses, they knew that their home town would forever be reviled for its link as a place of evil.

Preparing for a Visit to Dachau

I doubt there is a way to prepare yourself for a descent into an emotional pit like that of Dachau, but I promised myself that I could leave at any time if I felt overcome by emotion. I was armed by general knowledge about the place, but even so, there were surprises—facts or emotional reactions I hadn’t anticipated.

A number of times while I was walking through the place, especially in the museum, I felt myself hiding behind the detached mask of intellectualism or behind the façade of “neutral” journalist. Somehow it was easier if I used “researching my novel” to shield me from emotional breakdown.

Dachau Concentration camp opened in 1933 and was liberated by American soldiers in 1945 ©Laurel Kallenbach

I believe it requires a detached mindset to visit Dachau, or any “dark tourism” site such as the 9/11 Memorial Site, Wounded Knee in South Dakota, the Manzanar War Relocation Center (California), or the Memorial for Peace & Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration (Montgomery, Alabama)

I do believe it’s important to pay attention to your body and emotions—and to know when enough is enough. Dachau will always carry the residue of horror and violence, of torture and sadism. Going there confronts us with emotions we prefer not to acknowledge in ourselves: revulsion, fascination, disbelief, hatred, fear of people who are “different.”

There’s also the danger of succumbing to much grief and sadness. The Visitor Center film pointed out that people survived because of “brotherly love.” Prisoners worked 14-hour days on a scant ration of thin soup. Under those conditions, it was hope that kept people alive.

It was those tales of humanity that were more emotional for me. I anticipated the inhumane treatment and the torture, but I wasn’t prepared for the acts of compassion. Reading about people who sacrificed themselves to save others opened the cracks in my emotional armor. Those stories were the things that made me cry.

But it’s also possible that stories of heroism and kindness can be overshadowed by the enormity of the cruelty and depravity in Dachau. The history of Nazi concentration camps is proof that humans have an unlimited capacity to inflict suffering. So, it’s important to be conscious of when you’ve had enough of visiting Dachau. Enough is trul enough. I see no virtue in enduring beyond what your own nervous system can cope with.

However, those who can bear to confront difficult emotions while standing in the exact location of hell on earth become witnesses for truth. We cannot hide from history—or from the fact that our species is capable of unspeakable evil—but we can walk into a place like Dachau knowing that there is some cupful of good, even in the midst of an ocean of evil.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Barbed wire at the Dachau Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

5 Unforgettable Flavors at Frankfurt’s Christmas Market

Frankfurt Christmas Market in Römer Square ©Laurel Kallenbach

Thousands flock to Frankfurt’s annual Christmas Market, centered in historic Römer Square   ©Laurel Kallenbach

Germany’s Christmas Markets overflow with treasures and gifts of every size and price, and Frankfurt’s massive Christmas market has acres of goods for sale in booths and huts (called stube) located in its historic old town.

In fact, the market spreads over three locations: Römer Square, Paulsplatz, and the Main Quay. The Christmas market was first mentioned in writing in 1393, and was a place to buy foods and other necessities to stock residents through the winter.

Shopping Frankfurt’s festive market requires stamina, and that’s one of the reasons why the foods sold here are so enticing. Cookies, candies, roasted almonds, sausages and currywurst, and spiced wine served hot (called glühwein; pronounced “glue-vine”) beckon browsers to sample along the way—or to take home Christmas delicacies.

Yes, Virginia, there is a German version of fruitcake. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Yes, Virginia, there is a German version of fruitcake. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There’s so much to see at the Frankfurt Christmas Market that the organizers offer one-and-a-half-hour bilingual tours in German/English focusing on “Stories, Sweets, and Savouries” (6€–14€, weekends only. You can buy tickets at the Tourist Information Römer).

I had a delightful time on the tour, which focused on Römer Square, the heart of the market—and the prettiest area (it was reconstructed to its medieval glory after it was almost completely leveled by bombs during WWII). I learned a great deal about Frankfurt’s delectables (details below) and rode on the vintage merry-go-round (somewhat less appealing to me because it played country-western songs).

An antique carousel was a favorite of the kids. ©Laurel Kallenbach

An antique carousel was a favorite of the kids. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The highlight of the tour included climbing to the roof of St. Nicholas Church for a panoramic view of the entire market and the Frankfurt skyline.

Looking down from this bird’s-eye view gave me new perspective. The throngs of people were dwarfed by the half-timbered buildings and City Hall, the wide expanse of cobblestones on Römer Square, and the statue of the goddess Justice. (It was also a chance to take a break from the mad crush of shoppers!)

And to cap off the tour, my mostly German-speaking group warmed up with a hot cup of mulled wine and admired the 100-foot-tall spruce Christmas tree decorated with 5,000 lights and 500 red ribbons.

1. Glühwein

Steamy mugs of glühwein ©Laurel Kallenbach

Steamy mugs of glühwein ©Laurel Kallenbach

A mug of this hot, mulled wine, either white or red, really takes the chill off the evening, and the wooden huts (called stuben) that serve this holiday beverage are the hub of the Christmas market. Around glühwein stands, people stand ten deep around tables, especially after dark when the temperatures get colder.

I loved how the steamy cup of glühwein fogged up my glasses and warmed my hands. In Frankfurt, the glühwein mugs are in the Bembel style, the blue-floral pattern that dates back centuries.

There’s glühwein made of either red or white wine. In Frankfurt, I had a slight preference to the white, but naturally I tried them both. They packed plenty of alcoholic punch, so I never ventured to have one with a shot of liquor in it.

Visitors share a steamy mug of glühwein at the Frankfurt Christmas Market. The toast concludes the “Stories, Sweets, and Savories” guided tour. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Visitors share a steamy mug of glühwein at the Frankfurt Christmas Market. The toast concludes the “Stories, Sweets, and Savories” guided tour. ©Laurel Kallenbach

2. Lebkuchen (German “gingerbread”)

Decorated lebkuchen cookies ©Laurel Kallenbach

Decorated lebkuchen cookies ©Laurel Kallenbach

The saucer- or plate-sized decorated cookies you see dangling from booths are usually made of lebkuchen, although you can also buy small cookies as well. The fact that people liken lebkuchen to gingerbread sets up an expectation that left me disappointed—because there’s no ginger flavor.

However, the Nuremburg-style lebkuchen I sampled—made from a centuries-old recipe—was chewy, dense, and far less sweet than gingerbread. It’s a blend of nutty, spicy, citrusy flavors, and it’s glazed with sugar and has a communion-wafer bottom.

I confess that I sampled my lebkuchen at my hotel and washed it down with some Kessler German sparkling wine. I was more than satisfied.

Honey mead ©Laurel Kallenbach

Honey mead ©Laurel Kallenbach

3. Mead (honey wine)

The double-decker Wagner Honey House at the Frankfurt Christmas Market specializes in bee products—from beeswax candles that smell so sweet you almost want to eat them to honey wines and propolis and bitters (a digestif) sweetened with honey.

Upstairs is a tasting room where you can sample the many varieties of mead, made by fermenting honey and various fruits or spices. (Mead is possibly the world’s most ancient alcoholic beverage.)

Because I’d had my fill of glühwein, I opted for the bitters, which have a palate-cleansing effect and a refreshing taste—especially if you’ve had a few too many sugary sweets.

4. Frankfurt Bethmännchen

Tiny cookies, called Bethmännchen, are a Frankfurt specialty. Made of marzipan rolled like a little ball and decorated with three half-almonds, the treats have a poignant story. In 1838, a banker’s family, whose surname was Bethmann, served a new sweet, decorated with four almonds for each of the four sons. When one of the sons died seven years later, the cookies used only three almonds.

Brenten cookies, Kethmännchen, and Bethmännchen marzipan cookies, Frankfurt ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bethmännchen, kethmännchen, and Brenten cookies, Frankfurt.  Photo©Laurel Kallenbach

Since then, Bethmännchen have become a Frankfurt tradition and are widely sold throughout the Christmas Market—along with many other shapes and sizes and flavors of baked goods, including stollen, schaumküsse (chocolate-covered marshmallow concoctions that looked like giant Mallomars), and more.

With its backdrop of half-timbered houses, historic Römer Square is in the Old World heart of the Christmas Market in Frankfurt, Germany. This hut sells Bethmännchen marzipan cookies, a local specialty. ©Laurel Kallenbach

With its backdrop of half-timbered houses, historic Römer Square is in the Old World heart of the Christmas Market in Frankfurt, Germany. This hut sells Bethmännchen marzipan cookies, a local specialty. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

5. Roasted Almonds (Mandeln)

Many stuben in the Frankfurt Christmas Market sell fresh-roasted almonds, but the one that reeled me in with its sweet-savory smells was Eiserloh’s, which sells candied almonds in dozens of flavors.

The flavors of almonds are as colorful as the Eiserloh booth ©Laurel Kallenbach

The flavors of almonds are as colorful as the Eiserloh booth.  Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

Choices range from white-chocolate hazelnut, orange ginger, chili pepper, Bailey’s Irish cream, Nutella, pineapple, Red Bull, white-chocolate coconut, Bacardi Gold, eggnog, raspberry balsamico, and more.

The people behind the counter let me taste half a dozen flavors until I settled on my two favorites: chocolate mint and white-chocolate hazelnut. I left with a colorful cone of each, perfect gifts to take back home to the States.

I came away from the Frankfurt Christmas Market footsore—but happy with all the fabulous flavors I enjoyed there.

For more information: Germany, The Travel Destination

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted December 2014

Read more about Germany’s Christmas markets:

A hut selling local sausages Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

A hut sells local sausages. Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Dresden’s Frauenkirche: from a Church in Ruins to a Rising Phoenix

The famous photo of Dresden after it was bombed in February 1945.

The famous photo of Dresden after it was bombed in February 1945.

Grainy black-and-white photos of Dresden, Germany, as an ash-covered, bombed-out city with piles of burned corpses in the streets are all that remains of the days and years of annihilation that followed after the WWII bombings in early 1945. Or are they?

I write this on February 13, 2017, Dresden’s Memorial Day, on which the city commemorates February 13, 1945, the day the British and American allies began the bombing of this historic city, sometimes called “Florence of the Elbe River” because its church domes, spires, and ornate palaces and opera house are reminiscent of Florence, Italy.

The bombing turned much of the historic Old City to rubble. Few structures withstood either the bombs or the ensuing inferno generated by about 650,000 incendiary bombs the Allies dropped on the city within 48 hours. The human toll was about 25,000 people, mostly civilians.

The ruins of the Church of Our Lady in Dresden, taken in the 1960s.

The ruins of the Church of Our Lady in Dresden, taken in the 1960s.

Some say Dresden was an “innocent” city with no Nazi ammunition factories or tactical advantage for the war.

Others, including my guide for the “Slaughterhouse Five” tour (more about that in my next post), point out that in 1934, Dresden welcomed Hitler with open arms when he attended an opera at the Semper Opera House in the Theatreplatz. In honor of the fuhrer, Dresdeners renamed their theater square as “Adolf-Hitler-Platz.”

In addition, there seem to have been some logistical centers located in Dresden during the war. Apparently, armaments were stored there, and military training was done in or near the city. These may have been for defense of the city—in times of war, it’s always difficult to know where to draw the line. And after almost six years of the war, the Allies were desperate to finish it, although Dresden’s destruction may not have played much of a part, other than as a display of terrorism.

The Symbolism of the Church of Our Lady

Dresden's Frauenkirche current reincarnation. Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

Dresden’s Frauenkirche’s current reincarnation. Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

The primary symbol of Dresden’s destruction is the Lutheran Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), which had one of the largest domes in Europe. Several hundred people took shelter from the bombs in the church’s underground vaults and crypts.

The church withstood the bombing for two days, but ultimately, the dome collapsed on the morning of February 15 from extreme heat; the temperature surrounding the church was estimated at 1,830°F. Reports say the church pillars became red-hot and exploded and that the outer walls shattered. More than 5,000 tons of stone plummeted to earth. The people in the basement evacuated just in time, only to succumb to the firestorm outside.

For decades, Dresden remained a city of rubble. The East German communist government cleared the streets of tons and tons of rubble, and decided to leave the two pieces of wall that stood as a memorial to war. After German Reunification, plans began to rebuild the Frauenkirche. In 1993, archaeologists numbered every stone in the Frauenkirche ruins and photographed each stone’s location before clearing the area for reconstruction. “Rebuilding by replacing every stone that still existed into its original place became the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle,” says Grit Jandura, PR manager for Frauenkirche Dresden.

Visitors light candles for peace inside the Frauenkirche sanctuary. Photo courtesy Frauenkirche Dresden

Visitors light candles for peace inside the Frauenkirche sanctuary. Photo courtesy Frauenkirche Dresden

The church was completed and re-consecrated on October 30, 2005. It now stands as regally as ever, dominating the Neumarkt Square, with the statue of Martin Luther in front standing upright again. (During the bombing, he was “knocked out of his shoes” as the German expression says; only his feet on the pedestal were intact.)

War and Peace

The rebuilt church is now a monument to peace and reconciliation after the horror of war; perhaps the wounds have healed, yet the painful scars from the bombing still exist, says Jandura. I found a number of stories about the church’s resurrection to be especially touching. For instance, on the altar is a cross made from three iron nails taken from the ruins of England’s Coventry Cathedral, which the Germans blitzed in November of 1940. Both Dresden and Coventry suffered a similar tragedy during WWII, and with this gift, they are forever linked.

The bent and melted tower cross was discovered in the rubble. Photo courtesy Frauenkirche Dresden

The bent and melted tower cross was discovered in the rubble. Photo courtesy Frauenkirche Dresden

Also, the tower cross that crowned the Frauenkirche’s dome was bent and melted after it fell. It is now displayed inside the sanctuary as a reminder of the destruction, but the new tower cross atop the church was donated by the people of the United Kingdom, the country that dropped the first bombs. The Englishman who insisted on crafting the metalwork for that cross, free of charge, turned out to be the son of one of the pilots who bombed Dresden.

There are those who say that the restored Church of Our Lady is lovely, but it’s no longer a harsh reminder of wartime attrocities. “Many wonder how they can teach children the cruelty of war now that the Frauenkirche is whole again,” says Jandura.

Outside the Frauenkirche during my February 2017 visit was a temporary art installation of upended buses by Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni that serves as a monument to contemporary wars. In Aleppo, people have been using buses as barricades against sniper bullets.

An art installation titled "Monument" recreates an image from the Syrian civil war: buses propped up vertically in an Aleppo street as a barricade against sniper fire. The artist is Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni. In the background is the Frauenkirche. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

A 2017 art installation titled “Monument” recreates an image from the Syrian civil war: buses propped up in an Aleppo street as a barricade against sniper fire. (This view shows the underside of the buses.) The artist is Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni. In the background is the Frauenkirche. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

 

The bus art installation—raw, mechanical, and titled “Monument”—was quite controversial, yet it was a new testament to war’s horrors. In Dresden, where the Frauenkirche has returned to “normal,” it’s unsettling to remember that the world is still filled with violence and hatred, and that wars rage on.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Flowers and notes are attached to the grillwork on the underbelly of the buses. The note says, "Respect, Tolerance, Courage, Change, Responsibility, We Are Humans ©Laurel Kallenbach

Flowers and notes are attached to the grillwork on the underbelly of the buses in Neumarkt Square. The white, paper note says, “Respect, Tolerance, Courage, Change, Responsibility, We are (all) Humans.” Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Warm Up with a German Sipping Chocolate in Dresden

I loved sipping this rich Schokoccino—dark chocolate and espresso—at Camondas chocolate shop. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I loved sipping this rich Schokoccino—dark chocolate and espresso—at Camondas chocolate shop. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In Dresden’s Old Town, if the temperatures chill, if a cold wind blows, or if rain sweeps down from the skies, it’s time to duck into the Camondas chocolate shop.

I was walking back to the Hyperion Hotel Dresden am Schloss from the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), and Camondas’ signs for drinking chocolates enticed me. I succumbed and stepped into a warmly lit fantasyland of chocolate.

Camondas sells sweets from around the world. As I browsed through cigar-shaped chocolate from Cuba and espresso-filled chocolate from Italy, I removed my gloves. The Venezuelan dark chocolates prompted me to unwrap my scarf. At the Swiss display I took off my hat. By the time I discovered the section of Saxon chocolates—Dresden is the capital of Saxony—I had unzipped my coat and decided to stay awhile.

A display of mouthwatering truffles at Camondas ©Laurel Kallenbach

A display of mouthwatering truffles at Camondas ©Laurel Kallenbach

I turned my attention to the counter and decided to focus on which chocolate drink I should order—and there were many. Because I was struggling to read the German menu board, I asked a woman behind the counter what was in one of them. Her English was good, but to make things easier, she handed me the menu printed in English.

Even with descriptions I could understand, I still had trouble deciding between a Nougat Blast (hazelnut nougat with melted milk chocolate, whipped cream, and a sprinkle of chopped hazelnuts on top), the Chocolate Cream Liqueur (containing a shot of creamy chocolate liqueur made from brandy that matures for a year in oak casks), a dark-chocolate ice-cream shake, and the Schokoccino (an aromatic espresso and thick, creamy cocoa topped with chocolate chips.) They all sounded divine, but this last concoction won out.

Yet there was another decision to make: Would I like to add spice on top? The choice of spices was eclectic: rosemary, curry, ginger, cinnamon, chili, nutmeg. I went with cardamom, paid my 4.75 €, and claimed a seat at one of café tables lit by a candle.

Commemorative chocolates in honor of Dresden's reconstructed Frauenkirche. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Commemorative chocolates in honor of Dresden’s reconstructed Frauenkirche. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Before my drink arrived, I occupied my time admiring more chocolates: There were local chocolates in wooden boxes stamped with an illustration of the Frauenkirche. There were truffles, organic sweets, and chocolates filled with matcha green tea.

Soon the chocolate lady arrived with my glass cup of aromatic chocolate. She told me it was lightly sweetened but that I could add the natural sugar on my table to suit my taste buds. Then I was alone with my Schokoccino.

The cup lay sensually before me. I sniffed a dizzying mix of sweet cardamom and rich, loamy cacao. Its consistency was like warm lava, and I didn’t want to disturb the natural swirl of the darkest-of-dark chocolate too soon.

A display of chocolate made in Saxony ©Laurel Kallenbach

A display of chocolate made in Saxony ©Laurel Kallenbach

While soft jazz played in the background, I beheld the luscious cup. Eventually I was ready and took my first sip. I was rewarded with a flavor so deep I could practically sink into it.

I felt like I was in Vianne Rocher’s magic candy shop in Chocolat, one of my favorite books (and films).

I sat for a long while, watching the people who came into Camondas chocolate shop and listening to the melody of German vowels and consonants. I never did add any sugar; sipping that Schokoccino was the perfect bittersweet ending for my last night in the enchanting Old Town of Dresden.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Dresden, Germany:

Flavors of Beschle chocolate from Switzerland ©Laurel Kallenbach

Flavors of Beschle chocolate from Switzerland ©Laurel Kallenbach