Some say Dachau memorial gives residents a bad rap

BERLIN — Nearly 60 years after the end of the Holocaust, some residents of the city of Dachau want to close the town's notorious Nazi concentration camp memorial.

That's unlikely. Nonetheless, a brouhaha over the concentration camp at Dachau, which today houses a memorial to the camp's victims, erupted this summer when a right-wing politician told a group of visiting Israeli journalists that he thought the memorial should be closed. City residents, he said, are tired of having to bear the burden of Dachau's guilt.

The uproar sparked by Robert Konopka's comments is indicative of the high sensitivity among Germans — and among Jews around the world — to the memory of the Holocaust.

It also raises the question of whether extremists should be given a platform in respectable media — especially since there is virtually no danger of the memorial closing, according to the its director, Barbara Distel.

The comments by Konopka, a Bavarian Parliamentarian, caused a public outcry when they were reported on Israeli television and in Yediot Achronot, an Israeli daily.

Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, dashed off a letter to the German government. Israelis launched a letter-writing campaign aimed at halting the memorial's closure, oblivious to the fact that no closure plans were bring considered. The memorial actually inaugurated an updated exhibition in 2002.

"We regret that the reports by the Israeli journalists about their visit to Dachau raised a baseless impression among the Israeli and American public," Distel said in an open letter dated Aug. 13, after receiving concerned mail, mostly from Israel and the United States.

"My colleagues at the Dachau memorial and the survivors," she said, "would prefer a more critical evaluation of the challenges associated with this work."

Konopka said he expects it would be easier to push for the camp's closure after the last survivors die, according to Israeli television reporter Liran Dan.

In his meeting with the reporters, Konopka, who represents the far-right Republikaner Party, suggested there was broad public support for closing the camp.

"He said, 'Listen, 50 years have passed and the people from my town have suffered enough because of our name,'" said Nurit Felter, a freelance journalist who attended the meeting with Konopka. "He told us he once went to Holland when he was about 12, and they didn't let him in because the car's license plates were from Dachau. He said they told him, 'You are from this horrible city so you are not welcome.'"

Felter was one of several Israelis participating in an exchange program organized by the Journalists Network. The program started eight years ago with an exchange between Israeli and German reporters, and today several other countries participate in the program.

The Israeli journalists interviewed several people on the streets of central Dachau who expressed sentiments similar to Konopka's.

"Lots of them agreed they are quite sick of the reputation they have and really think they want to shut the place down," Felter said.

Resentment against Jews still occasionally surfaces in Dachau. One local politician said that Lufthansa, the German airline, should name an airplane after Dachau to help the town's reputation.

Others in Germany have complained about having to pay reparations to Holocaust survivors.

In an ironic twist, homes located near the former Nazi concentration camp now are considered prime residential real estate because they are adjacent to the camp's quiet, green grounds, Holocaust survivor Max Mannheimer told the visiting journalists.

Konopka suggested building apartment houses on the site of the concentration camp, Dan said.

Distel, who has worked at the site for more than 25 years, said there are absolutely "no plans to close or destroy the camp memorial," adding, "that does not mean there are no idiots around."

The encounter that sparked the controversy was organized at the behest of the Israelis, who asked to meet with Konopka.

Several years ago, during another visit to Germany by Israeli journalists, a meeting planned by the hosts between right-wing youths, left-wing youths, a priest who worked with them and the Israelis turned out to be a flop. A few left-wing youths showed up, but the right-wing neo-Nazis instead chose to shout slogans at the Israelis from outside the meeting place.

This time, after the exchange group watched a film exploring the dark side of Dachau's political landscape (in which Konopka was featured), they asked to talk with him.

Konopka was eager to meet the Israelis, said Michael Anthony, the founder and organizer of the exchange program.

Konopka told the reporters he has never taken his 15-year-old child to visit the memorial "because there is nothing he can learn from this place," Felter recalled. "He said what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians is the same as what the Nazis did to the Jews."

Such comparisons have become commonplace in Germany today, where there is an ongoing debate about where legitimate criticism of Israeli policy ends and anti-Semitism begins.

As far as the Israelis were concerned, Konopka clearly crossed the line.

"Part of our group began to attack him," Felter said. "But I told them, 'Let's listen to him, let's hear what he has to say.' And I don't think most of the things he said even demand a comment. There is no way in the world we can change what he thinks."

Overall, Felter said, the Israelis journalists found their reception in Germany positive. "I, for one, couldn't see any signs of hatred toward us," she said, but added, "it is not a very easy country."

This fall, a group of German journalists will travel to Israel, where "they will learn with their eyes and not only by what they read and see on TV,'' Felter said.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.