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May 2001

Sad Reputation

The wonderful things not automatically associated with the name Dachau

The town of Dachau still buckles under the weight of a heavy past. The name alone—more than half a century after American soldiers liberated the prisoners of the town’s concentration camp—has not lost a bit of its horrifying ring. Well into the 1990s, the name was considered so despicable that the Goethe Institut, when opening its new headquarters on Dachauerstrasse, took as its mailing address the name of a tiny side street behind the building.

For me, the name Dachau conjures up a very different set of images from those that are used to describe the town in travel guides. When I hear the name Dachau, I think of the quaint, old Bavarian town that lies some 16 km northwest of Munich. I also recall the colorful, rural townspeople described by the noted Bavarian writer Ludwig Thoma and the many pleasant hours spent at the Dachauer Volksfest with its crude amusements and ox race, which, owing to safety considerations, no longer takes place. I think of the beautiful pastoral paintings of the Dachau School and, more specifically, the one that hung in my uncle’s dining room that made the hideous stuffed peppers I was served there palatable. These are innocent moments that I experienced as a child growing up on a farm in the Dachau Moors. Today, the scent of the little birch forest where peat was cut still lingers in my nose. I remember the steep, shaded street leading to Karlsberg, up which I—in winter as well as summer—pushed a women’s bicycle far too heavy for a child, only to wedge myself onto a crowded bench at the Catholic school on Schrannenplatz, where a girl with long, thick braids sat in front of me.

I find it is unjust to think of Dachau only as the site of Nazi crime. At the turn of the century, it was an artist’s town of international renown, comparable to the Barbizon painters’ colony at Fontainebleau—where Rousseau, Corot and Millet discovered landscape painting—or to the north German artists’ colony in Worpswede. Dachau had actually experienced a large influx of notable Bavarian artists two hundred years earlier, when Munich painters made the lovely countryside around the town, Dachau’s small-town life and its rural population the subjects of their works. In fact, many of Karl Spitzweg’s and Wilhelm Leibl’s most beautiful motifs were taken from this area.

A visit to the Bezirksmuseum (District Museum)— a red building directly across from St. Jacob’s Church—is almost like reliving the rustic past of the region. Paintings of wealthy farmers wearing shiny black shank boots, tight-fitting cumberbund-style lederhosen, floral-embroidered silk jerkins with heavy silver chains, half-length frock coats and typical flat hats—not pointed Tirolean ones—give insight into their confidence and pride. Ludwig Thoma, one of Bavaria’s most important writers —who, at age 27, became Dachau’s first lawyer—gave many glowing accounts of the wise-cracking, enterprising Bavarian farmer in his works, which include Die Lokalbahn (1902), the Lausbubengeschichten (1905) and Josef Filser’s Briefwechsel (1912), which are the common property of every Bavarian. Daily interaction with the Dachau townspeople in his law practice obviously provided Thoma with rich material for his novels.

That Dachau became a hub for artists and painters at the end of the 19th century was due to plein-air painting, which had become widespread in France, and to landscape painting, which has become fashionable in England. Academic painters left Munich’s city air for the lush banks of the River Amper. Open-air painters were awestruck by the colors of the Dachau Moors and the dramatic Bavarian sky. When Adolf Hölzel opened his painting school in Dachau, women flocked to it because they were not allowed to attend classes at the academy. The “Malweiber” (“painter-wives”), to which they were often disrespectfully referred, marched through the countryside, with easels, palettes and brushes in hand, furthering the cause of women’s emancipation.

Hölzel’s school and Ludwig Dill’s artists’ association, founded in 1897, made the town even more attractive to artists whose fame extended far beyond the borders of Munich: Lovis Corinth, Max Slevogt, Max Liebermann, Franz Marc and Emil Nolde all sojourned in Dachau. Joseph Thors and Charles Tooby came over from England. It was said that every tenth person on the street was a painter. The townspeople welcomed artists with open arms—they did, after all, bring in a certain amount of revenue in room and atelier rent. Children earned some pocket money by hauling easels and painting utensils out to the moors. Art schools prospered—“in summer, the Dachau landscape is dotted with the parasol of a painter every 50 meters,” remarked one local contemporary artist. “One might stand in line for several days just to get a glimpse of a particularly popular location,” he explained. “Some motifs were painted so often that professors—who tired of the subject matter—refused to make corrections to these works.”

Numerous artists, with the help of their architect and sculptor friends, built houses. Though these were more modest than the grand villas of their Munich contemporaries Lenbach and Stuck, they possess a timeless, irresistable charm. A walk down Herrmann-Stockmann-Strasse in south Dachau or a stroll through the Mitterndorf quarter, where the estate of the celebrated painter Ignaz Taschner stands, conjure up the atmosphere of the period. Taschner was a multifaceted artist: he created the “Märchenbrunnen” (Fairy Tale Fountain) in Berlin, a silver service for the crown prince of Germany and the Schiller Memorial in St. Paul, Minnesota. Some of the artist’s works can be viewed at the Dachauer Gemäldegalerie in the town’s center, one floor above the Stadt-sparkasse and directly across from the Zieglerbräu.

The outbreak of World War I severely impeded Dachau’s development as an artists’ colony. The Dachau School lost its élan and its status as a progressive trendsetter in the arts.

The first known record of Dachau dates from AD 805, several hundred years before Munich was founded (1158). The town’s name derives from the word “daha,” signifying loam. Brickworks have played a role in the town’s economy since 1300. Dachau Palace was built with bricks made at local kilns, as was the palace at Schleissheim. In order to transport the brick, a canal was dug between Dachau and Schleissheim in 1691.

Dachau also played a key role as a residence of the Wittelsbach family, which acquired Dachau Castle in the 12th century. Since then, the town has enjoyed the status of a market town and, to this day, a large farmer’s market as well as a smaller market on Tuesday are held in the old town. In the 16th century, a grand four-wing Renaissance palace was built atop Dachau’s Schlossberg. Today, only one wing, boasting a splendid banqueting hall, survives, which was renovated in 1715 by Josef Effner, Dachau’s native son. Court architect to Maximilian Emanuel, “the blue Elector,” Effner built not only Schleissheim, but parts of Nymphenburg Palace as well. The grounds of Dachau Palace afford a wonderful view of Munich and even on a clear day the Alps. It is no wonder the Wittelsbach’s chose this location.

The main attraction of the palace is its elaborate wooden coffered ceiling, which is considered to be the earliest example of a Renaissance ceiling in the Italian style in Bavaria. It has a long history: after the palace was largely destroyed, by Napoleonic troops who were stationed there in the early 19th century, and the remaining tract was used as a grain silo, the ceiling was brought to Munich and deposited in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in 1868. There, it was forgotten until over one hundred years later, when, thanks to the persistence of Dachau’s residents, the ceiling was restored and reinstalled in the palace (1975-79). This work of art, made of maple, oak, limewood and pine, weighs 22 tons and measures 12 by 34 meters.

Until a few years ago, the palace café was a not-so-hidden treasure, known far and wide for serving the finest cakes and tarts around. Visitors could never quite become “visually satiated” at the sight of the café’s opulent vitrines or by observing friendly waiting staff carrying overflowing trays through elegant palace hallways to the terrace overlooking the court garden. The ambience may be as wonderful today, but, unfortunately, the café has since changed hands and the cakes about which everyone raved are no longer of the same high quality. It is, however, still worth a visit.

In order to experience this old Bavarian town, visitors are advised to park at the foot of Schlossberg near Thomawiese. Should you wish to travel by means of public transportation, take the S2 train to Dachau. From the station, it is about a ten-minute walk to the foot of Schlossberg. From there, you will climb enchanting stairways, weave through tiny cobbled alleys and cross tiny bridges and picturesque streets. You can’t get lost—the palace and the steeple of St. Jacob’s Church are always there to guide you.

The entire old town of Dachau is one large listed ensemble. The broad Marktstrasse, at the edge of Schlossberg, is an attractive old town avenue lined with colorful gables, the homes of wealthy inhabitants, St. Jacob’s Church, the so-called Palais Minucci (now a museum) and the Zieglerbräu restaurant and inn, whose beer garden—flanked by the Ignaz Taschner Fountain—provides an inviting rest stop. The Zieglerbräu also offers seating on its south-side terrace, which boasts a splendid view of the Alpine foothills.

An excellent example of the integration of modern and historic architecture is found next door to the restaurant/guesthouse: the new Rathaus (town hall), which stands proudly yet inconspicuously between the old town hall and the 17th-century Lebzelterhaus. When you look to the south through the passages and terraces here, and you see Munich, small and unassuming in the distance, perhaps you will understand why the people of Dachau described in Thoma’s novels are so sure of themselves.

Without this confidence, residents of today’s Dachau would have a hard time dealing with the horrid past associated with their hometown. In the “new” Dachau, the past is not cast aside. The Amper town continually seizes the opportunity to remind the world that the atrocities of the Nazi era must never be repeated. This past shows, too, how closely culture and crime can coexist—with what ease beauty can turn to horror.

>>> BY CAR:
A8 toward Nürnberg, then A99 toward Stuttgart. In Oberschleissheim, take the B471 to Dachau.
>>> BY TRAIN: S-Bahn service operates every 20 minutes
>>> FURTHER INFORMATION: Dachau Tourist Office (08131) 845 66 (in English)
>>> MUSEUMS: Bezirksmuseum, Augsburger Strasse 3 Dachauer Gemäldegalerie, Konrad-Adenauer-Strasse 3. Opening hours for both museums are: Wed.–Fri. 11–17, Sat., Sun. and holidays 13–17. For information on upcoming exhibitions, call (08131) 56 75-0.

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