Project Germany: The past, the present and peace

Dachau guide confronts evil daily

by Rita Forbes and Valerie German

Confronting the evidence of consummate evil at the Dachau concentration camp memorial was almost more than we could bear. After a visit of just three hours, we left exhausted and nauseated.

But Josef Heimann has spent countless hours at the site, leading tours for the last seven years. He guides groups through the site, explaining what occurred there with honesty, empathy and compassion.

At the age of 18, Heimann came across the book Die Mächtigen und die Hilflosen (The Powerful and the Helpless) by Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, a survivor of Dachau. Compelled to learn more, Heimann found more books to read and applied to become a tour guide at Dachau.

In the nine months of training, he read books by historians and former prisoners, met with Holocaust survivors, studied public speaking and rhetoric, and completed a practicum.

During the school year, he often guides groups of German high school students through the Dachau site. Most of the schools in southern Germany, required by law to visit a concentration camp site with their students, come to Dachau. Many foreigners also visit, especially in the summer months, which are so busy that Heimann could easily give tours every day.

But he limits himself to about one tour a week. “I am trying to keep it down to a level so that every tour is something new again for me,” he said. “I don’t want to get too used to it; I don’t want to get numb and then dull.”

Josef Heimann guides visitors to Dachau through the World War II German concentration camp system.
Josef Heimann guides visitors to Dachau through the
World War II German concentration camp system.
Heimann is a guide at the camp and tries to impart
to visitors the historical significance.

Heimann thinks that most of the people who join his tours come with the right motives, with a genuine interest in learning about what happened at Dachau. That does not hold true for everyone, though.

“There certainly is this type of ‘tourism’ which focuses a lot on attractions of atrocity,” he said. “A few months ago, I was called by the secretary in our office. He asked me if I could do a tour for a Chinese group, but they only had 20 minutes, and they only wanted to see the gas chambers. This is a kind of Holocaust tourism which we do not want here. That’s why I turned down that request.”

A 20-minute tour of the gas chambers would not do justice to the victims of this place. In a country where public denial of the Holocaust is punishable by imprisonment or fine, respecting the dignity of the survivors is paramount. And having met survivors of camps such as Dachau, Heimann has a personal obligation toward them.

“They are impressive people,” he said. “In our wealthy, civilized and secure world, we can’t imagine what happened to them. Even if we know the facts, it’s still not possible to imagine what it means to be in an overcrowded rail wagon with 150 other people who know that they are probably being transported to their final destination.”

Some survivors choose to speak publicly about their experiences. But some remain silent.

“It was so bad, that not talking about it probably protects them,” Heimann said.

For his part, Heimann gives a voice to those who suffered at Dachau and other concentration camps. In helping to ensure that these memories are not forgotten, he seems to have found his calling. Next year, finished with his university studies, Heimann will begin a career as a high school history teacher.