"One day it occurred to me that it had been many years since the world had been afforded the spectacle of a man adventurous enough to undertake a journey through Germany on foot. After much thought, I decided that I was a person fitted to furnish to mankind this spectacle. So I determined to do it. This was in March, 1878." Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad



Dachau is a nice little town just outside of Munich that has been forever tainted by the concentration camp that was located on the edge of it.

 entrance to the camp

It was built in 1933 as the first concentration camp and used mainly as a labor camp for political prisoners. Compared to an extermination camp like the notorious Auschwitz where over 1 million prisoners were killed, there were a still impressive yet much smaller 32,000 killed at Dachau.

famous gate "work makes you free," later adopted by other concentration camps

What makes Dachau so important is that it was where the people who ran the entire concentration camp system were trained. Most of the cruel innovations for Hitler's mass killing originated at Dachau.

The Father and I first visited Dachau back in March at the end of our epic two week trip to Nuremberg, Berlin, Dresden, Prague and Munich. It was an awfully cold, freezing rain sort of day. I visited it again with my mother or our way back from Oberammergau last week. This time it was also cold and rainy. But perhaps the terrible weather is a fitting setting for the solemn, ugly place that the Dachau concentration camp is.

Grandma and Penelope in the middle of the roll call area

The first time we went we just used the audio guides provided at the camp which were mediocre, but the second time we went with a personal guide from Munich Walking Tours. (Only 2 private guide companies are allowed to guide inside the camp due to the sensitive nature of the tour.) It was a long tour (over 4 hours), but the guide was amazing and provided tons of helpful background info. Thankfully Penelope slept for over half of that!

old train tracks leading to the entrance to the camp; old ammunition factory and former S.S. offices behind

When we first arrived in Germany almost a year ago, we were surpirsed that there was practically no mention of WWII or Hitler around. We quickly learned that it was a taboo topic. Besides the Nazi rally grounds we visited in Nuremberg and the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, this was the only blatant proof of WWII that we've encountered. While we were at the camp we learned that every German student and military personnel is required to visit Dachau or another concentration camp, and both times I went the place was swarming with military officers.

memorial to the prisoners killed at Dachau

Many of the buildings, like the bunkers, at Dachau are reconstructions as they were torn down after the war when it became a refugee camp. The main building where the prisoner registration took place is mostly original. Now it houses a museum about the camp and a movie with footage of how it looked when the villagers discovered it after the war. The footage is gruesome and difficult to watch.

the room where the prisoners were registered and stripped of all their identity

It's unbelievable to imagine that the inhabitants of Dachau had no idea what was taking place right in their backyard. The outside of the camp of was lined with trees and there was a mile zone around the camp that no villager was allowed to penetrate. After the war, the Dachau residents were forced to come see the camp and then help dig graves and bury all of the dead left behind.

the two reconstruced bunkers

Dachau is also known for the ghastly medical experiments that were conducted on the prisoners at the camp by Dr. Sigmund Rascher, mostly concerning hypothermia. The first three bunkers at one point were dedicated to medical experiments.

inside the reconstructed bunker looking out to the foundations of the other bunkers at the camp

When Dachau was first built in 1933 the living conditions were difficult but not terrible. The prisoners had their own bed and locker, they had some food, and the work centered around working in the factory or the construction of the camp buildings.

bunks when the camp first opened

Quickly, however, the conditions went from bad to abysmal as it became increasingly overcrowded. There was little to no food, the work was back-breaking and non-sensical (moving piles of rocks back and forth), the punishments were crueler, and there were typhus outbreaks. 

bunks in 1944

The prisoners were forced to keep their bunkhouse in a pristine state of order and cleanliness or face punishment. When they weren't standing at attention for long periods of time for roll call or laboring long hours outside, they were scrubbing the floors and windows of their bunkhouse several times a day for fear of harsh punishment.

The people who were put in charge at the camp as prison guards were from the dregs of society, illiterate and often former criminals themselves. They were trained to see the prisoners as sub-human, making it all the easier to inflict harsh punishments and torture the prisoners. They came up with hundreds of ways the prisoners could be punished. You could be punished for your shoes being too dirty (you didn't clean them) or for your shoes being too clean (you didn't do your work).
multiple layers of defense

crossing over to the crematorium

The crematorium was located at the edge of the camp and surrounded by trees to keep it hidden from view. During the first few years the camp existed, most prisoner deaths were due to overexhaustion.
the old crematorium

Later on, when the conditions of the camp grew worse due to overcrowding, most of the prisoners died from typhus outbreaks, malnutrtion as well as exhaustion. While Dachau was open from 1933-1945 over 32,000 prisoners died, but almost half of those deaths occured during the last couple of years of operation. 
the much larger new crematorium

The new, larger crematorium had a disinfection room and a shower room (a.k.a. gas chamber), but there is no evidence that it was ever used for mass killings like those at Auschwitz. It is thought to have been used on a more experimental basis, and then as a model to go by at the extermination camps.
the "showers"

I can't begin to describe how eerie it was to walk into the gas chamber and peer into the ovens used for cremation.
the ovens next door

Both visits to Dachau were very somber and a bit unnerving, but I am glad that this type of memorial exists. I hope that people continue to learn from the atrocities that were committed here and at other camps so that our society doesn't go down that dark path again.

1 comment:

  1. creepy. Thanks for informing us, though.

    Hope all is well!