history / Travel

Throwback Thursday: Dachau

This is not going to be my usual uppity post. (And it will also be a bit longer as I don’t want to skimp this time.)

That would be because I am writing about an unusually somber subject, which I considered not writing about at all simply because I don’t want to try and make it into some sort of tourist spectacle. However, I think it can be avoided. For those of you who also read Sean’s blog, this is probably going to sound a bit redundant as he has already visited this location and written a fairly comprehensive summary. But, here’s my take.

So…what is Dachau?

The entrance gate. Inscription reads: Arbeit Macht Frei--Work will set you free.

The entrance gate. Inscription reads: Arbeit Macht Frei–Work will set you free.

Speaking in modern terms, it is a town maybe 20 minutes via metro from Munich, easily accessed and quite cheerful from the bits I saw while cruising through on a bus. I didn’t exactly head that way to see the town, however, and neither do most of the tourists who flock there daily. They go to a site a bit further out from the center of town–to the remains and recreations of Dachau concentration camp, one of the first concentration camps established under Hitler’s rule, and the only one to remain open during all 12 nightmarish years.

I am not Jewish. Neither am I Greek, Russian, Catholic, Roma, or a descendant of any political prisoners or others who may have been forced into one of these camps during that time. However, I fully believe that in order to save the future from similar episodes, we must always remember and respect the past. So that is what this trip was about for me–remembering the horrors that happened and paying respects to those who were so tragically caught up in it.

Dachau was opened in 1933, originally as simply a camp for political prisoners. At first, torture and hard forced labor weren’t really part of the deal, but it didn’t take long for those aspects to come alive, particularly once ethnic cleansing flared up throughout Germany and the camp was flooded with Jews, outspoken Christians, Russians, etc. For a time the camp became absolutely horrific with meal portions down to a minimum and work increased to a maximum. Eventually SS soldiers in charge of the camp decided to lighten up a hair–I want to emphasize that conditions were still deplorable–in order to “preserve” the population of the camp so that they could do more work. Prisoners, aside from working in fields or mechanics, were forced to be obsessively clean in every aspect of their lives, forced to stand long hours in line-up, given poor meals, suffer torture, given no real medical aid (and worse, were often experimented upon) and unfortunately often murdered with little to no reason. Dachau does indeed contain gas showers, which I will get to later. After liberation finally came to the camp in 1945, it was temporarily used to hold SS soldiers who were going to be put on trial, then occupied by Germans from Eastern Germany who needed to be resettled, THEN it was a temporary base for the US army, and finally it was shut down until its reopening as a memorial. The history of the site is long and varied.

The most overwhelming sensation I got from being at the camp, starting the moment I entered, was that of a bizarre sense of beauty. The camp is located in the middle of a wooded area, surrounded by a creek and, even during its functioning days, had pathways lined with trees. The day I chose to go was bright and sunny, and like all of Germany that week, the trees were aglow with bright colors. I was immediately assaulted with inner conflict for thinking what a pretty area it was while at the same time recognizing what a source of misery, despair, and fear it would be for some.

The first room where prisoners were taken upon entering the camp, and stripped of all belongings and frankly of their identities.

The first room where prisoners were taken upon entering the camp, and stripped of all belongings and frankly of their identities.

I chose to rent an audio tour to assist me through the camp, which provides some first-hand accounts of life there as well as information about the modern-day (re)construction and design of the memorial. I entered and, after reading several signs dedicated to the liberators and listening to a bit of the history of the memorial’s opening, made my way to the museum, which is where I spent most of my time. (I think if you were really detailed and read every sign, went in every space, and listened to every part of the audio tour, you could spend a good 5-6 hours there. I spent about 3.5-4 due to time limits.) The museum begins in a building where prisoners were originally brought upon arrival to camp and stripped of their belongings and clothing, bathed, shaved, and given prisoner’s uniforms after their information had been taken. Signs with personal stories and cases of belongings now line these rooms. Information on torture can also be found in the bathing rooms, which were often used for that as well (hanging prisoners from the ceiling by their wrists was a very common procedure there, for example.) Further information is given on incredibly detailed signs and posters about daily life, political history, particular prisoners, torture, death, and so on. The pictures that accompany this information are often heartbreaking, and some of the horror stories made my stomach churn to read. What’s sad is that the museum even mentions that conditions there were lighter than camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Sign giving an example of the attitudes of the SS Soldiers working in the camp towards prisoners.

Sign giving an example of the attitudes towards prisoners.

Execution yard--firing wall.

Execution yard–firing wall.

 

From the museum I made my way out back, to a long low building in a courtyard. The yard itself was often the last thing many prisoners saw, as it was an execution yard. The building itself was a prison within the camp, full of tiny cement cells. I can only imagine how awful it would have been to be detained there, and even entering now in modern times the temperature dropped sharply. Prisoners were held there for various reasons and suffered greatly during their stay, with a few exceptions who received special treatment for whatever reasons.

Long hallway of the prison.

Long hallway of the prison.

Parts of the prison corridor are now blocked off to visitors.

Parts of the prison corridor are now blocked off to visitors.

 

I continued on to the recreated barracks–the originals were torn down long ago, and are currently marked by long raised cement walls in rectangles. However, one building has been rebuilt right down to lockers and what the beds would have looked like. The beds were of simple wood structures, and although perhaps spacious enough for one person, by the time of liberation the camp had become incredibly overcrowded–built to hold 6,000, I think the final count of prisoners crammed in there was something over 20,000. How that is even possible, I don’t know.

The cement outlines of where barracks once stood, stretching far into the back of the photo.

The cement outlines of where barracks once stood, stretching far into the back of the photo.

Exiting the barracks puts you more or less at the head of a long, wide avenue where prisoners often met to exchange news during whatever bouts of free time they might have. Lined on either side by the outlines of old barracks, at the end awaits a series of three memorials. Dead center is one for Catholics, to the left, Protestants, and to the right is one for Jews. All were built for the purpose of remembrance. (Off in another area is one for Orthodox Christians, which I unfortunately did not have time to visit along with the Protestant memorial.) The Jewish memorial was the most striking to me. To enter one descends a slope lined with a fence reminiscent of barbed wire into a cavernous black cylinder make from volcanic stone, barren within except for candles and a small plaque. As awful as this sounds, it seems appropriately…desolate. You do not easily forget why you are there, shall we say. The Catholic memorial contains a raised platform with a very non-traditional Christ on a Crucifix, expressing much more agony than we are usually shown.

I wanted to linger, but unfortunately had a bus and subsequent train to catch, so I had to skip  a few aspects of the site in order to see the roughest (mentally speaking) area–the buildings where prisoners’ bodies were taken to burn, or where live prisoners were often gassed in false “showers”. These buildings can only be accessed by a path leading away from the main area of camp. Originally Dachau had only two ovens to burn corpses, but as the number of prisoners dying increased, an entire other building was constructed with 4 more, along with chambers to hold the corpses until they could be burned, and a gas shower room which one can enter and stand in today–one of the eeriest feelings I have ever had. There’s really not much I can say to describe these rooms…it’s almost impossible to imagine what happened there because the mind refuses to believe it. I kind of just…stood there, staring at each room, trying to take it in, but not really being capable.

Building that housed ovens and gas chambers.

Building that housed ovens and gas chambers.

To be honest I can’t really bring myself to post pictures of the actual ovens or gas chambers, it just feels too much like exploitation even though it would be purely for documenting my trip and sharing an experience. Even writing this is making me feel overly somber again. However, I’m glad I took the trip, no matter how unsettling it was. Never forget, as the memorial tells us.

A sculpture on display in the room of remembrance in the museum that I found incredibly poignant.

A sculpture on display in the room of remembrance in the museum that I found incredibly poignant.

I promise my next post won’t be nearly as long or depressing, and I thank those of you who made it to the end of this one. I struggled to not write too much while still wanting to share and remember my experience on this one.

-B

3 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Dachau

  1. This was beautifully written and very respectful. I appreciate you writing about it, even though you struggled with how to share the experience. Thank you.

  2. Becky-
    This was a beautiful beautiful post. I had the opportunity to visit Dachau when I was in Munich a few years ago. Like you, I felt obligated to go. It was a Saturday in early spring and many of my friends had “fun plans” for the day. You made it through more of the museum than I did. I hit the bathing rooms and became literally physically ill at what I was reading. I never saw the prison. But I did see the rest of the camp and couldn’t agree more about the contrast between how pretty the surroundings are and the horrors that went on there. Auschwitz has the same feel, just X100000000. Beautiful city, the camp itself is ironically beautiful (brick buildings, fantastic architecture in actual Auschwitz. Birkneau is just rubble now). I still get chills whenever I think about these two places. There are images from both burned in my mind. But I am so glad I went and had the opportunity to pay my respects to the victims at both places.

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