Visiting Dachau concentration camp in Germany

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This weekend I took a very last-minute trip to Munich, staying there for only a single day. I spent the morning visiting Dachau, the first concentration camp established by Nazi Germany.

Although I have read a fair bit about the Shoah and have visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, as well as the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, this was my first time visiting a concentration camp. The experience left me deeply emotionally affected, but in a way that was not immediately evident until later on. I’ll talk more about that towards the end.

(Note: I will not share any graphic images in this post, but I will discuss some of the things I saw in text form.)

Getting to Dachau

Dachau is only 40 minutes by public transport from Munich. From München Hauptbahnhof (Munich Central Train Station), take the S-Bahn to Dachau Bahnhof, then transfer onto the 726 bus and get off at the stop named “KZ-Gedenkstätte”, which stops directly in front of the visitor centre. You can buy tickets from the driver, or it may be easier to just purchase them via the DB Navigator app.

One thing to note: In Germany, you need to board the bus at the front door and either show the driver your ticket or buy a ticket from them. This is the complete opposite of Switzerland, where you need to buy your ticket from a machine before boarding the bus, you can use any door, and the driver does not sell any tickets.

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On the S-Bahn to Dachau train station.
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On the 726 bus within Dachau.

Despite being home to unimaginable horrors, Dachau is still a regular town in which people live and work. There are parks and playgrounds. It looks like any other town in Germany. As the bus approached the concentration camp, I could not help but wonder how the people in Dachau feel about living here, day after day. Is it more or less normalized? Do they live with shame about what happened? Are they extra vigilant about preserving that history?

First impressions

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At the entrance of Dachau is the visitor centre, along with a cafe and a bookshop. Although English-language guided tours were available, they were only offered at 1pm, and I could not stay for the afternoon. I was also unable to procure an audio guide because the guy who worked at the audio guide desk didn’t show up to work (??). Regardless, I did feel that I had a highly educational experience simply walking around the camp and reading the exhibit signs closely.

I would allow for at least three hours to visit Dachau–it’s a huge, sprawling compound with a large amount of outdoor space. The exhibit signs are meticulously researched and thoughtfully written. The truth about what happened at this place is well documented, preserved, and laid out for the world to see.

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At the entrance of the camp was a gate bearing the words “Work sets you free”. The same language is used at the entrance of Auschwitz. The one shown here is a replica, as the original was stolen in 2014 and recovered in 2016; it is now on display inside the museum.

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Immediately inside was a large square, where prisoners were forced to gather twice a day for roll call, no matter their physical condition. On the left side was a reconstruction of the barracks where prisoners used to sleep (the original was destroyed shortly after the war). On the right is the former administration building, which now serves as the museum.

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The museum

I spent most of my time at Dachau inside the museum because there was so much information to read and absorb. Warning: some of the content in the museum is very, very graphic.

It’s been about two decades since I visited the Holocaust Museum in DC, so I may have forgotten some of what it was like, but it wasn’t until I moved to Europe that I realized that what I had previously seen and watched about the Holocaust had been relatively sanitized. When I visited the Bern Historical Museum in 2019, I accidentally stumbled upon an exhibit that showed video footage of countless pale, naked dead bodies being tossed into a mass grave at a concentration camp. The way in which the arms and legs of the victims flopped as they were being pushed into the grave was so sick and horrific that it became seared into my memory. I had never seen anything like that before in any book, documentary, or museum exhibit.

The museum at Dachau was the same way. It did not hold anything back. It did not shy away from displaying photos and videos of piles of dead bodies, and it did not use euphemisms to minimize the horrors that had happened. Dachau was not exactly an extermination camp in the way that Auschwitz was — it was first built in 1933 to hold German political prisoners, and gradually expanded during the war to include Jews, petty criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Roma, homosexuals, and even people that were preemptively imprisoned just because they ‘might’ commit crimes.

Over 200,000 people were imprisoned at Dachau over time, and at least 32,000 died. However: just because they were not put through the gas chamber on a massive scale does not mean they were not murdered. Dachau served as a labor camp to support the German war effort. Tens of thousands of people were murdered here as a direct result of horrific working conditions, starvation, diseases such as typhus, physical abuse, medical experiments, and being shot and killed by guards during attempts to escape.

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The museum used to be the administration building, where newly arrived prisoners surrendered their clothing and personal effects, shaved their heads, and changed into striped uniforms. This was also the site of the kitchen and showers.
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“The modernization of society was regarded as a crisis, and evoked fears and resentment. The opponents of modernism rejected the cultural diversity of an open society.” Gee, sound familiar?
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The Nazis used propaganda to present Dachau to the outside world as “an orderly model camp with apparently humanely treated prisoners”. Even the Red Cross was fooled. Hmm, once again, sound familiar?
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The shower area.
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Prisoner’s uniform.
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The day Dachau was liberated by U.S. Army troops. I didn’t take a picture, but to the left of this was an absolutely gruesome photo of dead bodies. I’m sure that wasn’t coincidental on the part of the museum.

There are accounts of U.S. Army service members describing what they witnessed that day. On the march to Dachau, on the train tracks, they found railway cars filled with dead and dying people. When they arrived at Dachau, many of the prisoners were too ill, starved or far gone to even recognize that they had been freed. Hundreds of prisoners continued to die from illness every day even after the Americans arrived. Many people were like walking shells, empty of life and hope, not knowing where to go and what to do. Others beat their former Nazi prison guards to death while the American troops looked the other way.

I once read something very insightful about the book Maus by Art Spiegelman. The person wrote that one of the points of the book was that one did not have to be “resilient” or a “hero” to survive the Holocaust. Many people survived not by being braver or stronger by others, but simply by sheer chance, fate, luck. And surviving the Holocaust did not mean that they were now invincible, superhuman. Often, people are utterly broken by these experiences, and they just… remain broken for the rest of their lives. They will never be normal again, and that is their humanity. I think it is very important to recognize that and to not create myths or expectations around people who have been victims of horrific tragedies.

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The looks in their eyes.
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The original “Work sets you free” door in the museum.

The barracks

The barracks are a reconstruction. Prisoners were forced to sleep in tiny quarters on straw mats. Winters were frigid, and summers were brutal. Infectious diseases spread through the camp like wildfire.

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Poplar trees and memorials

There is a long, wide path lined by poplar trees on both sides, stretching across most of the camp’s grounds. During their breaks, prisoners would gather near the trees to talk and exchange information.

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What the camp used to look like, with an eerie array of barracks.
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There are a couple of churches on the grounds of Dachau, but the most striking one for me was the memorial dedicated to Jewish victims. Most of the structure was underground–when you walk in, first you see this gate:

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Then, inside the dimly lit room, you look up:

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And in that bright circle of daylight, you see a menorah. It is a source of light and hope. Here’s what it looks like from the outside, on the far left.

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The crematorium

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This was the “old” crematorium. It eventually got too small to handle the large number of people that they murdered, so they built a larger crematorium nearby (not pictured).

I’m not going to share any photos from this part because it was really, truly horrible. There are really no words for describing this. What I can say is that when you are in there, it feels different. The horror still lingers in the air. The other visitors and I felt like we could not breathe while we were inside.

The crematorium was a long, flat one-story building that functioned in the style of a railroad apartment. First there was a room where prisoners were supposed to undress. The next room was the gas chamber. The next room was where they gathered the bodies. And the next room was the furnaces.

There is no evidence that the gas chambers at Dachau were used to execute people on a large scale like they were at Auschwitz, though witness accounts do say that they were used on occasion. The system was developed at Dachau and put into practice at Auschwitz and elsewhere. However, the crematorium itself was used extensively. Two to three bodies were shoved into one furnace at a time. Prisoners worked there and cremated their fellow prisoners. There were also hooks on the ceiling beams for hanging people by execution.

After the concentration camp was liberated, the American troops made villagers from Dachau come and witness the atrocities for themselves. They were forced to dig graves for the people who had died. The residents claimed that they had not known about what had happened at Dachau. But how much of that was true?

Aftershock

While at Dachau, I was deeply uncomfortable and unsettled, but I was not emotional.

That evening, however, as I was eating dinner in Munich, a thought suddenly popped into my head: “Fuck, that was horrible. That was really, really awful.” And I was seized by an anxiety that did not go away for a few hours. The world that I was in, the modern Germany of trams and Turkish restaurants and smartphones, did not feel real. The only world that seemed to exist was the one that I had seen that morning.

A few days later, at work, I helped put together an event on the war in the former Yugoslavia. There was a documentary screening and a panel discussion that touched on the atrocities that had been committed during the war. After the event, I left the office, went to a nearby park, and cried.

As long as mankind exists, evil will persist, and history will be doomed to repeat itself. Evil does not win–it will never truly win in the face of good–but for so many, justice comes too late.

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