Dachau Concentration Camp │ Germany
After some quality time spent with family for a couple of days, we made our way to Dachau concentration camp. We had thoroughly enjoyed a “little bit of home” and therefore got onto the road later than we had originally planned. At this stage in our two-month European road trip, we knew that this was just the norm for us, and we would make up the time as we went.
Eight hundred thousand tourists now visit the former Dachau concentration camp each year. It is known as somewhat of a “pilgrimage”, and most visitors describe this experience as sobering and moving. We absolutely couldn’t agree more. Walking around this former concentration camp is a very surreal experience!
We arrived quite late in the day, and therefore there were barely any tourists around. This just added to the somber-feeling that fell over as as we walked through the various areas. Since we arrived quite late, there were no more guided tours available. Instead, we walked around and read the information boards by ourselves. Admittedly, I think we would have both been very interested in listening to a guided tour, but alas, we arrived too late to have that option.
Walking the Same Path
As we entered the former concentration camp, we saw an inscription presented in many languages: “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because of their fight against National Socialism unite the living in their defense of peace and freedom and in reverence of human dignity.”
This monument was created under the assumption that the visitor would take the same path that prisoners had once walked, entering through what used to be the Jourhaus. This entrance that the prisoners were forced to use was to be the entrance that survivors would later re-enter as free people.
Dachau concentration camp was the first of the Nazi concentration camps opened in Germany, intended to hold political prisoners. It is located on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory northeast of the medieval town of Dachau, about 16 km northwest of Munich in the state of Bavaria, southern Germany. Opened in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler, its purpose was enlarged to include forced labor, and eventually, the imprisonment of Jews, German and Austrian criminals, and eventually foreign nationals from countries that Germany occupied or invaded. The Dachau camp system grew to include nearly 100 sub-camps, which were mostly work camps or Arbeitskommandos, and were located throughout southern Germany and Austria. The camps were liberated by U.S. forces on 29 April 1945.
The camp was divided into two sections: the camp area and the crematorium. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, including one for clergy imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime and one reserved for medical experiments. The courtyard between the prison and the central kitchen was used for the summary execution of prisoners. The camp was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire gate, a ditch, and a wall with seven guard towers.
Above, “Prisoners’ barracks in the Dachau concentration camp.”(source of image ) – 3 May 1945: View of prisoners’ barracks soon after the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, Bavaria, Germany.
Below, That same ground on which those barracks once stood.
This is a reconstruction of the barrack rooms that existed between 1933 to 1937.
Prisoners lived in constant fear of brutal treatment and terror. Detention including standing cells, floggings, the so-called tree or pole hanging, and standing at attention for extremely long periods. There were 32,000 documented deaths at the camp, and thousands that are undocumented. Approximately 10,000 of the 30,000 prisoners were sick at the time of liberation.
In Dachau, as in other Nazi camps, German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners, including high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments, and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners were also forced to test methods of making seawater potable and of halting excessive bleeding.
Hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently disabled as a result of these experiments.
The Bunker (Camp Prison)
Within the concentration camp, the bunker was the center of terror. In the cells individual prisoners were punished by being imprisoned for weeks or months, often in the dark and with insufficient food. These prisoners were especially exposed to torture and maltreatment by SS guards. An unknown number of them were murdered in the Bunker or driven to suicide.
“Four months in the bunker, four months detention in darkness,
four months with hot food only every fourth day!
Time crawls by. I only count every fourth day,
and I am amazed when the food comes and wakes me up.
I am in a state of trance.”
Erwin Gostner, July 1938
There were a number of screens projecting quotes such as this onto the walls of these cells. It certainly helped to create a deeper, and more personal, connection to what had happened in these rooms. We were completely quiet, and somber, as we walked this long, haunted hallway. It was bone-chilling!
In the courtyard of the Bunker, the SS executed prisoners, applied corporeal punishment or performed the so-called “pole-hanging”. The SS inserted wooden beams between the interior pillars onto which hooks were attached every 40 to 50 centimeters. The prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs with a chain and were forced to stand on a footstool. The chain was mounted onto one of the hooks and an SS man kicked away the footstool. This hanging was one of the most severe and dangerous punishments meted out in the concentration camp. If the prisoner survived the punishment, he often suffered long-lasting damage to wrists and shoulders.
As I sat on the steps leading to this courtyard, and read about these horrific stories, my heart just ached. I had learned about all of this in high school history, but being here, and reading about it in the place where it actually happened, was something else.
There are several religious memorials within the Memorial Site, which is open to the public. Being the last few tourists walking the grounds, we were able to take a few quiet moments around these memorials. Above and Below, The Catholic Memorial.
This area of the grounds was covered in loose pebbles, so we parked Eli under a tree and explored in separate directions. He was happy to sit an read his Dachau information pamphlet with mommy and daddy each within sight. Since there was no one around, we felt quite safe to wander around and let Eli enjoy the cool of the shade. Although there was an eerie feeling around the area where the barracks were located, under these trees it was very calm and peaceful.
The Jewish Memorial
The Jewish Memorial, designed by Frankfurt architect Hermann Zwi Guttmann, is located just east of the Catholic Memorial. The building is made out of basalt lava and the floor of of the prayer room is six feet underground. The 18-foot walkway leading down to the underground room is outlined by an iron fence which is reminiscent of the barbed wire fence around the concentration camp.
The underground room was designed to represent the hiding places places of the Jews who tried to escape persecution by the Nazis. There were over 10,000 German Jews in Berlin who managed to hide from the Nazis throughout the war. This memorial represents hope and salvation, after descending into the depths of despair.
At the bottom of the ramp, there is an iron gate across the entrance, shown in the photograph below. The bars of the gate are chaotic there is a star of David on each side of the gate. Over the gate (shown below) is an inscription in Hebrew which reads “Give them a sign of warning, eternal one! The peoples should learn that they are mortals.”
We were one of the last few people to leave the Dachua former concentration camp ground that afternoon. This was definitely an eye-opening, and very raw, experience for both of us. Being right there, on the very ground, where such horrific treatment had been given to so many human beings, was saddening and surreal. We are glad that we made this stop in Germany, but it definitely left us quiet for the next portion of our drive.