Monday, March 9, 2009

Dachau Concentration Camp

When we decided to go to Munich, we all had a little discussion about what everyone wanted to do while we were there. On everyone's list: Dachau Concentration Camp. For me, personally, I feel that if given the opportunity, everyone should visit a concentration camp. It is such a sad, but very real, part of our world's history that people need to see. However uncomfortable and depressing it may be, I felt it was my duty to take some time out of my day and visit the camp. I may not ever get the opportunity to do so again.

Before we left for Munich, I did a little research on Dachau: how to get there, prices, hours, tours, etc. I was pretty excited to see Dachau in particular because in 8th grade I did a school project on it. It sounds stupid, but I find it pretty amazing that 7 years later I would be touring the very camp I presented to my class. The actual camp is now called the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. It is open year round, and absolutely free to enter. I loved the fact it was free. They could have very easily charged 10 Euro to enter, but they don't. This is something that people need to see, need to experience, and no one should be turned away because they cannot afford it. Entrance is free, guided tours are only 3 Euro, and audio guides are only 2 Euro. If you want to hear more detailed information on the camp you can pay the cheap fees for the tour or audio guide. If you can't afford it, you still have free and total access to the entire camp, you just have to do it on your own. I think it's great that anyone can enter through the gates and experience Dachau.

The English tours are held three times throughout the day. We decided on our train ride over that we wanted to take a guided tour. I had read some reviews online, and the writers highly recommend taking a tour because you learn a lot more from the knowledgeable guides. Our tour guide was pretty nice and really knew his stuff. We started off in the museum, the only heated part of the camp, and learned some basic stuff. He showed us a map of Europe that had all of the concentration camps, including subcamps, that existed during the Nazi reign. Standing before this giant map was pretty intense. There were probably close to 200-300 dots on the map that represented camps. In the museum we got to see a camp uniform, the patches that the prisoners had to wear, and photographs taken by SS guards. He gave us a little background information on Dachau too. Dachau was a working camp for men only; there were no women and children. The prisoners were forced to work, sometimes to their death, making things for the war, governement, etc. It was the first concentration camp in Europe and it was originally used for criminals. When Hitler took over he started using it for people who opposed his ideas and went against him. As time went on, it was being filled with criminals, homosexuals, gypsies, Jews, etc. Made for only a few thousand people, by the end of the war, it was holding over 60,000.

After we got the brief tour of the museum and a little information on Dachau, we went outside to have our tour. The first thing you see at the camp is the main gate. When it was actually up and running, Dachau only had one entrance/exit, everything else was surrounded by electric fences. Built into the iron gate entrance are the words "Arbeit Macht Frei", which means something along the lines of "work will set you free". It was kind of surreal seeing that because in my presentation in 8th grade, I remember showing a picture and telling my class about the gate. After we saw the gate, we immediately headed over to the barracks. When the U.S liberated Dachau they were forced to quarantine and eventually destroy all of the barracks because of the disease that had run rampant in them. There are no original barracks left, just the foundations remain. When the camp was made a memorial site, they built two replica barracks that are perfect copies of the original. Inside these barracks are three different rooms. The first room shows what the barracks looked like when Dachau first opened, just for criminals. Each barrack room held about 50 inmates and they slept comfortably in their own beds; an entire barrack could hold about 200 people. The next room shows what the barracks looked like once the war started. These beds were far smaller and about 80 prisoners were held in one room; full barrack capacity was now at about 300. The third room represented Dachau at the height of the war. The beds, referred to as "endless beds" didn't even look like actual beds. It was basically one giant platform that covered the length of the entire room; two more platforms were stacked above it like bunk beds. At it's population peak, a room like this in a Dachau barrack, originally meant for 50, held over 250 people; putting nearly 2,000 people in a barrack meant for 200. I remember seeing the last room, with the endless beds, and just having this total wave of sadness wash over me. The room was probably 20x20 and I couldn't even visualize over 200 people trying to sleep in that one place. You can't help but want to cry when you remind yourself that although it is hard to visualize, it did in fact happen.

After the barracks we walked by the memorials for the victims. One is a giant iron statue that shows people entangled in the electric fences and another that showed the ways the victims at Dachau were labled. Both were incredibly powerful to see. After walking by those, we made our way over to the other side of the camp. This pathway passes right in between the foundations of all of the barracks. There were hundreds of foundations left behind that stretched as far as your eye could see. At the end of the pathway was the Catholic Memorial for the victims of Dachau. Within close proximity of this memorial were the Russian Orthodox, Jewish, and Protestant Memorials. As we approached the Catholic Memorial, you could see a man kneeling infront of it with flowers. It was just a small reminder that this still affects people today, almost 65 years later.

We then made our way over the Krematorium area. This area was for guards only and totally off limits for prisoners. In order to gain access, you had to walk through a gate in the middle of the electric fence. He explained that these fences killed on contact. Along the entire length of the fence was a giant ditch. The Nazis put this here so prisoners were slowed down if running and attempting to make an escape at the fence. When trying to escape, they were either killed by guards from watch towers or by the electric fence. Our tourguide also mentioned that some people simply couldn't bear to live anymore and would try to "escape" knowing that it meant a quick death. There are no accounts, written or from survivors, that indicate that anyone ever was able to escape from Dachau.

Once we got into the Krematorium area, I got this horrible feeling, a huge pit, in my stomach. I kind of expected it though. You hear about it in all of your history classes, you read about it in books, but nothing really prepares you for seeing these things. Dachau has two crematoriums. The first was used when death tolls weren't incredibly high. As the war went on, people were dying at much higher rates from disease, starvation, the cold, abuse, etc. The single crematorium, one that was actually used in the real world for cremating one person at a time, could not handle the large numbers anymore. They were forced to build another bigger building, that housed an industrial sized crematorium. Inside this second crematorium was a gas chamber. Interestingly enough, Dachau was never considered an extermination camp. Hitler made sure that none of these camps resided in Germany. He wanted them to be in the countries that he occupied so it would be easier to transport the foreign people to them. So, knowing this, many wonder why Dachau had a gas chamber in it. The most popular theory is that since Dachau was one of the first concentration camps, it acted as a model for others. When Germans were trained to work in concentration camps, they were trained to use gas chambers, and some were trained at Dachau. With that said, survivors have reported that the gas chamber was not regularly used like at extermination camps. However, they did say that it was used on individuals or small groups on occasion. Our tour guide gave us all of this information before walking in. I really wanted to cry at this point, and I hadn't even stepped inside.

First part of the building was the gas chamber. I can't really describe a single emotion that I felt when I walked through it. It was a mixture of things: anger, sadness, frustration. How could anyone do this to a fellow human being? Above the entrance of the "shower room", was a German phrase that referred to the importance of cleanliness. I couldn't help but be so incredibly angry by the cruelty of that, the trickery of getting these people into the room. I entered into the room and sadly enough, it does look like a giant shower. There are drains in the floor and things that appear to be shower heads on the ceiling. Along one wall are these two grates that turn into a slot; this is where the poison, Zyklon B, was slipped into the room. At this point, I was feeling nauseous. Adding to the horrible emotions, were these other people in the gas chamber at the same time. These people had the audacity to act in an entirely disrepectful and disgusting manner when they were in the room. They were taking pictures of eachother standing under the shower heads like they were dying. Then they would take a group picture against a wall, all smiling with their thumbs up. I have never wanted to punch someone more in my entire life. How could anyone make light of a situation like that? How can you find anything remotely funny about the events that took place in that room? In any other circumstance, I would have gave them a HUGE piece of my mind with some choice words. However, I didn't feel right doing that. That room is a sacred place that is meant to be respected and honored, not a place to voice my anger towards these boys. I would have only added to the nonsense that was taking place. I opted to keep my mouth closed. They did, however, get quite the staredown as I exited.

The second room in the building was the much bigger crematorium. You could tell that this room and these ovens were designed for a lot of use. About 40,000 people were documented as having died at Dachau (the number is believed to be far higher). The ovens were used to dispose of their bodies. Our tour guide told us that the ovens were used so frequently that the Nazis ran out of coal a few months before Dachau's liberation. When the US soldiers liberated the camp they found a stack, in the buildings last room, of nearly 2,000 bodies. Standing in the room was such a hard moment for me. On one of the walls, was a picture of that room three days after the liberation of Dachau. The entire thing, floor to ceiling, is filled with bodies. The picture shows shocked and disgusted Dachau residents looking into the room of bodies. Many residents of Dachau tried to say that they had no idea what was taking place in the camp, that they thought conditions were bad, but had no idea that people were being murdered in mass numbers. I don't know if it was the intention, but I got a powerful message with that being the end of the tour. There was hell on earth in Dachau, and just a few hundred feet away, the people of Dachau were going about their daily lives. How could you NOT know what was going on? They were only lying to themselves when they said they had no idea. U.S soliders forced the residents of Dachau to come view the bodies, so they could see what happened when they stood idle, what happened when they did nothing. And that is the message I got out that room. When you stand there and do nothing, you are not innocent, you are just as guilty as the perpetrator. Maybe if people had stood up and helped, things would have been different. Dachau should never have happened, the whole Holocaust never should have happened.

I'm a thinker. Always have been, always will be. I analyze things until they cannot be broken down any further. My mind was racing about 600mph the entire tour. I kept on imagining what it was like to be a prisoner there. I kept trying to mentally put myself in their shoes. I think this is why Dachau may have been so powerful for me. I became engrossed in the experience and I think I got alot of it because of this. In the barracks, I just tried to imagine laying in those beds, with 200 other people around me. I would have been exhausted, hungry, and cold. How can someone not be thankful for the little things after experiencing something like this? Things I take for granted, like having my own bed, food, heat, etc., were unheard of at Dachau. When we were taking the 5 minute walk to the Krematorium area, my feet and fingers went completely numb. It was about 30 degrees out and I believe I already had a fever running; it wasn't a very pleasant experience. Everything in me wanted to complain, but then that "thinker" inside my head was like, "Hannah...are you kidding me?" How could I ever complain about being cold at Dachau? How could I, in my boots and a jacket, no matter how lightweight they were, complain about the cold? The prisoners at Dachau wore paper thin shirts, pants, and wooden clogs in the spring...and the winter. Jackets were not allowed and they could not keep their hands in the pockets for warmth. The same pathway I walked was where roll call was taken everyday. For 45 minutes, in sun, rain, wind, or snow, the prisoners were forced to line up as their numbers were called. Sure I was numb, sure I was sick, but this was nothing compared to what these poor people went through day after day. I am genuinely glad the weather was freezing. For me, it totally made the experience that much more powerful and humbling.

I don't think there is anything I could say that can fully convey my experience is a whole. My visit to Dachau was nothing short of powerful, mind-blowing, and entirely humbling. I am so glad I went. You can't help but be moved and even changed by the visit. It made me take a good look at myself, recognize the things I take for granted, and try to develop a new way of thinking. Is there one main thing I took away from my Dachau visit? Definitely. It may sound cheesy, but kindness, caring for one another, cannot be optional...we must do it. Dachau reminded me of what happens when we do not look out for eachother, when hate takes over. You cannot deny we are all different. I may look different than some, speak different than some, believe different than some, but at the end of the day I am a human being just like everyone else. That simple fact alone is reason enough to care for the person next to you. Hate gets you nowhere.


  1. Dear young lady,
    You writes: There are no accounts, written or from survivors, that indicate that anyone ever was able to escape from Dachau.
    My father, Oldřich Sedláček, was in Dachau since 1939 as a political prisoner, and in Nov 1943, He and a German sculptor escaped from a Dachau subsidiary camps across Bodam lake into Switzerland. I can give you more information, because my father died when I was two, in 1949. His health was damaged in Dachau. I also have a book in Czech "Almanach Dachau issued in 1946. Kind regards,
    Jiří Sedláček, Czech Rp.

  2. Dear Jiri,

    If you read this, could you please contact me? I am very interested to learn more about your fathers imprisonment in Dachau. Earlier I have written a short biography about a Czech political prisoner, for the Book of memories in Memorial Site Dachau. He was one of the men who took the initiative for the book Almanach Dachau. My name is Jos Sinnema and you can contact me via