This past weekend, I visited the Dachau Memorial Site – the place where the Dachau Concentration Camp was located. In addition to the photos that I took, I have included historical photos to add context, which some readers may find disturbing. There are also several notes and links, which are intended to document the sources of information that I used to supplement my own summary. In the event that I have linked to Wikipedia as a source, it is because the article provides more information or a factual record of dates, and at the time that this was written, the information in the Wikipedia article matched information in the exhibits at Dachau.
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When traffic is light, it takes about half an hour to drive from downtown Munich to Dachau, a clean and quiet city with a colorful Altstadt. On the other side of the town, a babbling creek runs along the path from the railway station to the where the concentration camp once operated. The normalcy of the surroundings reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s summation of Adolf Eichmann in that people and places need not be remarkable to embody unspeakable evil.
The Path of Remembrance, a memorial opened in 2007, mirrors the three kilometer journey which those interned to Dachau followed between the train station and the camp entrance. The path is marked with 12 informational plaques.
The entrance to the Dachau Memorial is not the main entrance to the former concentration camp – it is the entrance to the Jourhaus building, the same entrance where 206,206 humans were unfairly deprived of liberty and processed as inmates. The narrow doorway is emblazoned with the infamous slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” – a false promise that hard work will bring freedom.
1945. Photographer unknown. Photo from the US National Archives Records of the Office of War Information. The photo shows the main entrance of the Dachau Concentration Camp under occupation from American troops. In maintaining the grounds as a memorial to those who where interned there and to the atrocities committed, this entrance and gate no longer exist.
2006. Aerial photograph from the Landesamt für Vermessung und Geoinformation. The yellow lines are the borders of the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1945 and the blue lines are the borders of the memorial. Even as a fraction of the former facility, the memorial is terrifyingly large. The majority of the site outside the memorial was used as a SS Training ground and the Herb Garden sometimes referred to as “the Plantation”.
“May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defence of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men” The International Memorial was designed by Nandor Glid, a concentration camp survivor from Yugoslavia. The portion shown here is a plaque upon a wall, which wraps around much of the area where twice-daily prisoner roll call took place. On the side of the memorial that faces the former Maintenance Building, a sculpture of emaciated humans resembling barbed wire rises above the wall.
The Maintenance Building has been converted into a museum which holds the Permanent Exhibition – a gallery of text, images and sculptures dedicated to documenting the atrocities of the Nazis at Dachau.
In addition to hard labor, prisoners were often tasked with demeaning other prisoners under threat of punishment or death if they did not comply. This exhibit shows the shaving kit of a prisoner who was responsible for participating in the humiliation of the incoming prisoners by shaving their bodies and heads.
Despite being made of tin or aluminum, the camp wardens demanded that all tableware be polished like silver and meted out punishments for the slightest scratches or drops of food or water. In another exhibit, it was explained that the crudely-stuffed bed linens had a checkered pattern that was impossible to line up, but wardens demanded beds be made with military precision. In strictly regulating mealtimes and the sleeping quarters but not allowing adequate time for housekeeping requirements, the system aimed to deprive the incarcerated of any possible relief or enjoyment, and for prisoners to turn on other prisoners for bringing punishment on the group by failing to keep up with the impossible standards.
Information about each prisoner was kept on a card, including the names and addresses of spouses, parents, and relatives. For each of the cards in the front of the row, a short biographical note was included.
Prisoners could purchase more food or cigarettes at absurdly inflated prices, and were often driven to do so through desperation. Once a prisoner had been killed, the Nazis were given access to any remaining cash in accounts and life insurance policies. Prior to seeing this exhibit, I had not fully comprehended how complicit the banks and insurance companies were under the Third Reich. It is possible that the lack of transparency on the parties responsible for theft under the Nazis has largely successfully stalled the case for recovery of stolen property for over 70 years, and other than a few expensive and notable exceptions, continues to do so.
The badges were meant to discourage prisoners from bonding over any sense of shared identity. The system played to preconcieved notions the inmates might have about “other” groups – Communists, foreigners, homosexuals, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, criminals, the handicapped, etc. Any sense of community between groups was further discouraged in that, for example, a disabled Jewish man would have a different badge than a non-German Jewish man.
Over 41,500 individuals were killed at Dachau. The number is much smaller (but in no way less tragic) than the death toll at Auschwitz or Treblinka because Dachau was not designed to be an extermination camp. Under the concentration camp system, each location had a primary purpose as a prison, a labor camp, a transport point, or as an extermination camp. Here is a brief overview of how the system was designed to work.
Built in 1933, Dachau was initially intended to incarcerate and rehabilitate political prisoners and career criminals, something that the population at large was hardly opposed to. After more than a decade of economic hardship and high unemployment, the prevailing attitudes were generally favorable of the new Nazi government, which was putting people back to work and combatting inflation. Communists and other dissidents were viewed as a general nuisance against the newfound German stability and prosperity. With the apparent success of Dachau, the concentration camp system began to expand, and the list of undesirables to be incarcerated grew alongside.
The brief biographical notes (name, prisoner category, nationality, birth date, date of internment, date of death) for each of the prisoners killed at Dachau is written on the 1,228 pages of the Book of Remembrance.
Only one of the prisoner barracks has been rebuilt. Concrete borders mark where the remaining barracks once stood.
3 May 1945. Photo by Sidney Blau, 163rd Signal Photo Company, Army Signal Corps. Photo from the archives of the United States Holocaust Museum.
The tour of the barracks provides a visual progression of the original bed setup in 1933 to the maze of 3-tier beds that were overcrowded to when the camp was filled 63,000 people – over 10 times the maximum capacity – in 1944.
29 April 1945. Photographer unknown. Photo from the archives of the United States Holocaust Museum. Severe overcrowding that was common during the last years of war. In this photo, the prisoners have gathered to greet American forces, which liberated the camp.
“Hier führte in den letzten Kriegstagen im April 1945 der Leidensweg der Häftlinge aus dem Konzentrationslager Dachau vorbei ins Ungewisse”. During the last days of war in April 1945, the prisoners’ path of suffering from the Concentration Camp Dachau led to uncertainty.
Despite extensively documenting their crimes against humanity through the concentration camp system, as the Nazis lost the war, they often emptied the camps of prisoners ahead of the advancing Allied Forces. Prisoners were either killed en masse or forced into death marches. Tragically, many who had survived inside the concentration camps until the very end of the war were marched to death once they left the camps.
The path between the bunker area and the crematorium is still wrapped heavily with barbed wire.
Watchtowers still line the perimeter of the camp.
Seeing the gas chambers disguised as showering rooms defies any description or photograph. Decades after Zyklon B was last used here, I found it difficult to breathe as a physiological reaction to witnessing the space where so many humans agonizingly gasped their last breaths. The waves of emotions sickened me in a way I am still at a loss to describe. Some things are so horrifyingly inhuman that to describe it with language is to give it a quality that is undeserved.
The gas chambers at Dachau were used more rarely than at the other camps. The more-often employed method of murder was hanging, followed by incineration. The hooks are visible in the rafters above the ovens.
May, 1945. Photographer unknown. Photo from the German Federal Archives. The photo shows Dachau survivors demonstrating the purpose and function of the ovens, and was intended for distribution to American troops.
The main courtyard was used for twice-daily roll call, which left the underclothed prisoners in the elements for up to hours at a time. As someone who readily succumbs to illnesses, requires antibiotics to recover from ear infections brought on by being too cold for too long, and my complete inability to function when hungry, it occurs to me how little time I would have survived when faced with the conditions inflicted upon over 200,000 humans who unwillingly entered this camp. No one knows what the human spirit is capable of until it becomes necessary to survive, but my pale attempt to understand the human suffering in Dachau was a sobering realization of the unfathomable cruelty that was endured.
At the end of the day, I was free to leave. With the press of a button in the car, I was warm again. Later, I had dinner and was no longer hungry. I went home. I’ve never felt as acutely aware of my own freedoms before. I walked away from the Dachau Memorial with an acute discomfort that I won’t let fade. I have spent a considerable amount of time pondering the changes I will be making in myself as a result of what I learned. For now, I will keep that personal. The temptation is to say that the problems of the world are too large, and that any difference I could make would be small at best. That attitude completely misses the point. Small beginnings don’t preclude big changes, and I’m beginning with who I have control over: myself.