After visiting Berlin, I thought I had reached my quota for the things I could see and learn about the Holocaust. Then I went to the Dachau concentration camp.
Originally, this wasn’t in my Munich plan; primarily because I didn’t know it was so close to the city, and also because I didn’t know if I could handle it alone. Saba solved that problem for me.
When I went to her house for dinner that first night in Berlin, she told me she would be in Munich the same time I was. She had been planning to go to Dachau with some friends, and invited me along. Seeing as how visiting an actual concentration camp was the one thing I had left to do on my WWII tour of destruction checklist, I figured it was time.
So, we all met up at the train station and set off for Dachau. Pronounced da-how, this was the first concentration camp of the Third Reicht and the inspiration for all other camps to come. It was actually a concentration camp and complex years before WWII started so things were actually produced here; not just nightmares.
Again, the admission was free because you can’t quite profit on murder just yet in this world (at least not outright) but we did spring for the audio guide which was a nominal fee (€3-4).
The camp itself is a shell of the sprawling complex that it once was. Originally both a concentration camp and SS training complex and boarding grounds, it now remains just its most prominent buildings for those who wish to see a piece of the horror that took place here.
In the beginning, the signs tell you what the camp used to house: how many prisoners, how many guards, what they did, what they made; statistics you hear when you tour ruins and villages. Then you walk through the gate.
Arbeit macht frei
Work will set you free. I don’t think so.
To be honest, this post has given me a touch of writer’s block, in the sense that there’s so many things to say and it’s hard to find the right way to say them. I was not ignorant of the Holocaust by any means, for we have a family friend who is an Auschwitz survivor. I have been listening to Noemi Ban‘s story of triumph since I was about 8 years old. But hearing a thing and seeing a thing are completely different experiences. And seeing Dachau is something I will never be able to forget.
The camp itself would not take much time to walk through, even with pauses for reflection. It’s the museum that takes a good two hours. Housed in the former maintenance building, this edifice was erected by former prisoners before the war really started in order to make more space in the camp. It was not a barrack, but another place to work, store goods, etc. Essentially, it’s a long, narrow building with panels on panels on panels. You learn so much, you almost need an external hard drive just to retain it all.
Now, the difference between this exhibition and the one at Topography of Terror is slight, but significant. While Topography of Terror does a magnificent job of detailing the war itself and its major players, complete with names, dates, and events, it doesn’t tell you about before the war. At Dachau, there is a whole room of panels devoted to this period of time. What I didn’t know about WWII was how terrible their economic conditions were after WWI. The inflation rate for simple goods like eggs and potatoes went through the roof (as shown below)! And now it begins to make sense how Hitler and the Nazi party came into such a powerful position. They were saving the economy, but at the cost of human life.
The museum was spellbinding. The wealth of information available to you there is mesmerizing. Saba spent almost the entire visit inside the museum, reading ever panel.
Coming out of the museum around the backside, you come to “The Bunker”. This was the camp prison. I thought that “concentration camp” was in fact a synonym for prison, but evidence proves me wrong. This place is not recommended for the faint of heart. It was perhaps one of the most skin-crawling experiences I have had in my life.
In every room/cell you enter, there is a sign board telling you who what each room was used for: barracks, interrogation, torture, etc. In some cases, they also made you aware of who died here and how. I almost couldn’t even fathom it. The places which I was standing were at one time touched by both life, and death. It’s almost an indescribable feeling. You’re sad, you’re horrified, anxious, angry; all in one.
It was here that the magnitude of where I was washed over me like a tidal wave. People died here. Lots of people. And now I’m casually walking around, taking an audiotour. People used to dread the word “Dachau” and now it’s one of the most visited sites in Bavaria. I understand why (because everyone should see this or something like it) but just the irony of the situation. Concentration camps are now destination points. Is it just me, or does that seem strange?
For this reason, and a few others, it’s hard to really know how you’re supposed to act during your visit (let alone how to write about it). I took pictures, obviously, but none with me in them. Yet, you saw people taking group photos and smiling. It didn’t make any sense to me.
Then, someone actually took a selfie in front of the crematorium. I was beyond shocked. And angry! I was so mad that in this place of terror, memorial, life, and death, someone would have the gaul to take a selfie. But, hey, everyone’s different…I guess?
The crematorium wasn’t used on the same scale as that at Auschwitz, but it’s still a crematorium. In Dachau, they originally only had a small one but as the war went on, they had to build another to keep up with the overpopulation and substandard conditions. People were dying daily from fatigue, malnutrition, disgusting human experiments, poor health, and so on. But it appears that this larger crematorium, Barrack X as it was so named, was built too late to actually be used. Only a small percentage of the prisoners were cremated here, not that that makes it any easier to see. Inside, there are the gas chambers where people were told they would be “taking a shower”, the crematory ovens, rooms for “disinfecting” the prisoners; the illustrations of the terrible stories you had only ever heard about. I don’t think it’s possible to leave that place without shedding a few tears. I can hardly write about it now without getting a little misty eyed. However, even though it was emotionally intense, the experience is one I will never forget. I don’t think I’ll need to repeat it, but I definitely won’t forget it.
Once outside the crematorium you can take a stroll through the Garden of Ashes, a nice memorial trail that gives graves to the graveless and allows all who visit Dachau to take a moment to think about those who may not have been thought of often; some of those 6 million that weren’t given a proper burial by their families, those who didn’t have any family, those whose family perished along with them. Then you think about the lucky few who survived, like my friend Noemi. And while she and others like her were quite fortunate, they also have a heavy burden to bare. Not just the loss of friends and family to the persecution of the Holocaust, but also the memory of all the horrors they endured.
When I think of all the terrible things that they relive on a daily basis, it makes their story of survival so much more incredible. It’s never over for them.
In school when you learn about the Holocaust, you’re sheltered. When you experience it in front of you, you’re exposed and indefensible. Coping with that fear and insecurity is a valuable life skill that keeps pushing you to do the things you may never have done if you stayed in your comfort zone. It wasn’t easy to see, and even harder to reflect upon, but going to Dachau is a good example of why I took this trip: to see the world, the good and the bad.