- No doubt there is enough body of work — literature, novels, movies, and documentaries — on the Holocaust, but one cannot understand the true depth of that horrific history without a visit.
I will not call myself a history buff by any means. It wasn’t one of my favorite subjects in school. But over the years, I have warmed up to it, and I have my kids to thank for it. As I began traveling with them, the history of the places we were visiting, the culture, the people, and the food habits, all became topics of discussion prior, during and post the trip. I would make the kids read about the places and also encourage them to research the places they wanted to see and things they wanted to do. That developed in them a sense of curiosity as well as a sense of involvement. Knowing about a particular place, be it ancient relics, or weather-worn battlefields, monuments, or temples, added another layer to our visits.
It is an aspect I not only cherish but have begun to enjoy so much to the extent that I am the designated planner for any vacation — be it a family trip, a girls’ trip or even a trip for friends and family.
That sense of curiosity and a knowledge of history led me to a place that many tourists would want to avoid. On a recent trip to Munich, Germany, I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. Of course, I was expecting it to be an emotionally draining visit, but no way was I prepared for the range of emotions I experienced that day. A walk through the campsite, the barracks, the roll-call yard, the bunkers, the religious memorials, and the dreaded crematoriums and gas chambers, truly sent shivers down my spine. One cannot truly understand the scale of this atrocity until you visit this site and stand in those enormous spaces. A lot has been razed to the ground, modified or renovated, but finding myself in those nearly empty but enormous grounds, was harrowing, to say the least. Reading the several informative boards and watching a documentary helps you visualize the torture that was meted there.
Dachau was the very first of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps which was opened on March 22, 1933, and was operational until 1945. It is said to be a model from which all other concentration camps were created. Initially intended to hold political prisoners, the camp evolved to include forced labor provided by the imprisonment of Jews, German and Austrian criminals. Dachau also housed foreign nationals from countries that Germany occupied or invaded.
The Dachau complex included the actual concentration camp, factories, and other facilities spread across 20 acres. It was also a training facility for Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel or Protective Echelon), the black-uniformed elite corps and self-described “political soldiers” of the Nazi Party.
Following the passing of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which enabled institutionalized racism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and emigrants were sent to Dachau. Over the years of its operation, thousands of prisoners died of disease, malnutrition and overwork. Thousands more were executed for infractions of camp rules. There were 32,000 documented deaths at the camp. However, some estimate that 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries died in the camp. The main camp was liberated by U.S. forces on April 29, 1945.
Admission to the campgrounds, the memorial, and the film is free, but one has to pay for the audio guides or the guided tours. Since I went with friends who have lived in Munich for a long time and have taken many visitors there, I didn’t avail of those services. Each location on the property is listed with a brief description and approximate time commitment, to help you gauge how long you need for your visit to Dachau.
From the parking lot, you walk on a paved path to the gatehouse, which used to be a guarded road for prison guards and administrators, not for new prisoners. Most prisoners came via the train station, the remnants of which you see on the left as you walk to the gatehouse. You then pass a modern glass building that houses the visitor center, the ticket desk, the gift shop, and a small café.
Once you walk through the main metal gate, you have entered the campsite. What strikes you first is the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Sets You Free.” The original gate was stolen in 2014 and recovered two years later in Norway. It is now on display in the museum, and a replica is used at the gatehouse. Whether original or duplicate, I felt a pit in my stomach as I entered the gate. The vastness of the camp is bewildering and I had to wait for a second to compose myself and take it all in. The scorching sun didn’t help either.
We then entered the registration building, which was the first stop for new prisoners at the camp. This place has the most information that sheds light on the cruelty meted out by the SS. Visitors can get all the information on the prisoner registration and records process, and the torture tactics and medical experimentation performed on prisoners. There’s also information on the inevitable fall of the Third Reich and the arrival of the U.S. Army to liberate the camp.
Over the years, the barracks have gone through a few renovations. The 34 original barracks were all demolished in the 1960s, but the foundation outlines remain and two replica buildings have been reconstructed.
Walking through them is an experience. When you see the photos of the prisoners piled upon each other in each bunker, most of them malnourished, you can see the dread and despair in their eyes. I can’t imagine how they felt, with no hope for a future, eventually waiting for death. One also passes the prison areas, where some cells were made so small that prisoners couldn’t even sit down and were forced to stand for days on end with food only provided every four days.
When out of the barracks area, one cannot help but see the two sections of the barbed wire perimeter fence where thousands of prisoners were killed. It is believed that prisoners were lined behind one another, and as the person ahead was shot and fell in the ditch, the line moved ahead, until everyone was dead, and the ditch was piled with dead bodies. Sometimes, guards would push prisoners onto the grass strip just so they “had an excuse” to shoot them. With guards watching all over, and the concrete ditches and the fence, as well as water running below it, making it impossible for the prisoners to escape.
At the back of the property, one can see the religious memorials — one Catholic, one Protestant, and one Jewish, as well as a Russian Orthodox church memorial. There is also a Catholic convent church on the property behind the camp.
These religious monuments lead you to the most disturbing part of the camp — the crematoriums and gas chambers. Originally, one small crematorium disposed of inmates that died from being overworked and underfed. As the inmate population soared and war waged, they built a bigger one. The second crematorium also had a small gas chamber attached, masquerading as a shower room as it would do at other camps. The Nazis experimented with gassing at Dachau before they perfected their formula and used it in mass extermination camps.
Although there is no dearth of literature, novels, movies, and documentaries on the Holocaust, it is impossible to understand the true depth of that horrific history without a visit. But at the same time, a visit here may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is certainly not a tourist attraction; it is a memorial to the thousands of people who died in inhuman and barbaric conditions. Although this trip was without my adult children, I would want them to visit this site, among others, because it’s crucial to understanding the dark part of history, and remembering the thousands of people that suffered and died here. We must learn from the past. Or we are doomed to repeat it.