There are few moments in my life that have touched me on such a deep level that words could not be formed, and breath was sucked from my lungs. Moments where emotions are felt so strongly that tears well up in my eyes and knots are felt in my throat. I had one of these sobering moments when visiting Dachau, the first concentration camp created in 1933 shortly after Adolf Hitler became Reich Chancellor.
Despite the unfathomable events that took place behind this gate, I truly believe everyone needs to visit places like this. Not only to learn about the grotesque history that occurred in our world, but to put things into perspective. I sometimes get so wrapped up in my physical body, and the things I cannot do, that I forget to remember how blessed I am. Sadly, I believe the closed minded principals that fostered Dachau are all too relevant in the world today.
This camp served as a model for all later concentration camps and as a “school of violence” for the SS men under whose command it stood. In the twelve years of its existence over 200,000 people from all over Europe were imprisoned here and in the numerous subsidiary camps. 41,500 were murdered between the multiple camps. The conditions worsened as time went on, but on April 29 1945, American troops liberated the survivors.
The current grounds of the camp have changed, but some buildings have been preserved and some replicas have been built to showcase what it was like back when the camp was in operation. Upon walking into the gate, you see the roll call square where prisoners were called every morning and night for punishment, and for work duty assignments. I took a left turn after entering the gate, heading towards to detention bunker first.
The photos above and below show what it was like inside the bunker, the place where the most frequent punishments were held. Inside the bunker prisoners would be flogged, hung by their arms, kept in dark small spaces, or even executed. Walking the halls of this remaining bunker left a chill in my heart that I still carry with me today. I cannot even imagine.
From the bunker I found my way into the onsite museum, where I learned so much more about the camp. I discovered that on camp road, where the living barracks were located, there were nine medical buildings. The medical care was inadequate, but the most horrifying part about these buildings were the human medical experiments that went on. A former prisoner, Nico Rost recalls one of these medical barrack buildings:
“This was the barrack the prisoners feared the most – the barrack of experiments, the realm of Doctor Rascher. Atrocities were committed here which surpassed all the other cruelties carried out in German concentration camps, SS doctors committed them on defenseless prisoners, abused them for their so-called medical experiments: here prisoners were placed in icy water until they froze, often for hours on end so as to identify the average time that elapsed when it no longer made any sense to search for men who had parachuted into the English Channel after being shot down. Bone transplants, phlegmon and hyperthermia experiments were carried out in these barracks, ending in agonizing death after horrific suffering.”
The end of camp road now leads to religious memorials, which was a much needed reprieve before the final and hardest location I visited at Dachau. Up until this moment I had mostly kept my composure. My soul ached the entire day, but I completely lost it when I turned the corner and saw the crematorium. The ovens were in operation day and night, and by then end of 1944 the capacity was too high to cremate all the bodies. Upon liberating the camp in 1945, American soldiers discovered countless corpses piled up inside.
32,000 deaths were documented at Dachau, but there is an unknown number of unregistered deaths as well. Around the crematorium are gardens and a beautiful walkway. It was hard to see such beauty surrounding the place of death, but the commemorations and grave stones for those who died were beautiful. I lost my breath one last time after walking by a wall that was designated for execution. Prisoners would stand by the stone wall and wait to be shot, and the bullet marks are still visible today.
Dachau had a gas chamber, however it was not used for mass murder like some of the other camps. Prisoners did report that the SS would use the chambers for smaller executions by poison gas. The gas chamber was within the crematorium, and there were three different rooms prisoners would go through. A waiting room, and room to take off their clothing, and the gas chamber. Prisoners were under the impression they would be taking a shower.
Writing this post stirs up all the same emotions I felt when I visited nearly three weeks ago. I went alone, and spent three hours touring the grounds. I took a train from my town into Munich, and from Munich it was about 20 minutes by another train and a bus to get to Dachau. It was really easy to find, and going in March meant there weren’t too many other people visiting. Despite my earlier comment of wanting people to see this place, I didn’t want to go at a time when it was overly crowded.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been intrigued by all things related to the holocaust. I still struggle to wrap my head around the fact that human beings were able to do this to other human beings. The indifference towards others was so strong I can’t help but wonder what the men thought and felt while acting out these horrifying punishments. Can one really feel nothing when torturing another? I’ll never understand.
I hope to return to Dachau sometime while living here and take advantage of a guided tour to learn even more, but I’m glad my first time visiting was on my own terms and at my own pace. This is an experience I will never forget.
Q: I talk to people that tell me they couldn’t handle visiting one of these camps, could you?