Today was Sunday and today’s event was to visit Dachau, a WWII concentration camp. We arrived and were met by a tour guide, a genial older gentleman who immediately captured all or our attentions and won our hearts. From the first 30 seconds he spoke to us, we could tell he was extremely passionate about the history he was teaching us. The first thing that I noticed after walking through the gate was the simple vastness of the camp. The gravel area that the guide told us was for roll call seemed to go on and on in all directions, a sea of gray. Similarly, later when we moved on to the area where the barracks used to be, the rows seemed to be endless. We learned that the barracks were meant to hold 280 people per building but at the peak of their use, the most crowded barracks held up to 2800 people. They did this by packing multiple people into a bed.
I’ve always known that the living conditions were terrible, but I had always assumed that the SS just let people be in the sleeping quarters. However, every day, it was heavily stressed by the Nazis who insisted on the cleanliness of the barracks and even used it as an excuse to punish and torture the inmates. If the prisoners missed even a miniscule spot in their cleaning, they would be heavily punished.
The guide also taught us the interesting history of Dachau. Dachau was a concentration camp, not a death camp. Dachau is important because it served as the model for all the other concentration and death camps. Secondly, Dachau was actually on the better end of all the concentration camps. This was because, before the war started, the Allies wanted to inspect a concentration camp to make sure the Nazis weren’t violating human rights. In order to deceive them, Hitler had Dachau fancied up and served the inspectors good food that the inmates did not actually eat. Thus, when the inspectors returned with their report, they said that the concentration camps were simply large prisons full of criminals when in fact everyone now knows that was not the case.
One thing that surprised me was how much green surrounded the camp. All old pictures are black and white, and since it was a place of so much despair, in my mind I had always pictured the camps as bleak and colorless. I realize now that my view couldn’t possibly have been accurate, but it took me seeing it in real life to get a full picture of the camp.
What turned out to be most powerful image to me was the crematorium and death chamber. Although never used at Dachau, there was a gas chamber built and we were able to walk through it. It had a low ceiling and lots of intimidating vents in the ceiling and I had to stand there for a few minutes to take it in.
After getting back from Dachau, we had an informal group dinner at a restaurant recommended by the German students, and I had spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, and parsley, which turned out to be great. They also had home-brewed vanilla peach iced tea, which was amazing.
Dachau was a heavy experience that was incredibly eye-opening for me. I’m very glad we were able to visit it.