Today we went woke up early and drove to Dachau, a concentration camp site and memorial in a western suburb of Munich. Overall, the visit to Dachau was a heavy and intense one. As we toured the site where thousands of people were tortured and murdered by the Nazi regime, we saw different key parts of these camps that we have learned about so many times in school. We walked through the gate with the lie “Arbeit Macht Frei (work will set you free)” scripted on its front, onto the labor field, into the sleeping barracks, and through the gas chamber and cemetary. During the tour, I could feel the energy of the group transform to a more solemn mood as the reality of these stories of life at Dachau began to hit us all.
The camp where almost 32,000 people died is now a memorial site for the victims of the holocaust. As we walked through, I took note of the different memorial sculptures that fill the site, most individually dedicated to a specific group of victims. The memorial that most caught my attention was a sculpture of a collection of bodies caught in a fence that stood in the middle-right side of the labor field. During time at the camp, people who felt so broken by the torture that they could not handle it any longer would run out of the roll call line and into the electric fence that surrounded the camp. These horrid suicides reflect how truly unbearable and awful life was inside of the camp – how far people would go to escape. This memorial stands prominently in the field and is a powerful display of how vicious the treatment was.
Another impactful part of today’s visit was when we saw pictures of men living inside of the barracks. In the pictures, you could see the complete emaciation of the people at the camp – with ribs bulging out of their starved bodies and faces so thin that their eyes seemed darkened and enlarged. It felt almost like the men in the pictures were staring right at the viewer and that they were expressing the immense pain with just a single stare.
During one of the last parts of the tour, we walked through the bunker. The bunker was somewhat like that camp prison and is where what the Nazis believed to be the most horrendous criminals lived, including Georg Elser, the man who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The bunkers had an eerie feeling to them. In one of the rooms, I spent time listening to audios of different stories being told from prisoners that explained sometimes small yet meaningful and symbolic memories from inside the bunker. One that stood out to me was a man who would keep small pieces of his servings of bread and after some weeks passed by, he was able to have a makeshift chess board that he could play with during the lonely days. The stories that I listened to really stood out to me because it helped to have a smaller, more individualized picture of life in concentration camps. To have fragments of how people actually helped themselves to survive life in the Dachau bunker helped me to understand the strength of the human spirits living behind the notorious concentration camp’s walls.
Though it was a difficult day, it was one that has left a lasting impression on me and one that I am grateful for. The camp that once stood for so much hatred and cruelty is now dedicated to honoring the lives of the victims of the Holocaust and to memorializing their suffering so as to help ensure that this tragedy is never forgotten in order to prevent it from happening again. The acknowledgment of its horrible past and the work to remind and to prevent future cruelties like this one is now the main purpose of the Dachau concentration camp memorial site, and its message successfully settles in every visitor who walks through the gates.