We woke up for 9:00am again for today’s visit, and after eating a quick breakfast boarded the bus to Dachau. The 45-minute ride went by quickly as I worked on Munich’s blog for most of the trip. When we arrived, we walked through the puddles of the gravel parking lot and into the information building. Right away you could feel that there was a different atmosphere than we have experienced at any of our other visits.
After waiting for a little bit and reading the informational projections on walls, we met our tour guide and she told us about the period of time leading up to the 1930s in Germany and the climate that led to the creation of concentration camps, as well as some of the history of Dachau specifically.
Dachau went through three main changes in its lifetime. It started life as an old munitions factory, providing sleeping quarters for the workers there. It was had long since been abandoned when it was next used. As the Great Depression made its mark and Hitler rose to power, in 1933, it was transitioned into a prison camp. During the first years, the camp was not nearly as harsh as the later years. The conditions were still horrible, but there was more hope. If you were serving a prison sentence there, you still had a chance to be released at the end of your sentence. However, as the camp aged and the number of prisoners rose, the conditions became worse and worse. There was more torture, and the chances that you would be released went from being an extremely small percentage to zero. It was eventually built with a gas chamber and many furnaces with the intention of becoming a death camp.
We eventually made our way into the camp itself, walking through the infamous iron gate with “Arbeit Macht Fret” inscribed, or “Work Sets You Free”. Upon walking through that gate, I felt an invisible weight fall on my shoulders. Knowing that thousands of the people were forced to walk through that gate against their will and having done nothing wrong and would never walk through again was something that was really emotional for me.
Once we were through the gates. You saw the buildings where the prisoners lived, the officer’s building, and the open expanse where roll call and the work took place.
One story we heard that especially resonated with me and showed the relentlessness of the S.S. that was a story about the “Green” around the edges of the camp. This was a small length of grass that was grown around the perimeter of the inside of the fence, about ten feet wide give or take. If a prisoner was caught in that area, it was considered an escape attempt, and the watchtower machine guns would fire upon them immediately. What was especially horrible was that the S.S. would take a prisoner’s hat and throw it into the Green and order them to retrieve it. If they refused to retrieve it, they could be executed for disobeying orders. If they retrieved it, they would be shot for an escape attempt. If this happened to you, it was essentially a death sentence, and there was nothing you could do about it. Hearing about that was awful and put the entire setting of the camp into perspective.
As we continued the tour of the camp we went into the officers’ building, where every prisoner who entered the camp checked in. There we were able to see the cards that they would write their names on, and learned that it was here that the prisoners were forced to turn over all their belongings, and cut off all of their hair. Additionally, within the building, we saw a whipping trestle, which was a wooden table where the prisoner who had broken the rules would be whipped however many times was deemed an appropriate punishment. The prisoners would need to count off which each hit, and they frequently couldn’t be heard or even passed out from the pain, and in either case, they would have to restart from zero.
At one point in the tour, the guide asked us how many prisoners we thought escaped from Dachau, and it was only one. We learned it was that during the first year the camp was open was when the successful escape of Dachau took place. This was because at this point the prisoners were still healthy enough to even fathom an escape attempt. As the years continued, the average weight of the prisoners dropped to about 80 pounds.
We next entered the rebuilt living quarters where the prisoners were forced to stay. We saw the evolution of these quarters, from holding 40 people originally which was already packed, to eventually holding 400. They needed to sleep 4 people in a bed smaller than a twin mattress. Since the prisoners at this point were essentially just skin and bones, they were able to fit in the small beds. It was horrifying to know that there were 10 times more people living in a space that was already meant to be packed full.
Our last stop was a facility meant to exterminate and dispose of a large number of people at one time. It was located off the center of the camp and contained rooms meant to disinfect people’s clothes, a gas chamber, and a crematorium. Although the gas chamber was never used, the crematoriums were used to dispose of the prisoners who died at the camp. Even though it was never used, it was still extremely moving and sobering. When we walked in through the chamber, I felt another weight fall upon my shoulders, knowing that prisoners would walk into rooms just like the one I was in, and would never leave.
Overall, the visit to Dachau was life changing. It was horrifying and saddening, but educational. I left with a greater appreciation for not only the prisoners who stayed here and died here, but also for people everywhere facing hardships because of who they are or what they believe in. It is appalling to think that the only thing that many times, the only things separating a guard and a prisoner was a difference in faith or orientation. Knowing this and seeing it all firsthand really makes you appreciate other’s way of life more than before, and I think that because of that, I walked out of the gate a better person than when I walked in. The atrocities that occurred at Dachau and other camps like it serve as a reminder to always be accepting of and kind to others.