Today we visited Dachau, the first concentration camp built by the Nazis. Although I’ve read plenty of books in school and visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, nothing could really prepare me for how upsetting it would be to walk through an actual concentration camp.
We started our tour right outside the front gates, where our tour guide explained that in 2014 the front gate, which reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work will set you free,” was mysteriously stolen and later found in Norway. The gate which we walked through today was actually a replica, and the original gate was kept in the museum which we later visited after our tour.
The camp first opened up into a large gravel plane, which was used by the SS to count the camp’s inhabitants, twice a day. Our tour guide showed us a chilling picture of all the prisoners’ being counted, in lines spanning the entirety of the gravel space. She explained that in 1944, Dachau had as many as 60,000 prisoners, who lived in the 30 barracks behind us. There were also watch towers and fences surrounding the entire camp. The fences used to have very high voltage, so that prisoners could not even think of escaping. It was near impossible to start a revolution, even though the prisoners vastly outnumbered the SS forces, as most prisoners were malnourished and had little will to live.
As stated previously, no piece of media could really capture what it felt like to first step inside. Seeing the barrack foundations stretch back about a quarter mile and experiencing sheer size of the operation strictly meant to work Jews and other minorities to death added a level of reality to the holocaust that was difficult for me to experience.
Our tour guide explained that a lot of prisoners would die from “trying to escape,” but really they had just decided to take their own lives by stepping onto the grass near the borders of the camp, where prisoners were immediately shot by the watchtower guards.
We next visited the most appalling part of the camp, which was the crematorium. When Dachau was in operation, it was impossible for prisoners to see the crematorium and still return to the original camp. There were two crematoriums, where the second one was built because the first crematorium was too small.
Every part about the crematorium was really uncomfortable. We first walked through the waiting room into the undressing room, where prisoners were told they would be taking showers so they wouldn’t hesitate to enter the gas chambers. After quickly walking through the gas chamber room, I walked into the next room. A sign said something along the lines of “this is where the bodies were stored,” which immediately gave me chills. We next walked into the crematorium, which explained that the furnaces meant for one body would often cremate up to three bodies, and that many prisoners would often be hanged in the gallows just in front of the furnaces.
After the crematorium, we walked through a beautiful path of tall trees which cut through the center of the camp. Our tour guide explained that this section of the camp was set up in this way to simulate an ideal living space, which would trick visiting ambassadors from the Red Cross.
As the last part of our tour, we walked through one of the two barracks that was still standing. Our tour guide explained the prisoners’ schedules, where they would wake up at 4:30, clean their barracks and eat breakfast to be counted an hour later, and then work until lunch from 12-1. An hour lunch break sounds nice, but the prisoners would clean the barracks during this break, and lunch also consisted of a liter of watery soup with small pieces of onion, carrots, and potatoes. The prisoners would then work until 7 for another roll-call. Dinner consisted of ⅔ of a bread slice, a sausage, and honey/marmalade. More cleaning would ensue until a light’s out time of 9.
The barrack consisted of triple decker beds. Our tour guide explained that there was a hierarchy of the bunk beds, as able bodied prisoners had the strength to reach the top bunk. When the camp filled up, many prisoners had to sleep on the wood floors.
Our tour guide also explained the nonsensical nature of prisoner punishments. If an SS officer noticed dirt on a prisoners’ shoe, they would punish them for being dirty. The same prisoner could be punished for having clean shoes, as they weren’t working hard enough. Punishments included “pole hanging” for an hour, or a whipping, and prisoners would often suffer heart attacks during these punishments due to being so weak and worn down. The despicable nature of Dachau comes from there being no rhyme or reason to succeed. There was no correct path for prisoners’ to follow. No matter what they did, prisoners were still randomly punished, and there was never enough rations to make it through a 12 hour labor-intensive work day.
For the last part of Dachau, we quickly walked through a museum which summarized the progress of the camp through the war. There was a video which showed a video taken by the soldiers who liberated Dachau in 1945, which pictured emaciated bodies lined up on the floors of the barracks. I couldn’t bear to watch it for more than a few seconds. I also saw the original gate to the camp, pictured above.
My visit to Dachau will be an experience that will definitely sit with me for a while. Walking through the camp personified my knowledge of the Holocaust in a way I didn’t know was possible. Since my experience today has allowed me to feel the weight of the Holocaust, I think that its important for everyone to visit a concentration camp at least once in their lives. It’s important to understand that humanity can go this low and be this despicable, and that this is not the only time something this utterly disgusting has happened before. With that being said, I don’t think I’ll be visiting a concentration camp for some time. Although it’s important to never forget my Jewish ancestors, it is unbelievably heavy to sit through.