A Sobering Visit to Dachau Concentration Camp

Jul 8, 2014Germany1 comment

Dachau Concentration Camp was built in Nazi Germany as a “model camp” for other concentration camps. It mainly housed political prisoners, dissidents, and resistance fighters. The facility was designed to hold 5,000 prisoners. Population numbers fluctuated throughout the years, reaching peak capacity in 1944 at 78,635. When it was liberated in 1945, Allies discovered 30,442 prisoners inside.

Dachau Concentration Camp

We visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial on a beautiful summer day. The sky was a crisp blue with hardly a cloud to be seen. The grass and trees were bright green. The juxtaposition between the weather and the location seemed unsettling. Shouldn’t it be cloudy and dreary? Wouldn’t depressing weather feel more appropriate, somehow? Perhaps if the film score from Schindler’s List were playing in the background…

We entered the camp through the same building that thousands of prisoners had before: the Jourhaus. A single, small iron gate bars the entrance. The gate features the infamous slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes [you] free). This slogan was placed at the entrance to a number of Nazi concentration camps, although Dachau was one of the first to employ it. The slogan was allegedly coined by Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels in an effort to convince the public that the Nazi concentration camps were merely work camps designed to politically rehabilitate Communists, Social Democrats, and anarchists.

Arbeit Macht Frei

“Work will make (you) free”

The camp contained 34 prisoners barracks which were built under forced labor conditions by the prisoners themselves. Initially each barrack was designed to hold 208 prisoners, but by the end of 1944 there were 1,600 prisoners in each barrack. Today, two reconstructed barracks showcase what the barracks would have looked like during the years before the camp became overcrowded. The other barracks were torn down in 1964 and their locations are represented by 32 gravel beds.

Dachau Concentration Camp Barracks

Reconstructed barracks

Dachau Concentration Camp Barracks

The prison barracks soon after the liberation of the camp in 1945. [Source]

To the rear of the camp lies the Bunker, or Lagerarrest. The Bunker was essentially a camp prison within the prison, and was used from 1938 to 1945 to incarcerate high-level “enemies of the state”. Inmates of the Bunker would serve periods of punitive detention in one of its 137 small cells.  Some of the cells were divided into smaller “standing cells” where prisoners could do nothing but stand for days on end.

Dachau Concentration Camp Bunker

The Bunker’s two long corridors house 137 cells.

The camp museum tells the story of life in Dachau. Unapologetic images reveal the overcrowding, murder, and human medical experimentation that took place. A 22-minute documentary film graphically depicts the history of the camp. There was a quiet respectfulness amongst the museum visitors as the haunting images and testimonies sunk in. It was if everyone was trying to project some scrap of dignity and hope to those whose humanity was so viciously stripped away.

Dachau Museum Images

A polyptych in the Dachau Museum showcases images of overcrowding, murder, and human experimentation.

I learned in the museum that Dachau prisoners did not have identification numbers tattooed on their arms. Contrary to popular belief, the practice of tattooed identification numbers was not widespread among Nazi concentration camps, but was used primarily in Auschwitz-Birkenau beginning in 1941. Dachau prisoners were identified individually by numbers sewn onto their uniforms, and by a system of badges indicating the reason for a prisoner’s incarceration. Cloth triangles of varying colors were displayed on the prison uniforms base on national, religious, and social standings. Red triangles denoted communists and political prisoners; green triangles were for convicted criminals; blue for immigrants; purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses; pink for homosexuals; black for mentally ill, vagrants, prostitutes, and alcoholics; brown for Gypsies; an uninverted red triangle for POWs or deserters; and a double triangle superimposed to form the Star of David for Jews.

Outside the museum, a large roll call square known as Appellplatz stands mostly vacant. Prisoners were required to assemble each morning and evening for inspection, sometimes standing for hours at a time.  At the south end of the square is the macabre International Monument, designed by Yugoslavian sculptor Nandor Glid. The motif of the sculpture resembles the emaciated bodies of the prisoners who died of starvation or disease in the camp. The skeleton-like hands of the victims are designed to resemble barbed wire. Several additional memorials have been erected on the Dachau camp site, including Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Jewish, and Protestant memorials.

Dachau Badge Classification Chart

Dachau Badge Classification Chart

A perimeter fence surrounded the camp. The fence was designed to make escape impossible, and featured a sentry walk, electric fence, barbed-wire obstacles, a ditch, and a prohibited area. The instant a prisoner entered the prohibited zone, he was fired upon. Some prisoners ran into the border strip on purpose in order to put an end to their suffering.

Dachau Perimeter Fence

The perimeter of the camp featured a sentry walk, electric fence, barbed-wire obstacles, a ditch, and a prohibited area.

Unlike other concentration camps that were constructed as part of the Nazi’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question, Dachau was not designed to be a death camp. It does, however, contain a gas chamber disguised as a “shower room” (Brausebad in German). An undressing room furnished with soap and towels helped maintain the illusion of a shower room.  There are conflicting reports as to whether the gas chamber was ever used for mass execution. The modern day report testifies that the SS murdered individual prisoners and small groups here using poison gas.

Dachau Gas Chamber

The Brausebad was a gas chamber disguised as a shower room.  There are conflicting reports concerning its use.

Compared to other concentration camps, there were relatively few deaths in Dachau in the early years. A double furnace crematorium was built in 1940 to dispose of the bodies and prevent the spread of disease. This original crematorium was outside the prison compound and hidden from the prisoners by a row of poplar trees. However, the crematoria area was close enough to the prison barracks that the inmates could smell the stench of the burning bodies.

A new, larger crematorium known as “Barrack X” was completed in 1943 to help dispose of the ever-increasing dead. Barrack X contained disinfection chambers, a changing room, the Brausebad, and a crematory with five ovens. Prisoners who worked in Barrack X later gave testimony to the methods the SS used to dispatch prisoners. Some were hung by their necks from the rafters of the crematory until dead, forced to watch as their comrades were burned. Others were killed by lethal injection. Some were disposed simply because they had dysentery or were considered by the camp nurses as too much trouble. The most common method of execution was by shooting. By October 1944, use of the ovens had ceased due to shortage of coal. When American liberators arrived, bodies were piled inside and outside the building.

Dachau's Barrack X

Barrack X housed a larger crematorium, a disinfection chamber, and a gas chamber.

In January 1945 as the Soviet Army began to overtake Nazi-occupied Poland, thousands of survivors from eastern death camps were brought to over-crowded camps in Germany, including Dachau. Along with the new wave of prisoners came a raging typhus epidemic which spread throughout the camp. Almost half of the deaths in Dachau occurred in the final five months of the war. During the working years between 1933 and 1945, there were nearly 32,000 documented deaths at the camp, and thousands went undocumented.  In the months following the camp’s liberation, over 2,400 additional inmates died of typhus and malnutrition.

Barrack X Crematorium

Some prisoners were hung by the neck until dead from the rafters before being burned in the new crematory ovens.

Zena and I were able to spend only a few short hours touring the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. I regret that we didn’t spend more time there. Visiting Dachau brought me to a point of sobering introspection. The realities of the evil to which humans are capable is no more apparent than here. One of the memorials in the camp is a simple stone wall with the words “Never Again” written in Hebrew, French, English, German, and Russian. Never again. In my heart I wish that were true, but when I look at the atrocities that have been perpetrated since then and continue on today, my faith in humanity wavers.

In another corner of the camp stands an apropos statue with a stark inscription at its base: “Honor the Dead.  Warn the Living.” That is why Dachau exists today.

Visiting Information

  Hours of operation: 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily. Closed December 25.

  Cost: Free. Audio guides are available in the guest center for €3.50.

  Location: The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial is located just outside of Munich, Germany. Access is easy by car; just follow the signs in Dachau to the memorial site entrance (“KZ-Gedenkstätte”).

  Parking: €3.00

  Transportation: The S2 train runs from Munich to the center of the town of Dachau – a 25 minute trip. From the train station, take a shuttle bus (724 or 726) to the entrance of the memorial site. Your train ticket can be used for your bus fare.

  Phone: +49 (0) 8131 / 66 99 70

Dachau Concentration Camp

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