My Travel Philosophy

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – Saint Augustine

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tour of Dachau

Work Makes (You) Free
As previously mentioned, Dachau is now a Concentration Camp Memorial because the vast majority of the camp is now gone. You enter through the gate with the famous 'Work Sets You Free' gate, and the first impression is how incredibly huge the space is. The barbed wire fences and guard towers have been reconstructed along with two barracks. In addition to the two barracks erected for the tours, concrete foundations were added to show the location of all of the barracks. This is one of the smaller concentration camps built by the Nazis, but the size is staggering. I seriously can't imagine how big Auschwitz must be! (I had thought about going to Poland to see Auschwitz, but it's really quite far.)

Reconstructed barrack building
There is a museum onsite and I really would have liked to spend time reviewing the documents and photos on display.  I believe the building was originally the intake center. Our guide, Franz, was really knowledgeable and led us through the museum -- hitting the highlights. Then, we walked across the huge parade ground to the reconstructed barracks. The interior has been set up to show the three phases of use: pre-WWII when it was used to house political prisoners, the WWII era, and post-WWII when it housed the captured Nazi guards.

Foundations of barracks on one side of walkway
There are two original wash stands and a room with original toilets. The beds are like the ones shown in movies. Walking down the tree-lined walkway that went down the line of barracks, I was struck by how far the prisoners would have to hustle to get to the parade ground for the 3xday roll call. (The trees were growing there back when it was a concentration camp.)

This Memorial is free to the public and all school children in Germany are required to visit and learn about it's history (in the spirit of 'never forget'). It is illegal in Germany to say that the holocaust, and the horrors of the concentration camps, did not happen.

At the far end of the camp are chapels/memorials built by 4 religions: Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox. At that end, too, is a reproduction of what the outer fortification looked like. The entire perimeter fence has been rebuilt but, here, it's been structured as it was when the camp was operational. There was a wide area of grass (where prisoners were immediately shot if they wandered into the grass), followed by a
The trench before the barbed wire fence
The incredibly close guard towers

trench (to make access to the fence more difficult and to discourage tunneling), then layers of barbed wire and, finally, the outer barbed-wire fence that was electrified. It was really sobering as you could see how close the guard towers were and I thought of the books and movies I've been absorbing. Quite different when you see it up close.

At that far end of the camp a gate and bridge over the trench have been added for visitors to the Memorial to reach the crematorium. When the camp was operational, those assigned to work in the crematorium would have gone through the main gate and under the famous 'freedom' quote as they went in and out.

If you were assigned to one of the barracks at the far end of the camp, you'd be closest to the crematorium where the smell had to be the worst. [Note:  Dachau was not an extermination camp so the mass murders that took place in other camps did not take place here, but there were still a large number of people that died of disease or beatings so the crematoriums were quite busy.  Toward the end of the war, Dachau was used for extermination as well.]

Ovens in the large crematorium
Large crematorium built in 1943
Just a few feet on the other side of the fence is a small stream and I was thinking how the gurgle of that stream must have added to the torture for those trapped behind the fence in the dead of summer. And how polluted it must have gotten from the ashes!

The crematorium was ghastly! First, there's a small one like I had seen in the documentary I watched at home. Looks like a small cottage. Then, there's the great brick building like you see in the movies with a waiting room, a room for undressing, the shower room, a room with the ovens, and a room to hold bodies that have been delivered for cremation. The small building held two ovens, and the larger had four large ovens capable of holding more than one body at a time. Apparently, if a hanging was ordered, it was done right in front of the ovens so the body could be disposed of right away. The small crematorium was in operation about 3 years, and approximately 11,000 prisoners were cremated (summer 1940-April 1943).

Outside the buildings are several memorials and, a short walk down a path through the trees, is a site that is marked as the spot where Russian prisoners were executed as the war was drawing to a close.

I found a website that shows pictures of the camp in the 40s and pictures of the same areas today.

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