Germany- Dachau Concentration Camp

On Thursday, April 9th I took a guided tour of the Dachau concentration camp. I had no real plans to visit Dachau during my time in Bavaria, but it seemed as though every traveler I talked to went and loved it or was planning on going, and every local I talked to made it seem as though it is an absolute must to see. After hearing my previous tour guides talk about it and then winning a free tour, it was a must for me and I was excited to go learn about it.

Dachau is located about 10 miles northwest of Munich. It was a Nazi German concentration camp and was the first one opened, in 1933. It first focused on housing political prisoners, but as WWII hit full swing its population exploded. Around 200,000 prisoners total from 30 countries, with 2/3rd being political prisoners and the other 1/3rd being Jewish. Over 25,000 are believed to die here, but it was not a termination camp, so there are countless thousands that were shipped off to other camps just to be executed. Dachau was the only camp to be open the entire 12-year rule of Hitler and the Nazis, and it, along with Auschwitz, has come to symbolize the Nazi concentration camps.

I arrived at the tour meeting point for the 10am tour and there were about 12 of us total. It cost 17 Euros for the tour/transportation/Dachau entrance, but since I had won the beer challenge the night before, mine was free. Our tour guide’s name was Iian who was from Australia. We took a 15 minutes train ride from the city center to the city of Dachau. We then took a short bus (time not bus length title judging the mental capacity of those riding it) ride to the site of the concentration camp.

Iian was the head tour guide for the walking tour that I went on the day before and so I heard him give the 5 minutes introduction speech to everyone, but then he led a different group. At that time he was very charismatic and hilarious, but today he was a much different guide. He was very sullen and remorseful, but also very passionate of what he was talking about and what we were doing. I talked to him a lot throughout the tour, and he talked about how he had to give this tour 2 times a week and he absolutely hated it. He said how hard it was to have to just live this close to a place like this, but also have to talk about it and expose the evils of it twice a week. But he explained how he thought that everyone needed to see what not only happened here, but what is possible of happening in this World, and also that he just needed to distance himself from it on a regular basis to stay sane.

Dachau is the most well preserved Nazi concentration camp as well as the most accessible of any of them today. This was good in that it meant we got to get a real sense of what it was like here and see a lot of the buildings and areas. We started off by the front gates. Here there were railroad tracks you could still see where prisoners would be brought in on. And then the gates hold Dachau’s most famous image – the words “Arbeit macht frei,” or Work will set you Free. Dachau was first and primarily a work camp, and this is the first image prisoners would see when they arrived. So they would think the harder they worked, the more chance of freedom they had, but really they would just be worked until they physically couldn’t anymore and then executed.

After going through the front gates we walked around roll call square and the general entrance area. We then went into the first building prisoners would go into, the reception area. This is where they would be stripped of all of their possessions, clothes, names and dignity and would be given their “number.” They had lots of the prisoner’s possessions that were found in this room on display. We then went into the shower room where prisoners would first be shaven of every single body hair and then given a shower. There was also one of the torture/punishment devices in here; a block with a wooden whip where many people had been beaten to death.

Next we took a tour of one of the few prisoner barracks that still was standing. They had on display examples of the 3 stages of Dachau (from early to late, as the number of prisoners escalated dramatically). The first showed things like the 3 level bunk beds, which had dividers and shelves for each prisoner, then the next that had less space and no dividers or shelves. And then the final stage where the beds were just 4 levels of wood on top of each other, where the capacity was suppose to be about 50 people per bunks, but in the height of the camp was actually around 200…

We then went into the prison barracks, an actual prison within a prison. There were rows of completely black and small cement rooms, where prisoners would be locked up in for weeks at a time and shot if they made even the smallest noise. Then we walked down the rows and rows of memorials on the spots of the former barracks. At the end there was a preserved section of the kill zone strip of grass (if you set foot on it or when a guard pushes you on to it, you’re shot dead) and barbwire fence. Then it was onto the grimmest part of the tour.

We then left the living and working area of the camp to go to the crematory and gas chamber buildings. There was one small crematorium off to the side, the original one, but as the numbers started rising at the camp, they had to build the much larger crematorium and gas chamber. Iian gave a long talk about what would exactly happen here, we saw pictures of the hundreds of body’s stacked up on the spot we were standing and smoke (human) coming out of the smoke stack we were looking at. Iian then gave us the option to go in and look around the large one if we wanted, or just stay outside and wait with him. He has said that he has gone in only once, and that was the last time he ever would, it was far too grim. He did say though that he felt it was important that we went in though and expose ourselves to the evils of it.

A couple people in the group choose to not go in, but I went in. This was one of the most horrifying things I have ever done. We actually walked through the same rooms and made the same progression that prisoners would. They were told that they were being sent here to get a shower, something that was very rare and much needed, so they would be excited to go. We walked through first a couple waiting rooms, where they would be stripped naked and wait their turn for their “shower.” They then would be filed into the shower room, which still had the fake showerheads (there was absolutely no plumbing, all fake), and then they would be killed with gas. The guards would then take the bodies into the next room, the crematorium. All of the original stoves were still in this room, complete with looks of wear and tear and human ashes. Very, very depressing stuff. It felt as though I was in there forever and I finally was able to escape out into the fresh air and we continued our tour.

Iian then took us around to some more memorials, such as the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant ones. We then went into the Dachau museum, where we spent awhile walking around and reading and learning different things, and then we watched a movie made by one of the America Generals who helped liberate the camp in 1945. Outside the museum there was a giant memorial to all of the prisoners of the camp. It basically looked like a bunch of skinny bodies entangled in barbwire. It was meant to represent the prisoner’s last stand. They really had no chance of surviving, but their lives were always in their hands and they could take that one last stand of fighting until the end and trying to escape.

Iian told us loads of amazing/cruel/grim/interesting stories throughout the tour. One he told at this memorial was about a prison that decided to take his life into his own hands and take a final stand. At roll call when the entire population of the camp was in the square he made a run for the fences. He was shot in the leg before the fence, but stood up and yelled at the guard in the tower, “You fucking piece of shit, you can’t even shoot straight, you’re supposed to hit me here (pointing to his chest).” He was then shot dead, but the entire square erupted into applause and cheers.

Right next to the memorial were the words, “Never Again,” in six different languages. The term Genocide was termed after what had happened during WWII, and these words were suppose to signify that we as humans should never ever again allow something like the holocaust to happen. Iian spoke very passionately about this and kept asking the question of how can it keep happening today (Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur)? He continually kept emphasizing that what we saw this day was not an example of what Nazis or Germans can do against political prisoners or Jews, but what human beings can do against human beings.

This tour was one of the most moving experiences and best things I have ever done. I came into Germany having no intentions of doing it, but I am so glad I did. I would have easily paid the price of admission to go on this tour, but not only did I get it for free, I had an amazing tour guide who was very passionate and knowledgeable about what he was talking about. The way he would talk about things you would think he was directly (I know everyone has been affected in some way by the holocaust) affected by the events that took place here, like he was visiting his grandparents death bed here, but he was just an Aussie from halfway around the world. I really didn’t get too much into many of the horror stories that Iian told us about different things that had happened here, but I’m sure everyone knows/assumes/can start to imagine the horrible events that would take place at a place like this on a daily basis.

Looking back, that free tour I took was one of the best decisions I have made in a long time. Not only was it amazing, but also it led me to going on the beer challenge (which was a hell of a time) that won me a free tour, which I used to go on Dachau, which was one of the most surprising and best experiences of my trip. I really enjoy learning about history, especially from knowledgeable people, and the tours I took were great. I am so glad I went on them; the guides were funny, passionate and even emotional. They really gave me a chance to get more insight into the underbelly of Munich, and especially Hitler and the Nazis, something I really enjoyed learning about.

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One Response to “Germany- Dachau Concentration Camp”

  1. Bren Says:

    part of you is still there

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