There’s a frightening name–Dachau. Nazi Concentration Camp #1, opened just 2 months after Hitler and his party came into power. Not a happy place, but an important one in history, something we don’t want to forget. The Travel Goddess thought it would be “yucky”, but it wasn’t. Decidedly not someplace to be missed.
We took a tour. Met at the Radius Tours office in the train station, then an 11 minute ride to the city of Dachau, a 60,000 person suburb with green lawns and tree lined streets. Got on the city bus and rode past JFK Plaza to the memorial.
You start with the front gate:
Over 200,000 people passed through this gate, from 1933 to 1945, all terrified with foreboding of the horrors within. People often associate the concentration camps with the Holocaust, the systematic murder of 6 million Jews, but forget that in total over 12 million died: Jews, Catholic clergy, homosexuals, Gypsies, political oppositionists of all variety. The Nazis were equal opportunity murderers.
The camp began as a place to hold political prisoners; anyone who in any way opposed the government. They were systematically stripped of identity, dignity, courage and hope. Dachau was not an extermination camp, designed solely to murder people in mass numbers, although many did indeed perish.
Our guide was a man from Wisconsin who emigrated here to be a teacher. He was immensely knowledgeable about the entire history of the Nazi Party and gave a depth to the story of the camp we truly appreciated.
Life in Dachau followed a direful progression. Barracks that at first held 50 men were progressively overfilled until they held 400, while every tiny amenity, such as the possibility of having a photo of a loved one, was removed.
Regardless of the overcrowding, everything has to be immaculately clean and neat. A scrap of paper on the floor would get an entire building penalized.
Dachau was not only the first camp, it adjoined the SS training center for all the camp guards. In the entire 12 years of operation, there was only one escape, partly because the other side of the wall was the training facility–there was literally no place to go.
The camp was surrounded by a grass strip, which was death to step on, a fence, a ditch, another fence, an electrified fence, a moat and yet another fence. And then the training camp. It is surmised that many of the “escape attempts” were in actuality suicides.
Although Dachau was not an extermination camp, a gassing room was constructed but never used.
The sign above the door “brausebad”, means shower. The German people no longer use this word, preferring “duche” instead.
Vaunted German efficiency continues to amaze–the guide, and the museum exhibits, give incredibly specific number for what happened here. They don’t say 200,000 people, they say 206,341 (as an example). The number who died is not 32,000, but 31,xxx, an exact number I can’ t perfectly quote.
Those 32,000 (approx) presented a problem of disposal that was solved with a crematorium. And then another.
The nation of Germany has done an admirable job of avoiding revisionism–they face their past squarely and honestly, believing that only by acknowledging the errors of the past can they be prevented in the future. There is no shying away from the painful and ugly truths of the concentration camp system, which grew to over 1100 separate camps spread throughout the Reich.
Today, Dachau is dotted with memorials and art that commemorate the dead and enjoin against reliving it.
The visitors center contains a bookstore with books both by and about the prisoners of the camp and the history of the third Reich. Admission is always free.
Here is yet another monument to the tragedy of Dachau:
There are religious memorials from Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Visiting Dachau isn’t a fun trip, but it is important. The way to avoid totalitarianism is to be aware of it from the start and never forget its dangers.
I’ll end this with a Jewish memorial, which seems to me to include remembrance of the past and hope for the future: