Along with the visit to Munich to celebrate Oktoberfest came the opportunity to take a guided tour of the nearby concentration camp Dachau. Named for the town that it was built near, this camp was the first concentration camp built in Germany in March of 1933. It is unique because it was used as a prototype for most other camps constructed afterwards.
Dachau was chosen because of its proximity to Munich, about 16 km, and because it was the site of an abandoned munitions factory. The camp was mainly used to contain political prisoners that opposed the Nazi regime. On this trip I learned that there is a difference between a “concentration camp”, where prisoners were contained and used for labor to support the war, and an “extermination” camp, where prisoners were sent to be executed (such as Auschwitz in Poland). That being said, nearly all of the prisoners there were men, forced to work until they died of disease (Typhus), starvation, or exhaustion. It was also known for containing many religious leaders that had spoken out against the Nazi regime. Dachau was used over a 12-year span, which is the longest, but it was also one of the first to be liberated by the Americans in 1945. In addition to the camp, Dachau was also the home of a large SS training facility.
Over 200,000 people were imprisoned at Dachau, with over 30,000 dying on its grounds or in the surrounding sub-camps. While it was the longest running camp, the total death toll was only a fraction of the 10 million (Jews and non-Jews; exact numbers not known) that died in the entire system – again, because they would typically send prisoners not fit to work off to extermination camps to be killed. Of the original camp, the barracks were all torn down and two replicas were built to give visitors an idea of the living conditions, buildings used to house the SS soldiers still stand, the main “registration” and administration building has been preserved, and there is still a crematory building containing mass “shower rooms” (gas chambers) and ovens on the site that was left intact to provide evidence of the horrors that occurred at these camps. The survivors of Dachau made all of the decisions as to how the camp was to be preserved and how the victims would be memorialized. A few pictures are shown below.
Entrance to the camp. "Arbeit macht frei" translates to "work brings freedom" or" work shall set you free"
View upon entering main gates - this is where "roll call" would happen each morning.
Electrified fence line w/ guard tower. On the right, a model barrack and the foundations of former barracks.
Main walkway through camp
Crematorium building(original) - kept intact to indict Nazi's shed light on inhumane actions
"shower room" entrance - no evidence that it was ever used (possibly due to mechanical problems)
This is a memorial to all of the prisoners of the camp - survivors and non-survivors
I think that everyone should try to visit at least one concentration camp in their lifetime to try to scratch the surface of the unbelievable horrors of the time. Our tour guide emphasized that the survivors whom designed the memorial wished nothing more than for future generations to come to grips with what happened there and to ensure that it doesn't happen again - our visit on that day was exactly what they would've wanted.
I'm not sure how much the average American knows about the Holocaust and concentration camps, but I think that I was blessed to have a 9th grade English teacher that made it a point to educate us in the time period. We read Elie Wiesel's Night, visited a museum in Atlanta, met with a survivor, and completed a literary project on the Holocaust. That's one area where my education didn't fail me. Shout out to Mrs. Traci Shuster!!!