This post is going to be very tough to write. I’ve been putting it off because I’ve been trying to find the right words to describe the experience, but it’s proving to be impossible. How exactly do you put into words what you felt and experienced on the site of a former concentration camp?

I know this is going to sound really morbid, but visiting a concentration camp has been something on my “bucket list” for quite some time. I have a connection to World War II through both sides of the family–my American grandfather was stationed in Italy as an airplane mechanic and my French grandparents lived through the war (my grandmother remembers hiding in the basement during bomb raids). Like every country under Nazi rule during WWII, France suffered tremendously–thousands of citizens were deported to concentration camps or murdered in the extermination camps (many people are unaware there are a difference between the two).

When I studied abroad in Toulouse, I interned at a museum dealing with the horrors of the deportation and the French Resistance (many Americans are under the misguided assumption French people were waiting around to be rescued. Not true.) I learned a lot at that museum and promised myself I would eventually visit the site of a former concentration camp.

The opportunity presented itself when I was in Munich. The Dachau Memorial is located about 16 kilometers northwest of Munich so it’s an easy day trip. We got there early so we could do the 2 hour and a half English language tour. Entrance to the memorial is free–there is a permanent exhibit on display and you can walk around the grounds and read the panels to learn about the history. If you want to do a guided tour, you do have to pay a fee.

Before the tour, we wandered a little bit around the entrance and I snapped some pictures. This next picture shows the only entrance and exit out of the former concentration camp. The prisoners were marched through this door–the majority of which would not make it back out. The gate is original, however the sign is not.

“Work will set you free.”

The same words famously greet visitors at Auschwitz in Poland–they mean “work will set you free.” However, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Some prisoners were freed from Dachau, but there weren’t many. From my perspective, these words were cruel and taunting. The prisoners were forced to perform backbreaking labor–if they didn’t, they were often killed. And if they did, they could still be killed.

Some important facts to know about Dachau that I learned from the tour:

  1. Dachau was THE first concentration camp established by the Nazi Party in 1933–originally meant for political prisoners. It was also the longest operating concentration camp, right until April 29th, 1945 when it was finally liberated by the American army.
  2. Dachau served as a prototype for the extensive Nazi concentration camp system–the layout, the system, the way things were run.
  3. Dachau had a gas chamber, but there are no official records as to whether it was actually used. To me, it seems a bit fishy that a gas chamber was built, but then never used. The tour guides are unable to confirm whether or not it was. Regardless, it’s still part of the tour.
  4. The original complex was actually a lot bigger–the prison was only a small part of it. Most the complex comprised of facilities intended for the SS.
  5. Numbers vary–but there were around 205,000 registered arrivals at Dachau and around 30,000 certified deaths.
  6. Dachau was set up as a prisoner for 6,000 men. When the Americans arrived, there were over 30,000 prisoners, many only barely alive.
  7. The prisoners pretty much built everything onsite in the prison.

Main gate house and main entrance

remains of train tracks and train platform

If you’re thinking, “oh the prisoners were brought to the camp in a train,” you’re wrong. Prisoners that were brought to Dachau did get there by train–but that dropped them off in the city center about 3 kilometers away. They were forced to walk the rest of the way. These tracks used to go to the factory where the prisoners worked–the train that went back and forth would drop off supplies at the camp.

reconstruction of a barrack

The above picture is the reconstruction of the kind of barrack the prisoners lived in. Like I said before, the prisoners built everything themselves. There were about 34 barracks split into two rows of 17. The original barracks were torn down in the 1960s. By the time the Americans got there, most of the barracks were being used as an infirmary–there was a serious typhus epidemic that was killing many of the prisoners.

inside the permanent exhibit

where the former showers were located

Do you see on the pillars of the shower rooms the uncovered part with holes that wasn’t repainted over? Former prisoners wanted this to be pointed out to visitors–there used to be bars running between the pillars. From these bars, some prisoners were punished by having their hands tied behind their back in chains and forced to hang for hours, without their feet touching the ground. This usually dislocated the shoulders of the prisoners–many died this way. Those that didn’t were usually rendered useless and ended up being killed.

I always knew life in the concentration camps had been bad–I just didn’t know to what degree. When our tour guide told us about the hanging punishment and read former prisoner testimonies, I felt like I had been dunked in cold water. It turns out I knew very little. One of the things I didn’t know about were the medical experiments carried out on prisoners by doctors–I’ll spare you the details but I will never forget the pictures in the exhibit.

I also hesitate posting this (and I did not take the picture, I got it from another website), but prisoners were also whipped on whipping blocks like this one:

the outside of the service building where the museum is located

The numerous memorials on the site remind us of how many people lost their lives to the Holocaust:

Catholic chapel

the outlines of the former barracks now filled with gravel

the main lane between the barracks lined with poplar trees (the Catholic chapel at the end)

The whole tour was difficult, but especially difficult was seeing the former crematoriums and actually entering the gas chamber. What revolted me even more was learning that actual prisoners were in charge of placing the bodies of their fellow inmates in the ovens–not SS agents. And the whole gas chamber experience–prisoners were tricked into entering the gas chamber because above the door it said “shower.” On the ceiling, there were fake shower heads to complete the illusion so the prisoners merely thought they were going to take an ordinary shower. Once inside, they were locked in and the pellets of Zyklon B were shoved into the vents and then closed. The prisoners didn’t realize they were going to suffocate to death until they had already been shut inside the chamber.

crematorium building

entrance into the gas chamber

As you can see, I did not post a picture of the inside of the gas chamber–I did originally take a picture but then I deleted it from my camera. It felt disrespectful and I could not bring myself to keep it on my camera, let alone post it. I can’t even describe how it felt to stand inside it–it was a very low, small room (probably built that way on purpose so the gas could kill people quickly). I can’t imagine how they could have fit a few hundred people in there. To imagine people dying in such a horrible way–it’s something that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

barbed wire and ditch surrounding the camp

watch tower

original lockers in prisoner barracks where prisoners stored belongings

We were told by the guide that sometimes SS agents would throw prisoner belongings into the ditch next to the barbed wire fence, forcing the prisoners to go get it–this usually resulted in the prisoners being shot by guards from the watch tower. There was no rhyme or reason to punishment–often the SS doled out punishments just because they felt like it.

If you would like more information about Dachau, this website has a very comprehensive history of the camp, including a very detailed account of the American liberation and what happened after liberation: http://www.scrapbookpages.com/dachauscrapbook/

I suggest you take a look, because I’m not posting any of the disturbing images of the thousands of bodies the Americans found when they got to Dachau, including the corpses in the “death train” sent from Buchenwald. One of the reasons there were so many dead bodies in Dachau when the Americans got there was because in the last few months of the war with the Allies closing in, the Nazis panicked and started consolidating all their prisoners in a select few camps.

I could go on and on–this blog post is long enough. While it was a difficult and emotional experience and I’m still not sure how to process it, I’m glad I took the time to go. I still don’t understand how we could have let this happen and I only hope it never happens again.