Dachau, the first concentration camp built by the Nazis in 1933. From the road much of the camp is now
obscured from view, surrounded by trees that line the fence. The main camp was supported by nearly 150 satellite camps across Southern Germany and Austria, which were all collectively referred to as Dachau.
The first victims of the camp were political
prisoners, but as Hitler's final solution came into play the number of Jewish prisoners increased to about 1/3 of the camp’s total population. Nearly every country was represented in the 206,206 recorded prisoners who spent time at Dachau. It was not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz in Poland. Instead, Dachau was notorious for its cruel medical experiments and harsh living conditions. There were 31,591 recorded deaths.
These numbers do not reflect those who went unrecorded. The actual number of people who died there will never be known.
Early in the morning, just before loads of tourists begin to
arrive and file through the same gates prisoners once did, Dachau is quiet.
Before the gravel paths fill up with the well-fed and rosy-checked,
you can almost make out the shadows of the ghosts who didn't have air-conditioned buses to take them back to their five-star hotel at the end of the day.
The camp isn't much larger than a few city blocks. Where
barracks once stood, there are now only outlines left by the foundations.
A 1/4 of a mile long boulevard runs down the center, lined by Poplar trees on either side. The original trees were planted in the last 1930’s by the Nazis, however, the trees standing in their place today were planted in the 1980’s.
The Museum is housed in the camp’s former administration building. Large galleries show tourists photos, letters, and other assorted artifacts from the camp. There is also a theater with runs a documentary on the camp (with shows in both German and English) that includes footage shot while the camp was in use and during its liberation in 1945.
Parts of the camp, including portions of the perimeter fence, the guard towers, and the only standing barrack were reconstructed in 1965.
Outside the museum, where prisoners once stood for roll call
, the International Monument
(twisted human skeletons hanging from a barbed wire fence) by Yugoslavian
artist Nandor Glid
stands. The monument was dedicated in 1968. Other sculptures and monuments are scattered throughout the camp.
The original crematorium was built in 1940, and a second one was built in 1943. The later also had a gas chamber, although it was never used to execute prisoners.
Dachau also included a larger complex that was used to house and train SS troops. The U.S. later used the SS garrison until 1973.
Several churches and religious sites have been built on the camp's former sitehe Protestant Church of Reconciliation and the Jewish Memorial are now located on the camp property at Dachau. The Catholic Church of the Mortal Agony was built in honor of the memory of the 2,579 Catholic priests held at Dachau. Both the Church and the Carmelite Convent were built at the urging of Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler, a Dachau survivor. He is now buried inside the Church. Near the crematorium is the Russian Orthodox Chapel, honoring the 4,000 to 6,000 Russian POWs killed at Dachau.
It is difficult to make the physical connections between the
material and images presented in the museum and the rest of the camp. Who really
wants to admit that the room they were standing in only minutes ago is the
same room that was once packed from floor to ceiling with the dead?
The main gates still read “Arbeit macht frei.” One survivor’s work takes him back to the camp each day. He rides the first city bus out to Dachau and makes his way
across the camp to sit out in the shade near the crematorium, to sit and wait for tourists are willing to listen to his story.
What shocked me the most about my own trip to Dachau in the summer of 2000, were the number of people who weren't willing to listen.