And so, on the 2nd of August (Tuesday), I left Munich to go to the neighboring city of Dachau. Just outside the city stands the first concentration camp from the time of the Nazis and the only one to be open from the beginning to the end of Hitler’s regime.
With everything I know about the Nazis, Hitler, the concentration camps, and everything else, I had already formed a picture of the camp already formed in my mind: gray, cold, barren, and chilling. Surprisingly, it was nothing like that, at least not at the entrance.
First, when I walked over from the bus stop, I passed a parking lot and then came to a grassy area. Once I hit the information center, the surroundings changed- but to even more green areas. I was walking on a gravel road, there were trees and bushes on each side of the path, and I could hear running water, like a creek or stream, nearby. I could almost, ALMOST, describe it as simply beautiful. Yet there was no way to forget where I was. There were signs all over the place with information and pictures from the time. In addition, the people around me were completely somber, serious, and reflective. This was quite obviously not a simple summer walk in the park.
I headed inside the main building, where they showed a film giving a general overview of why the camp was built, who the prisoners were, and what the reactions of the liberators as well as the people of Dachau when they found out what was happening in the camp. In the same building was a museum of Dachau, split into two parts. Each room had descriptions for what their original purpose had been; for example, handing out uniforms or assigning numbers. The second part was a detailed timeline of events since the end of WWI. There were films, audio, and readings from the prisoners, maps of all the concentration camps, numbers and statistics, just an overload of information. I didn’t manage to get all the way through the museum. It was just too much.
After a quick lunch at the cafeteria, I went in to see the barracks. They only have two now, but have planter boxes for the other 32 barracks that existed when the camp was in use. In one of the buildings they had, there were a total of five rooms. The first was set up as the sleeping arrangements in 1933-334. There were three levels of ‘beds’, but each area was still individually separated. These beds took up approximately half the room, and there were benches on the other side of the room. I don’t know if that’s how they were originally set up or the benches were added for the tour groups that came trough. The second room was the sleeping arrangements in 1936-37, which this time took up the entire room. The ‘beds’ weren’t quite as distinct this time, although it was clear what space there was for each person to sleep. The third room was the eating area for the people who were originally imprisoned there, and there were also storage spaces for personal belongings. The fourth room had the toilets, and the fifth room had the sleeping arrangements for the years 1943-44. Those were no longer individual sleeping places, but rather three levels of people sleeping head to foot next to each other, due to the overcrowding of the camp in the final years.
I walked along the path between the barracks, looking left and right to see the empty planter boxes where said barracks used to be. At the very end of the row were three memorials: one Protestant, one Catholic, and one Jewish. Behind the center memorial was the area of the camp where women were sent and forced into prostitution, and is now used as a convent for Carmelites.
Off to the side of the camp was ‘Bunker X’, where the ovens and gas showers were. In addition to a room for the ovens and the ‘showers’, there were two rooms set aside just for the bodies. In the room with the ovens, there was a rail in front of the ovens where people were hanged, so they could literally just be cut down and cremated immediately. Outside of Bunker X there were memorials set up by the prisoners themselves, just after liberation, where ashes were buried and where people were shot execution-style. This area of the camp had the strongest effect on me. Yes, seeing the areas where humans were poorly treated, forced to work and forced to sleep in such close quarters was tough. But seeing where people were murdered, hundreds at a time, was absolutely sickening. This is where it all hit home for me.
Finally, I made my way to the barracks for the “special prisoners”. These were both the prisoners who were treated better than the others, such as Christian religious leaders who spoke out against Hitler and the Nazis, and the prisoners who were tortured, either because they misbehaved in the camp or the SS believed them to have valuable information. The special prisoners were a new concept to me. I knew that Hitler had sent his political opponents and those who spoke out against the Regime into the camps, but I was not aware that some of them were treated differently from the others. For example, the Christian leaders were given a portable altar and were able to hold religious services each week among themselves. On the other hand, there were also standing cells, where prisoners didn’t have enough room to sit or lay down, and were kept there for up to 72 hours. Most of these torture cells had no windows, so the prisoners inside had no light for days at a time.
Finally, my day ended. I wasn’t able to hear all of the personal stories or the information about the camp, as I stayed until the place closed for the day. Honestly, even if I did have more time, I’m not sure I would have been emotionally able to handle listening to any more. Obviously, I’ve learned a lot about the time period in Germany’s history, through history books, my language classes, and the class I took Winter Semester. However, there is a huge difference in reading about the atrocities that happened and actually seeing where they took place, catching miniscule glimpses into the lives of the victims of the Holocaust. I realize that I have not and most likely never will understand the full experience of the people who had to suffer in the concentration camps, nor what their families had to go through after the war ended.
Honestly, what upset me more than my experience in the camp was some of the actions of the visitors that day. Most were respective and somber, but there were a few who didn’t seem to understand the importance of the camp. In the barracks, there were kids playing in the bed area, and the only thing their mom said to them was to get together so she could take a photo of them. So many visitors wanted to take pictures posing next to ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’. It makes me wonder how much people are learning about the horrors of World War Two in Germany, or whether it has become just part of the past, a problem of their grandparents’ generation. If only they could understand how much the past has affected the current society in Europe and in Germany in particular. Before this year, I had never experienced a case of a country’s history playing such an important role in the present as Hitler and the Nazis have on Germany today.
Germany has come a long way since its darkest hour. During this entire year, people have asked me why I feel so attracted to Germany, and honestly, the turbulent history is part of the reason. It’s not that I like or approve of the history, rather that I appreciate how much things have changed and improved in the 66 years since the end of World War Two, and 21 years since the reunification of Germany. Germany actually makes me optimistic about the future. To put it in a nutshell, Germany has made a complete 180. If they can change and improve so much in such a short amount of time, why can’t the rest of the world?