A Visit to Dachau - Part One

From Monday 10th - Friday 14th December, a group of friends and I stayed in Munich to visit two of our university peers out on an Erasmus year (hence why I haven't written a blog for a little while, and I apologise for that).
Munich is a beautiful city, already ranking as one of my favourite places to visit, even after only a few days there. The snow was thick, the Christmas markets lined the streets and the food and beer were excellent. A later blog will cover the city itself, and its places of historical importance concerning the Nazis and their rise to power. For now, however, I will focus on a trip I made on Thursday 13th December, to the Nazis' original concentration camp that set the mark for those that followed.

Photos coming soon

Dachau is a small town just shy of eleven miles north-west of the centre of Munich. It has a population of just over 43,000 and is rich in history, having been founded in the 8th century. Unfortunately, however, it is largely only the period between 1933 and 1945 that it is renowned worldwide for.
In March 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the German Reich, a small concentration camp was established on the outskirts of the town. Originally designed to keep 3,000 prisoners, the camp was expanded in 1937-8 to double its capacity. By 1945, however, when the American Army liberated Dachau concentration camp, they found almost 30,000 prisoners trapped behind the infamous 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate, many dead or dying. It is estimated around 35,000 prisoners died in the camp and its subcamps - almost the current population of the town.

I visited Dachau with just one other friend. The town was certainly colder than Munich city centre; a couple of degrees below freezing, at least. Snow blanketed the entire area. Snow is always seen as a rather poetic type of weather that makes everything more beautiful, but it still could not cover up the horrors of what we were walking into. With my three layers of clothing, gloves, scarf and large furry hat, I could still feel the cold, but the thought of prisoners in just a single layer having to work a 14-hour day in such conditions did not escape my mind. In that respect, I had nothing to complain about.
Rather than take a tour from Munich - after some contemplation, I decided I would rather give my money directly to the museum than an additional company - my friend and I each rented an audio guide to supplement the signs and buildings around the museum. The guide has basic information but also detailed information, should you wish to hear it. The lady in the visitor centre advised an extra hour for the detailed information, but it certainly takes a lot longer, as we completed only half the guide and it added at least another two hours onto our visit! The detailed information, however, was certainly very interesting. It combined more facts, statistics and personal testimonies, many of which related directly to the room or area in which you were standing. The area that stood out to me most was the old shower room. This room was focused on punishment and torture; a replica of a bench used for whipping prisoners stood to one side, and, although the walls had been painted, fixtures from the beams where prisoners were once hung by their neck or arms were still visible. As I stood looking at one of them, I could suddenly see a prisoner hanging with his arms behind his back, his shoulders beginning to dislocate, screaming with pain. I do not believe in the supernatural, but this sudden creation of my imagination certainly left me shaken.
Our trip to Dachau took us around five hours, and that was without visiting all the buildings or monuments. We followed the path up to the Jourhaus, where the infamous gate stands. Passing through that, we went into the old maintenance building, which now houses a permanent exhibition and small cinema, showing a 22-minute documentary about the camp. It was here that we spent the most time. There are so many photographs, quotes and information boards, along with the guides, at least a couple of hours should be dedicated to just the exhibition. Once we had made our way through the building, we walked down the one long road in the camp, surrounded by innocent-looking trees, and turned left to visit the two crematoria. In the newer crematorium, a gas chamber was located in the middle of the building; however, this was only ever used experimentally on individuals or small groups of prisoners. My friend and I stood in the middle of the small room, looking up at the hatches where gas was dropped into the room. Compared to the one remaining gas chamber in Auschwitz, which bears scratch marks and blue tinges from Zyklon B on the walls, the room was remarkably clean. It could have been a real washroom; no wonder prisoners were so easily deceived by this pretence.

Photos coming soon

The old crematorium building, too, resembled something of a cosy log cabin, with the exception of its contents. Rather than a standard brick building, the exterior was white-washed with wooden beams lain across it. The doors remain open, though, and two ovens stared back at us as we stood in front of it.
As my companion and I walked back up towards the Bunker, behind the maintenance building, it was about 4 o'clock. The light was beginning to fade, and many of the groups we had seen earlier had already gone. All that was left were tracks of footprints in the snow. Again, this made me feel as though these footsteps did not belong to visitors, but to the lost spirits of those killed in the camp. It made me feel that we were certainly not alone, no matter how many visitors were or were not on the site.
The Bunker, like the notorious Block 11 in Auschwitz I, was the prison within the prison. A long, narrow, one-storey building, it contained around 130 cells for prisoners. It also included an SS interrogation room and standing cells, which were also used in Block 11. These cells held famous prisoners such as theologian Martin Niemöller and Georg Elser, the man who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1939. Almost every door we passed was wooden with a small peephole, and the lighting in the building was dim, particularly as the natural light was disappearing. It was truly an eerie and rather unpleasant experience, but important nonetheless.
With darkness falling and the museum soon to close, my friend and I headed back. I was all too aware that we would soon be back in the heart of Munich, with warmth, food and a comfortable bed to sleep in. There were far too many people that walked through the gates of Dachau, were robbed of all these privileges, and never came back out.