Munich: A Short Visit to Dachau Concentration Camp and Memorial Site
A new year had come and gone again and with a new year brings a fresh start. Like most of us, the holidays swept me away and kept me busy for the last couple months. Now that it’s well into January, it feels good to have my daily routines back, as well as a few additional new years resolutions. One of my resolutions is to write more, which includes being much more consistent with my blog!
In my last post, I wrote about my experiences hiking in the Black Forest in Freudenstadt, Germany with my sister, Colleen. In this post, I will tell you about our twenty-four-hour stay in Munich, which a majority of our time was spent at the Dachau Concentration Camp and Memorial site.
The gates into Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. The gate reads “Arbeit Macht Frei.” In English, this translates into, “work sets you free.”
Munich: A Short Visit to Dachau Concentration Camp and Memorial Site
We woke up early in the morning to catch the first train out of Freudenstadt Hauptbahnhof (Central Station). We were sad to leave the picturesque foothills of the Black Forest, but I was thankful to have had the opportunity to stay there for 3 nights. After two train transfers and four hours traversing across the Bavarian countryside, Colleen and I arrived in Munich’s Central Station. From there, we had a choice to make. Either we could go to the hostel to drop off our bags or we could go directly to Dachau to visit the concentration camp and memorial site—Dachau city is about an hour away from Munich. In the end, we decided to go directly there. So, we strapped on our backpacking backpacks, picked up a croissant from a nearby sweets booth, and got onto the next train to Dachau.
From the Dachau train station, there is a bus that takes you directly to the concentration camp memorial site. We had just missed the bus, so we decided to take a taxi since the memorial site closes at 5:00 pm and it was already past 2:00 pm. As I sat in the taxi, I remember looking out the window and watching as homes and business fronts passed by. I thought back on my time in Amsterdam and Berlin and thought of the name plates, or in German, “Stolperstein,” meaning stumbling stones, that I came across while walking along the city sidewalks. These metallic bricks were placed in front of homes, which had the names and life outcomes of the Jewish families that resided in those homes. I remember reading one in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and it had said the gentlemen had been sent to Dachau Concentration Camp. While watching the buildings pass by, it made me wonder if there were any stumbling stones on the sidewalks of Dachau.
The building entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp.
When we arrived, we were dropped off on the outer limits of the original camp site. Surrounding the camp were buildings that were once used for offices and housing for the nazi soldiers that worked and supervised at the camp. Now, these buildings are warehouses or being utilized by the museum and memorial staff. We stopped in the main building to get a map, as well as information about the memorial site. We were expecting to have to pay for tickets, but we learned that the memorial site is free to visit. They do take donations, though.
We stepped out of the building and followed a pebbled road towards the entrance to the concentration camp. Colleen and I stopped at the informational signs along the way, trying our best to soak in as much information as we could. With each step closer to the entrance, I noticed I was feeling more and more anxious about entering the campgrounds. The realization of how much horror happened on these grounds hadn’t really set in yet. I knew by reading more informational signs and spending more time in the camp that I would most likely feel a deep and overwhelming mixture of sadness and irrational guilt. A part of me didn’t want to experience that, but there was the part of me that knew it’s important to see the ugly side of history. So, with that, Colleen and I walked in.
An informational sign near the camp entrance
The Dachau Concentration Campgrounds is big and Colleen and I realized very quickly that 3 hours would not be enough time to really get an in-depth tour. So, we decided to visit as many buildings as possible, but that we would make intentional time in the museum building (permanent exhibition rooms) and in the Crematorium Area. We started in the permanent exhibition rooms. The exhibits were very well done. They gave information about pre-war Germany, as well as a broad summary of World War Two. Once we reached the public shower rooms and cafeteria, the exhibitions explained what daily life was like for the people who were imprisoned there. Being in the physical rooms of where the prisoners showered and ate was a powerful experience.
If I were to write about everything I learned while at the Dachau exhibit, this blog post would be thousands of words long. So, I’ll stick with the information that impacted me the most, but I would encourage you (if you haven’t yet) to read up on the history of the incarceration of disenfranchised people—Jews, gay men, political prisoners, gypsies, Roma, etc—during WW2.
The cafeteria building
The exhibition rooms, specifically the prisoner’s public spaces had horrifying and grotesque displays for its visitors. It was hard for me to see the pictures of unnaturally slim people showering in the public area and to read the information regarding the daily physical abuse the prisoners suffered from the nazi guards. The hardest for me, though, was the obvious murders that happened, specifically regarding the mock suicides. There were news clippings from the local nazi war-time newspaper with multiple images of dead prisoners in positions that are physically impossible to do by oneself. The clippings would say the camp was a good place to live, but the people would decide to end their lives anyway. It was unsettling to know that not only were people murdered by gunshot, starvation, and sickness, but they were also forced into mock suicides.
After the permanent exhibit, Colleen and I visited the “Bunker” building, which housed the political prisoners, as well as the “special” prisoners (famous individuals). We could go into the rooms that housed prisoners and there were signs regarding who stayed in some of the specific rooms.
I stepped out of the Bunker building, sat down to rest my feet, leaned my back against the wall, and looked around from where I was sitting. It was a pretty nice day and I would even say it felt peaceful. There was a slight wind that made the tree branches sway from side to side. I could also hear the sound of moving water, which happened to be a creek that ran parallel to the campground’s west boundary. Finding peace in a historically horrific space was quite the dichotomy.
My view while sitting outside the bunker. These guard towers were along the campground boundary.
The path leading to the north side of the campground. This was where prisoners could interact with one another without close supervision. The prisoner and nazi barracks used to border the path, but the original barracks have been destroyed over time.
Walking from the south side of the camp to the north side of the camp took us about 15 minutes. We walked on a wide pebbled path. We learned soon enough that the barracks used to surround this path and that the path used to be used as a community space for its prisoners. It was one of the few places where the prisoners could have unsupervised conversations and interact with their friends or family.
The newer Crematorium – this is where dead prisoners were gassed and/or burned and then their ashes were thrown into the ground, creating mass ash graves. – Wikipedia
We veered left and crossed a creek to reach the Crematorium Area. It is one of the few areas with original buildings that has survived over the years. There were two buildings, one was smaller and the signs told us this was the original crematorium. When the camp was first built, it was designed to hold 6000 prisoners—Dachau was actually the first official camp built under the Hitler regime and was the blueprint for all other concentration camps built throughout the war. The original Crematorium had one or two ovens to dispose of the dead prisoners, but it was soon discovered that the camp would be well over capacity, so they built a newer crematorium with more ovens, as well as the addition of a gas chamber.
The ovens in the newer Crematorium. – Wikipedia
(I didn’t take any photos while in the Crematorium. It didn’t feel right to me, which is why I’m using Wikipedia images.)
The gas chamber, which the Germans made look like a shower upon entering. – Wikipedia
Colleen and I walked through the Crematorium and spent a lot of our time in each room. One room was said to have housed hundreds of dead bodies, stacked on top of each other, waiting to be burned. The main oven room had high ceilings and towering beams that framed the brick ovens that paralleled the floor. We read the signs in there as well. One said that there was a backlog of dead bodies to be burned because, by the end of the war, most of the concentration camps ran out of wood and coal to keep the ovens hot. The final room was the gas chamber room. Colleen and I entered the same way the prisoners would have entered. The signs told us that the guards would tell the prisoners to take off their clothes because they were entering a shower. Inside the chamber, there were holes in the ceiling that looked like water could come out of them, but on the east side walls were two holes with gates over them. I would learn later that from the outside, there were chutes—they look like laundry chutes—and guards would put gas pellets into them, which would then release the poisonous gas to the prisoners in the chamber, killing everyone inside. This room was directly connected to the main oven room.
Colleen reading the informational sign about the shooting range and the mass ash graves which are found in the Crematorium Area. Walking in the Crematorium area was a sobering experience for both Colleen and me.
From there, in silence, Colleen and I slowly walked back to the main entrance. In three hours, I had learned so much about what happened in Dachau, and in a way, I still didn’t know much at all. Upon leaving the campgrounds, I told myself that I need to educate myself more about not only the Nazi occupation but also what is happening currently in our world today. For years and even now, there is mass genocide happening in Syria and in many parts of the Middle East. There are extremist groups all over the world, even in the USA, who target folks based on their religion, race, or citizenship. I already knew that I have to be more aware for the years to come, especially since Trump is now in office, but Dachau inspired me to be even more aware of what is happening globally and to help in whatever way I can. At the moment, all I can really do is send money to relief organizations and to talk to folks who are unaware. Maybe down the road, I’ll be able to do more.
So, for now, let’s stay woke everyone.
Thanks for reading.
Till next time,
Munich’s Town hall – Rathaus-Glockenspiel. There is a clock that re-enacts two stories from the 16th Century starting at 11:00 am every day.