From the bus window, Dachau seems like a quaint little German town. It has that small town feel. Shady, tree lined streets. A lazy river running through center of town. People out walking and riding their bikes. It’s no wonder it is a popular place to live for the affluent people in the Munich area. As the bus pulls into our stop for the Dachau visitors center, it feels like I’m arriving at a park. There is a large dirt path lined with old growth trees, leaves rustling in the breeze. The large concrete marker stating this is the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial site is the only indicator this was once a place of extreme horror.
I pickup a map at the visitors center, entrance to the camp is free, and head on my way down the path. There are signs along the way, informing visitors of points of interest. I pass the train tracks that once brought the prisoners into camp, the Nazi SS barracks, and finally make it to the infamous gate.
Passing through the gate I am astounded at the size of the camp. The parade ground, where the prisoners had to muster in the morning and the evening seems to go on forever. I begin to imagine the huge numbers of people that must have been housed here.
I head to the main building, once used to process new prisoners and for administrative purposes, which is now a museum. The museum is really well laid out and informative. It takes you from the beginning of the concentration camp as a place to house Hitler’s political enemies and on through the years as more and more groups were added. There were the academics, Roma (gypsies), gays, anti-socials, and of course the Jews.
I knew the Nazi’s had a network of camps, but looking at the wall size map made me realize their network of horror was much larger than I understood. Concentration camps, work camps, and extermination camps spread across several countries.
Behind the main building is a place they called ‘The Bunker.” To get there you need to cross a innocent looking alley, that you later find out was used to punish, torture, and execute prisoners by firing squad.
The bunker itself is one long hallway with small prison cells on each side. The building was used to punish and interrogate prisoners. Most of it seems like it hasn’t been touched since the Allies liberated the camp, aside from the furniture being removed.
From the bunker I looked at some of the memorials erected at the front of the museum before heading to the barracks.
There are two barracks that are a reconstruction, used to give visitors a feeling of how the prisoners had to live during their imprisonment in the camp. There are example of the different sleeping bunks that got smaller and smaller as the years went on and the number of prisoners in the camp increased.
Behind the barracks are the endless foundations of where the former barracks used to stand. Again, the number of people housed here blows my mind.
After a long walk down the camp road there are several religious memorials that were erected to those held and murdered at the camp.
Then comes the grim part. I cross a bridge over a bubbling stream and follow a dirt path that winds into a grove of old trees. The path opens on a small brick building that looks like some sort of small utility building – but this is the crematorium.
I make my way from the holding room and into the “showers.” It feels eerie standing in the place so many people were tricked into thinking they were going to take a shower only to meet a grisly death at the hands of poison gas.
From the showers there is another holding room for the dead bodies and then the crematorium. I couldn’t believe how efficiently they had everything laid out. This was well engineered evil.
It was shocking on so many levels, but one thing that stood out was they had to build this building because the old crematorium wasn’t big enough to meet demand. And this wasn’t even one of their extermination camps.
It’s a long walk back to the entrance from the crematorium and gives me time to ponder. I’m glad I made the visit. I think it’s important to keep in mind the evil and horror man can do to fellow man in the name of an ideology. While I’ve read lots of history and seen many documentaries, seeing the place for myself was very moving and disconcerting. This didn’t happen all that long ago and is something we should never forget.