Nothing exists in the world that imposes a greater shock to the senses than the realization of blatant, arbitrary suffering. As we boarded the train traveling from Munich to the town of Dachau that Sunday morning, I thought about this, mentally preparing myself for what I was about to see at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. Of course, nothing can really prepare a person for such a thing, but I was certainly giving it my best efforts. I thought about where I had been at this time last year when I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I had spent hours that day exploring the museum, reading accounts from survivors, and observing the artifacts on display, the most impactful exhibit being the pile of old, blackened shoes—the feet which once wore them long forgotten, the names lost in the sands of time. But not even that life-changing experience one year ago could absorb the impact of physically setting foot on the grounds where thousands of people, political dissidents, prisoners of war, undesirables of all kinds, and Jews lost their lives, starved to death or victims of illness, beaten into submission or shot. Nothing can prepare a person for that…
Once we got off the train in Dachau (the concentration camp was named after the town in which it resided), we saw signs pointing towards the memorial site. To walk there would have been a distance of 3 kilometers, the same walk that prisoners had to make when transported from packed train cars to the labor camp. We decided instead to take the five minute bus shuttle, but part of me wishes I had taken the extra 30 minutes to walk in the footsteps of so many who had trudged, tired and frightened, to their deaths.
Dachau Concentration Camp is known as the first Nazi concentration camp. It was opened in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler, the Chief of Police in Munich, on the grounds of Dachau’s old, long-unused gunpowder and munitions factory. When it was first opened, its initial purpose was to incarcerate political dissidents from Bavaria and have them develop munitions in the factory for the German army. However, with the passing of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935, undesirables in the hundreds began to be shipped to the camp. This began with Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and emigrants. In 1937, Dachau used its labor force to expand the size of the camp to accommodate up to 6,000 prisoners. However, after this reconstruction and the events of the Reichskristallnacht (“Night of the Broken Glass”) in 1938 –when synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses across Germany and Austria were vandalized and destroyed and thousands of Jews were rounded up to be sent to concentration camps– and after the Anschluss of Austria to Germany that same year, over 11,000 German and Austrian Jews were transported to Dachau. In 1939, hundreds of Sinti and Roma people (gypsies) were sent to the camp, and in 1940, the gates were also opened to 13,000 Polish prisoners, who constituted the majority of the camp’s population until its official liberation on April 29, 1945. Over its 12 years as a concentration camp, Dachau’s administration recorded the intake of over 200,000 prisoners and over 30,000 deaths primarily from malnutrition, suicide, and disease, the worst of which was a typhus epidemic in 1945 due to poor sanitation and severe overcrowding. The complex was not big enough to accommodate the number of prisoners kept there in the last few years of the camp’s operation.
I entered the camp complex through the gates of the Jourhaus, or guardhouse, which served as the main entrance and the administrative/command center of the camp. Just inside the gates, I was struck by the vastness of the open space, the giant roll call square, where prisoners by the tens of thousands would stand at attention shoulder to shoulder for hours on end no matter the weather or their physical condition. If they were to collapse or show signs of illness or fatigue, they could be shot on the spot. I was literally standing on the deathbed of hundreds. Up above and to my right was the international monument to the prisoners of Dachau. It features a tangled array of metal scraps fashioned to look like skeletal corpses. Across from this fixture was a monument to the different kinds of prisoners, each represented by a geometric plaque of a different color, corresponding to the color of the badge each prisoner was forced to wear to distinguish him as a Jew, homosexual, political prisoner, etc. At the end of the monument was the inscription, “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow man.” This monument also bore the inscription, “Never Again.”
Never Again. I walked over to the edge of the camp near the fences and guard towers to think about this. Nearly every year since I can remember in primary and secondary school, we have studied the Holocaust in some capacity. Movies, documentaries, books, and other media are constantly written, released, and shared with the world. Here in the town of Dachau, the citizens rose up to make this tragic site a memorial and an opportunity for the world to realize the darkness humanity is capable of perpetrating against itself, for no reason other than power and superiority. We are all humans in the end. We are born, we breathe, we love, we experience pain, we grow, we live, and we die. Yet there are still those out there that deny such a thing as the Holocaust is even possible. It does seem farfetched, doesn’t it, the idea that enough people can band together for the express purpose of exterminating another people, that this can ever be considered as a contribution to the greater good? Yet it did happen, and similar injustices continue to be perpetrated all over the world today.
I walked out the back gate of the camp and out into the road to survey the encampment from the outside. Had I been a prisoner during the time of the camp’s operation, guards from the adjacent watch towers would have shot me dead for entering the eight-meter-wide strip of grass that made up the “prohibited zone” between the camp walls and the outside world. Often, SS officers would throw prisoners’ hats into the grass and command them to retrieve them. This, of course, meant certain death. Many prisoners intent on committing suicide would willingly enter this zone.
What must it have been like to be a citizen of the town of Dachau at this time, knowing what was happening just beyond the walls, hearing shots fired daily, or smelling corpses burning in the crematorium? As I stood on the side of the rode, multiple cars passed me by, just like they would have passed by Dachau’s walls 70 years ago. I heard stories of many citizens of the town of Dachau trying to help the prisoners, sending in medicine or food, but in that time speaking out against the Nazi regime would have landed anyone their own place in one of the many concentration camps around Europe. In 1945, before the Dachau’s liberation, citizens of the town led an uprising against the SS in which seven of the citizens were killed. After the war, people all over the world still blamed the citizens for allowing the camp to ever be instituted in their town. This led older generations in Dachau to recede into a sort of shadowy existence, denying that it ever happened and refusing to acknowledge that the name of their home was now synonymous with one of the most brutal crimes against humanity in history. It wasn’t until a younger generation rose up in the 1960s, committed to taking responsibility for preserving the memory of the victims of Dachau Concentration Camp, that the mindset changed, to learn from the past and accept the Nazi crimes as an undeniable part of German history.
After all, when has denial of reality ever promoted progress? Today, we are faced with the dilemma of a devastated environment for which we as humans are directly responsible. Many deny climate change and refuse to become educated in ways to help save our planet, the future of which looks incredibly dim according to recent ecological studies and predictions… but, I digress.
I walked back into the camp and took another look at the roll call square. Here, prisoners not only feared death but torture through floggings or pole hangings. Behind the monument on the south side of the camp is the service building. During camp operation, this building housed laundry and bath facilities, the kitchen, and offices and workshops. Today, it houses the Memorial Site’s museum. Behind the service building, I walked into the camp prison, or “bunker.” Here, prominent public figures, “camp criminals” receiving detention, or men awaiting execution were kept isolated in individual cells (there were 137 in all) with lockable shutters for keeping out light. Many were forced to stand in these cells for days without light as a form of tortuous punishment. Others, like the prominent public figures held here, would receive better treatment than the regular prisoners, including better and more food and the ability to walk freely around the facilities during the day. I spent a while in the bunker. It was dark and quiet, and each of the cells displayed the testimony of a different prisoner. It doesn’t get much worse than this, I thought. As bad as it was for the men in the camp, they could watch the sun rise and set. They could count on each other for support. They could distract themselves in daily work, however painful. Here, if you were in detention or awaiting execution you had no one, no light, nothing except for your thoughts, which I’m sure could be enough to drive any man to the breaking point. It is a wonder that not every single prisoner in Dachau Concentration Camp chose to enter the prohibited zone for a quick end. I have no concept of what a mind and body goes through to ensure its survival at all costs, but if it had been me, I can scarcely imagine that I would have been strong enough to carry on.
When I exited the bunker, I started down the camp road towards the two still-standing barracks, one of which was open for visitors to see the average prisoner’s living arrangement. Bunkers 3 through 30 were torn down before the inception of the memorial site. Only barracks 1 and 2 were reconstructed for display. In place of the rest simply lie their cement foundations upon the ground.
I entered the open barracks containing four adjacent living units. Each barrack had contained two hallways, two toilet rooms, two washrooms, four day rooms, and four bunkrooms. When the concentration camp was undergoing expansion in 1938, it was being designed to accommodate 6,000 prisoners, 50 per living unit, so 200 in each barrack. Instead, camp command put at least 54 men in each living unit beginning in 1938. By 1944, 300 prisoners were being packed into each living unit. That means that an entire camp meant for 6,000 was holding upwards of 36,000 men. Disease and death in the hundreds became a daily occurrence in the months before liberation. And I sometimes complain about having a college roommate.
As I listened to my audio-guide explain these things about the prisoners’ barracks, one story struck me and hasn’t left me to this day. At one point in the life of the camp, camp command had begun bringing in female prisoners from women’s concentration camps and housing them in a separate barracks on the outskirts of the facility to serve as sex slaves for the male prisoners, to “motivate” them to work harder. If I hadn’t been sickened enough by the things I had learned about Dachau thus far, this put the cherry on top of the pit-of-the-stomach feeling I had carried with me since first stepping onto the grounds. I still think about this sometimes and ask myself if it was even a common occurrence for prisoners to visit the female facility. After all the injustices perpetrated against them, was it even possible that one could perpetrate such a thing against an equally innocent woman, let alone even think about sex?
Other barracks were used as infirmaries, which meant that they did little to treat patients, but mainly conducted heinous medical experiments. Some of the most notable included forcefully inducing hypothermia in test subject prisoners to see how long they could survive. There was a running joke throughout the camp that to actually be admitted to the infirmary as a patient, you had to walk in holding your head under your arm.
At the back end of the camp, memorial churches exist to represent the various faiths of the prisoners who endured the injustices of Dachau. They include the Roman-Catholic Chapel, the Protestant Church of Reconciliation, the Soviet Memorial Chapel, and the Jewish Memorial.
Down a narrow path past these memorials, I ran into the crematorium. The location was also used as a place of execution, where shootings and hangings were carried out in front of large furnaces. In the wooded area adjacent to the crematorium, one can still see bullet holes imbedded into the tree trunks.
When the camp began to overcrowd in the 1940s and the death rate surpassed the capacity of the original crematorium, a second one was built, and it included a gas chamber. This building was referred to as Barrack X. While no gas chamber executions were ever carried out at Dachau, as far as records can show, the building was planned strategically. In the first room, prisoners were to wait while being given instructions, being told they were about to take a sanitation shower. In the second room, they were to disrobe, and in the third, they were to wait again. In the fourth room, the gas would be turned on, and after the last prisoner was dead, the bodies would be shoveled into the crematoria.
Just a few days before this trip, I was sitting in Pickwick’s Café talking politics with some Austrian high school students. It never ceases to amaze me that high school students in Europe stay so well-informed. They were able to share mature opinions about President Obama, the NSA, Edward Snowden, and the like; but what struck me the most was not those particular discussions. In the course of our conversation, one of the boys said something interesting about how Hitler’s Final Solution and the war had actually saved the German and Austrian economies. Of course, after World War I, the German and Austrian economies were so diminished that much of the population experienced unemployment, hunger, and homelessness. The Jewish population was among the portion of the citizenry that, for the most part, still was quite well-off. During WWII, millions of them were ripped from their homes, jobs, and lives, and after the war, jobs needed filled, the country needed to be rebuilt, and everyone was expected to contribute. I have no idea what this high school student’s background was educationally or personally, but I do know that as true as his statements were, it is worrisome that one can find a silver lining in such a thing. No perceived benefit warrants so many lives taken, and that lining painted in silver is actually the blackest of blacks.
As I walked with the heaviest of hearts toward the camp gates to make my final exit after a long and difficult morning, I noticed something that had evaded me upon entering. Impressed into the metal gates of the Jourhaus were the words, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI.” The Nazi’s had used this phrase as propaganda for German citizens, making it seem as if the purpose of the camp was to take criminals and undesirables and “re-educate” them through labor, preparing them for reintegration into society as productive members. “Work will set you free.” To the prisoners here, it was nothing but cynical, a slap in the face to remind them of their worthlessness. For they all knew, and it came to pass in the case of thousands, the only freedom to be gained was through death.
“We can’t complain about our lives, guys,” said one of my classmates as we boarded the train for home. “Not anymore. Never again.”