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Dachau

You get off a city bus from the train station in a pleasant wooded area. There is the sign that this is the camp. There's a small building nearby to get an audio guide and then a short walk to the entrance. A knot develops in the stomach and you almost retch. A few feet and the gate is upon you. The gate with the words in them that you've seen a thousand times. The biggest lie of all time. ARBEIT MACHT FREI. In English, "work makes you free." This is the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp (be sure to take the "virtual tour").

When the camp was made available to be seen by visitors, some of the victims insisted that visitors enter the same way the prisoners did. It is a gut-wrenching experience to think about what happened here while standing here. Prisoners were marched from the same train station where I had just arrived, to the camp, about a mile or two away, until they reached these gates, and began an existence of hell on earth.

This is a photo of an aerial view of the camp shortly before liberation on April 29, 1945. Where I've drawn the red lines is where the prisoners were kept. The rest of the area inside the dotted lines was for SS training. The only thing left today in the memorial site is the prisoner area; the rest is for the Bavarian Riot Police. One wonders how many riots there are in Bavaria that they need a whole separate police force to handle them. To get an idea of size, each barrack is about 33 feet by 330 feet, so by extrapolation the area inside the red lines is about 845 feet by 1890 feet. There were 34 barracks buildings of which the first four were the camp canteen, the camp library (if you can believe that, but they also had a brothel to increase the productivity of the men how sick is that?), the infirmary and the morgue. The remaining 30 buildings housed the prisoners. They were built by the prisoners themselves to hold 5,000 people in total but at the time of liberation, held 12,000. I found references to a census taken by the Nazis three days before liberation that said Dachau and its sub-camps held 67,649 prisoners but I'm not sure what a "sub-camp" is. Most of the 67,649 were Polish Catholic.

As concentration camps go, Dachau was not large. I saw numbers of deaths at about 30,000 to 40,000 here as opposed to hundreds of thousands at other places, notably Auschwitz. What was unique about Dachau is that it was where the "brain trust" was, the geniuses who invented all these ideas and procedures. Dachau was a model for the other camps. It was built in 1933 when Hitler realized he needed a place to keep his political enemies. No criticizing the big guy, no sir. Most of the original prisoners were Communists and other undesirables like Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals. The "Final Solution" for the "Jewish problem" hadn't happened yet at the beginning.

Here's a much larger version of the same picture to use for reference in the following text. The building at the entrance where the gate is located is called the Jourhaus. The Jourhaus housed the alleged human beings who ran this place. Immediately after that in the area marked A is the roll call area, like a big open parade ground. The prisoners were lined up here each day, sometimes for hours, until the guards were satisfied everyone was there. If some were missing, because maybe they died overnight, the prisoners had to stand even longer until the missing were accounted for. As many as 50,000 people could be counted here. You can see a video of this area.

Between the A and the H is a U-shaped building. This is a museum now but it was the maintenance building then where things like the kitchen were. In the 40s the top of this building had words written there that the prisoners could see which mocked them: "There is one way to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, zeal, honesty, order, cleanliness, temperance, truth, sense of sacrifice and love for the Fatherland." There were also cells here where prisoners were sometime kept for weeks or months, frequently in the dark with minimal food in cells too small to sit so the prisoners were forced to stand. Behind this building you'll see where I drew a purple vertical line. This was The Bunker courtyard, an area used to terrorize prisoners more than they already were. Pole hangings were done in this place. That's where a prisoner was handcuffed and made to hang by the handcuffs from a pole for lengthy periods of time. This picture is taken from the end of The Bunker. The small white building is it. Just beyond it is a wall. The building with the orange roof is a home. It wasn't there then but who the hell would want to live up against the wall of a former concentration camp?

The barracks were all torn down in the 60s but two in the front were reconstructed. The others are noted by gravel on the ground and a number corresponding to the number each building was given. If 12,000 people were kept here, each of these 30 buildings, 33 by 330 feet had 400 people who slept there. That's an average of 5 by 5 for each person. Some websites give differing numbers saying there were only 270 in a building. Given the fixed number of buildings, that would mean fewer prisoners. Either way, it was packed with scarcely enough sanitary facilities.

Maybe worst of all was the crematorium housed in this benign looking little building. On the big picture, it's the area marked B inside the dotted line. As close at it was to the prisoners' camp, there is only a small walkway to get there and supposedly the prisoners were unaware of it. This was the waiting room for what the prisoner's were told would be showers. This is the gas chamber. After prisoners were dead, their bodies were brought into the next room waiting for cremation. The actual ovens were in the next room and the rafters in here were also used to hang people. According to records, they believe that the gas chamber at Dachau was never used en masse like at other concentration camps. They have found letters from Goebbels (I think) that the Nazis intended to carry out experiments here but no records of those experiments have been found. The ovens were used, though. The ones in the previous picture superseded an older set just across the way which couldn't handle the volume.

When prisoners were brought here, they often didn't know what triggered the arrest. All they saw was, "Based on Article One of the Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State of 28 February 1933, you are taken into protective custody in the interest of public security and order. Reason: suspicion of activities inimical to the State." Can you imagine that happening in the U.S.? That a person could be arrested and detained for an indefinite period with no charge brought against him and based solely on the word of the president? Couldn't happen. No way. As part of their training, the guards at the camp were desensitized to their own innate feelings of horror and were expected participate in acts of cruelty against prisoners. Again, can you imagine American prison guards being allowed to torture and humiliate other human beings? Americans don't do that. I think.

I have to admire the how Germans now handle their dark history. To ignore it would be blasphemy. Yet it isn't something that should be celebrated and they don't do that, either. The memorial site has no admission. All that's there to accommodate visitors is a restroom and a bookstore. There are no cheesy souvenirs. Every German school kid is required to visit Dachau. It is all done very respectfully.

When I left, I went back to the train station and saw the same sign I had seen on the way in. It gave me the chills again. What's in a name? I don't know but I don't think I'd want to ever live in a community, however nice it might be, called Dachau. If Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, could change its name to Jim Thorpe, and then change it back, I wonder if this town could do the same. I wonder if the thought has ever occurred to anyone and if it has, why they may have rejected the idea.

Upon leaving this place, one doesn't just go on with the rest of the day. It takes a while to decompress, to have an appetite again, to want to laugh at a joke. It wasn't fun coming here but that's not why I went. One comes here to get understanding of what happened, to learn to recognize the signs that can make a people become the victims or make them become the perpetrators, and to resolve over and over, "Never again."

See all my pictures of Dachau.

See a video from Dachau.

 

2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008