In 1933, Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp to open its cold, iron doors under the guise of holding “political prisoners.” The next twelve years were comprised of the inhumane torture and deception of over 200,000 men, women, and children. Though the true number never be known, almost 32,000 recorded deaths happened within the barbed wired grounds.
Dachau is a short 15-30 minute train ride from Munich, so Michael and I booked a tour put on by Radius Tours, which is conveniently located in the Munich train station, about 5 minutes from our hotel. Our British tour guide, Craig, did an excellent job of informing our small group of 19 of the horrible things that happened in Dachau and the additional graphics he brought along to show the group really helped us envision what, exactly, happened here.
Going into this, we didn’t expect a happy, perky journey, but we were also surprised at how haunting our four hour tour really was. According to Craig, all German school children are required by law to tour sites such as this as part of their education to make sure that the lessons learned from this dark excerpt of Germany’s past is not forgotten. A few images and facts that I, personally, will take away:
The iron gates that all prisoners walked through to enter Dachau has the phrase, Arbeit Macht Frei, meaning Work Brings Freedom. The Nazis wanted prisoners to think that hard work and abiding by the rules would allow them to be set free. They even freed a small number of people here and there to give the perception that these words were truth.
Each day, the Nazis would do roll call in the large “courtyard” below to make sure that no one had escaped. The longest roll call took 20 hours because one person was missing – they found him dead in one of the “beds.” The beds looked very much like crates and were literally slabs of thin boards nailed together. Each section was built to hold up to 200 people at once, though, at the peak of the camp, they sometimes held over 1000.
Only two replicas of the barracks exist now, but Dachau had over 30. A beautiful row of trees lines the path of all barracks which was supposed to show the Red Cross that the prisoners were treated well and given a decent place to stay. The Nazis put several things in place like this to make the Red Cross believe treatment was humane – they even hid the crematorium and gas chamber in the woods behind the camp so that the Red Cross did not know it was there.
During the war, many of the jobs given to the prisoners were to help the Nazi war efforts. Medical experiments were conducted here to test pilot uniforms – prisoners were dressed in pilot uniforms made of different materials and submerged in freezing water for various time-frames to see which materials allowed pilots to survive the longest. Different formulas for the gas used in the gas chamber were also tested to determine which concoction killed prisoners the fastest. So that they would not panic when being led into the gas chamber, prisoners were told they were being taken into a large shower which was even decked out with fake shower heads (see below). Once the doors were closed, the gas was injected into the room.
Another job included putting gun powder into the bullets the Nazis used. Some prisoners could not handle the thought of arming the Nazis with the bullets that could potentially kill their family or friends, so they committed suicide by running onto the “death strip” below, where guards would shoot them for trying to escape. Those that made it past the strip would be electrocuted by the fence and their bodies would be left there for weeks as a warning to other prisoners. The memorial below is meant to symbolize this act.
Some prisoners were kept separate from the masses as they were forced to work in the crematorium. Their job was to cremate the dead, and there were so many that rooms in the crematorium were dedicated to holding the bodies before they could be burned to ash.
Such a horrible, wretched part of our world’s history. This tour is a must do for anyone who visits Munich, but I definitely recommend doing it towards the beginning of your trip as you will leave this tour, and this place, with a heavy heart and a deep compassion for the thousands and thousands of families that were affected by these heinous acts. With all of the horrifying artifacts scattered around Dachau, there is also a large number of memorials and tributes from a wide range of nationalities and religions including these two, each of which is placed over a mass grave of thousands.