no matter where you go, there you are

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

dachau concencration camp

Munich is a large city on the southeast edge of Germany, a mountains climb away from Austria. It is the 3rd largest city in Germany and the capital of Bavaria. I stepped off the train at Munich's Haubtbahnhof in the early morning hours, the sun still hidden behind the horizon. My hostel was only a short distance away and though still too early to check in to my room, they had a nice luggage room to store bags in. And since it was very early, I wandered the streets surrounding the hostel for a little while and picked up a tasty cinnamon roll-like pastry for breakfast. Looping back around to the train station, I passed St. Paul's a church that sits on the edge of Theresienwiesen, the park home to Oktoberfest.

Back at the train station, I purchased a 2-day unlimited travel pass for all local transportation and set off to the town of Dachau, a suburb of Munich and home to one of the first concentration camps of the Nazis. Dachau was first built in 1933 and was an active camp until its liberation by the Americans in 1945. Its design and layout was the first of its kind and the basis for all other camps. Originally used as a prison for Germans who were detained for political reasons, Dachau administration records state only 206,000 prisoners entered its gates throughout its 12 years as a concentration camp.

When I arrive at Dachau, it's cloudy and rain falls as a light drizzle. The visitor center is a short walk away and I'm early for the tour so they tell me I can go into the camp and begin looking at the exhibit. The main camp building is a huge, a wide and giant U-shape. As well as 2 watch towers, the main entrance gate and 2 of the 34 barracks are still standing.

The museum is really wonderful and informative and I get through most of it before I must turn back to the visitor center for the guided tour. However, the tour guide is late so after 15 minutes they send us over to the exhibit to watch the movie first instead, and then our guide will meet up with us there.

After finishing the film, which gave a very good history of Dachau, and finally meeting our guide, we start back at the beginning of the museum and he takes us through all the rooms, explaining the main displays. The rooms are still original in appearance; nothing has been done to the walls so they are still stone, and while the exhibit is displayed throughout, you still get a very good understanding of how the camp worked back in the 1930s and 40s. The main room in the center of the U-shape is spacious and large. Used for torture, there is a whipping table and the remnants of wooden beams where they would hang and beat prisoners is a highlight.
Next stop are the barracks. Long, narrow, wooden buildings, the barracks were the living quarters for the prisoners. In the early years, these quarters were obviously not ideal living spaces, but the living situations in them only got worse as the years passed. The common room of the barrack is empty except for a couple of benches in the corner. It's not large, comfortable for 30-50 people probably. The next room houses the first design of bunks that the camp used. Throughout its 12 years as a concentration camp, the Nazis used 3 different designs, each progressively worse as they were made to fit more people in the same, small spaces. The first design was 3 levels and each prisoner had his or her own space so the level was divided into bunk segments. The entire unit could hold about 60 prisoners.
The far side of the room had the 2nd design of the bunks and instead of one giant sleeping unit, these were smaller, each designed for holding 12 prisoners. There was no division between the 2 beds on each level so when space was limited it became easier to cram multiple people in. At this point, our guide told us it was best to have the top bunk because that meant you were the healthiest and could climb up. If you were healthy you would live longer. 
The next few rooms were all small. One a locker room, one a narrow room with 2 large, round sinks and the last, a bathroom with 10 toilets along the walls and nothing dividing them. There was no such thing as privacy.
A piece I found very interesting was on the wall in the corridor where the bathroom was hung a board which kept track of how many prisoners were being held in each barrack. As the war raged on in the 1940s, Dachau became extremely overcrowded and each barrack was holding at times, 7000 people, an amount greatly surpassing the capacity it was built for. 
Finally, our group entered the final room which housed the 3rd and far worse design of bunks. With the appearance of the 1st design, the main difference was that there were no dividers so the prisoners were forced to share a 15-20 foot long space, all sleeping on their sides like sardines. I can sleep in some pretty uncomfortable looking positions, but those bunks looked like absolute hell.
Where the rest of the barracks used to be are now concrete & gravel pads with a number designating which barrack used to be there. It is simple and looks like a large gravesite, which for people who lost family members in Dachau, it is. The far side of the barrack "graves" are 3 large memorials, one Jewish, one Catholic and one I didn't hear the name of. There is also a Russian Orthodox memorial that we pass on the way to see the crematoriums. 
Because Dachau wasn't used as a killing center the way Auschwitz was, the crematoriums were used for the bodies of the prisoners who had died mainly of disease and starvation in the camp. Therefore, the original crematorium which is known to be the one used for the majority of the camp's life was small, with only 2 ovens. 
The 2nd, and much larger crematorium, had the declothing and decontaminating room, the "Brausebad"(shower room), the body storage room, and the burning room which held about 6 or 8 ovens. One tidbit we learned was that "Brausebad," the original German word for "shower" is no longer used in the language because of its negative connotations so "douche" is now used instead.
After the crematoriums, we were done with the tour. As I still wanted to see some things in Munich, and it was getting on to be late afternoon, I departed Dachau, but not without making one last stop at the memorial in the center of the camp. A metal "statue," the memorial displays stick-like representations of humans in the midst of great pain. Although they don't look like humans, and more like aliens, they represent all the inmates of Dachau and the tortures they endured while imprisoned. 
Though I wish I could have finished the museum portion, I did get to see most of it, but a heads up to anyone planning on visiting Dachau; if you plan on the guided tour, its great for understanding the buildings but you don't get to learn any of what you can if you get to explore the exhibit. So allow time for both.

Like any Holocaust memorial or museum, you come out of it feeling fortunate that you haven't had to endure anything like that in your life, but you're also still trying to comprehend everything you've just seen and learned. This was the most up close and personal I'd come to Holocaust memorials and museums and though I'd seen footage of the liberation in high school, it was different seeing it through my older eyes and scraping the surface of how awful the living conditions of the camp must have been. So much of the atrocities the Nazis performed is hard to wrap your head around and seeing Dachau didn't make it any easier. If you would like to see a concentration camp I would definitely recommend Dachau, though smaller and not as well known than Auschwitz, it is not as remote so if you're in Western Europe, Munich and Dachau are great and easily accessible stops.

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