I’m standing in the grounds of a former ammunitions factory in Bavaria, Germany. To be precise, I am standing in the roll call square of Dachau Concentration Camp, where prisoners were counted every morning and every evening. I do not have a personal connection with the camp, apart from being human. There is no ghost that I am hoping to put to rest or family member I wish to remember. I am here because I want to experience a period in history that should, in my opinion, never be forgotten and never be repeated.
Dachau Concentration Camp, was set-up in the Bavarian town of Dachau in 1933. It was the first German concentration camp built to isolate enemies of the National-Socialist regime, enemies that included political opponents, clergymen and Jews. In the camp museum, a good starting point for visitors, I learn about the Third Reich, the concentration camps of Europe and Dachau itself. Originally built to accommodate 5000 prisoners, the camp was already too small by 1937. A year of expanding, the work done by prisoners, allowed for at least 206,000 prisoners to be held here. Those are the recorded numbers. The exact figures remain unknown.
Walking down the main camp road can almost be mistaken as peaceful. The poplar trees on either side that have outlived the prisoners who planted them, provide shade and the sound of the wind brushes through the leaves. It is only when I look through the trees to the barbed wire barrier and uniform concrete watchtowers that I am reminded that this was not a place of relaxation but one of torment, despair and death. Before my eyes reach the outer perimeter of the camp, they should fall on thirty-four barracks, including the infamous Block 5 where Dr. Rascher conducted his high pressure and exposure experiments. However, all that remains now are the rectangular concrete foundations and metal numbers marking where each barrack once stood. Two barracks have been reconstructed, one accessible to the public, allowing visitors to run their hands along the rough wooden beds and reflect on the embarrassment of using the toilet without a shred of privacy. However, the area no longer conveys the overcrowded conditions and sense of confinement that once existed here.
As I move around Dachau I am aware of the crunching gravel under my feet. This gravel is everywhere and no doubt was a sound and feeling familiar to those confined here. The majority of the green spaces here were out of bounds to prisoners, either literally by being on the other side of the camp walls or by being the small strip of grass located eight meters in front of a live barbed-wire obstacle. Stepping onto this grass resulted in being shot without warning.
A short walk outside the prisoner compound brings me to the crematorium. Only the crematorium work crews were allowed into this area. The low brick building holds the ovens. With at least 31,591 prisoners dying at Dachau, these ovens were not enough to dispose of the bodies. A larger crematorium, Baracke X, was built by the prisoners in 1942. A sign hangs from one of the wooden beams above the ovens. It tells me in white text on a black background that this area was also used to hang prisoners. Nearby is a room with a heavy door and low ceiling. Another sign, this time black text on white, informs me that I am standing in a gas chamber disguised as a shower room. The sign also says that the room was never used as a gas chamber – a fact that has caused some confusion. When Dachau was liberated on April 29th 1945, the liberating soldiers found prisoner clothing hanging outside this area. The clothing, nearby crematoriums, vast numbers of bodies and the disguised gas chamber caused them to draw to a conclusion that was reality in many other camps. In actual fact, prisoners selected for gassing were transported from Dachau to the Hartheim Castle or to other camps.
Before leaving I take a moment to visit the international and religious memorials. The words “Never Again” in grey capital letters jut out from the international memorial, an eerie reminder of my original intention for visiting.
I leave the camp just as many had entered it, via the iron gate with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes one free). As I step through the metal and head towards the carpark, I have a vast amount of opportunities, possibilities and freedom available to me. A stark contrast to the prisoners entering the camp through the very same gate I just exited. Their opportunities and freedoms were taken away from them at an alarming speed.
How to Visit:
Visitors’ Center Dachau Memorial Site, Pater-Roth-Str. 2a, D – 85221 Dachau, Germany
The Memorial Site is in the part of town called Dachau-Ost and is well marked with signs. The parking lot is located next to the Memorial Site at 75 Alte Römerstraße.
Phone: +49 (0) 8131 / 66 99 70
Parking: Parking fees are €3.00 per car, and €5.00 for buses.
Public Transport: Take the S2 train from Munich in the direction of Dachau/Petershausen until you reach the Dachaustation. The train ride takes approximately 25 minutes from Munich’s Central Station (Hauptbahnhof). Once you’ve arrived at the Dachau train station, take bus 726 towards “Saubachsiedlung” to the entrance of the Memorial Site (“KZ-Gedenkstätte”).
Open Times: The memorial site is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. The memorial site is closed on December 24th.
Entry Price: Free