Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial

I made the journey just a few short miles outside of Munich to Dachau, a large city (40,000 pop.) on the outskirts. Home to one of the World's most horrible and accessible scene's of man's inhumanity to man. I have studied and visited numerous Civil War battlefields, Revolutionary War sites, Native American battlesites and numerous historical sites in many countries, including Celtic stone circles and mines in Wales and Highland battlefields in Scotland,  but I must admit, I was feeling somewhat nervous on the ride out to Dachau-I had grown up hearing the stories and seeing the newsreels but had never actually set foot in a concentration camp. Maybe the repeated episodes of  "Hogan's Heroes" I watched as a kid had made me and many other Americans numb to the stark reality of this place and the many other Camps that the Germans built during World War II. "I know nothing" drilled into our heads by "Sargent Shultz" week after week, and then daily after the reruns kicked in. We were told by Hollywood(?) it was all so harmless. Hardly.

The first building on the site is the Visitor's Center-built fairly recently and very modern. I was immediately struck by the scene of a large group of students and their teachers posing for a group photo-I thought, this seems really weird. This is obviously a very sacred place and this scene feels like everyone is on holiday or something. I realized they were on their way in to the Memorial and not on the way out. The groups were much more somber as they were leaving I discover.

There is a very modern book store and a big cafeteria and dining area-also very helpful information people who speak many languages-it turned out there were many different nationalities on site that day which is probably the norm. The 20 minute movie I watched first off was shown in four languages-English, German, Italian and French. I don't think there was a Russian version but I could be wrong. There were certainly a large number of Russians held here and who died here.

Throughout the grounds are large displays in 4 languages that give the history and details about each area of the site. Apparently the whole memorial was established and funded by the Bavarian Government. There is no charge to enter and no place on site to even make a donation.

As one walks towards the actual Camp, the new visitor center cheeriness becomes somewhat distant as the actual truth of what this place is that you are about to enter sets in and, I presume, the smiles start to become less among the school groups. Many of the buildings -very very large, by the way-have been preserved and there is a very large museum housed in the huge "Main" building where most of the intake and showers and other large group activities took place. I was really struck by how REALLY big the site was in general-huge-massive-and only this one,albeit large, part was preserved as a Memorial-nearby were even more buildings and grounds and acres from the original Camp that are still in use today by German Rapid Response (Riot) Police. (more about this later).

Beyond the main gate(pictured at the top of this post)you enter the main Parade Ground and to the left are two of the restored barracks. There were at least 72 of these and they were designed to house about 250 inmates each but were housing thousands at the end of the War. The tall cypress(?) trees you see run down the main road that divides the two long rows of barracks. As was pointed out in one of the memorial chapels, everything is at right angles on purpose. There are no curves to be found. This was intentional in the design.
To the right of the Parade Ground is the large long building that house's the Museum and theater and was the Main building on the site. Hundreds of feet long with two very long wings. Out front is a very large sculpture done in the 60's by Yugoslavian artist and Dachau survivor Nandor Glid with the words "Never Again" featured in 5 languages on the nearby wall. There is a large  memorial to the unknowns who died here and a large sunken memorial that is designed to give the visitor the sinking feeling prisoners experienced while interred here. I thought it was very effective. More pictures of this area:

Memorial inside the sunken Parade Ground

The huge Memorial sculpture by Yugoslavian artist and Dachau Camp survivor Nandor Glid

I think it should be required that every elected official (and every political TV talking head for that matter) visit this site as well as other preserved Holocaust Memorials and Concentration Camps. To see this Memorial  in person leaves one with a much more indelible memory than merely reading about it in a book or watching a scratchy newsreel. Or even looking at photos. There is a vibe here that cannot be put into words. That said, the Dachau Memorial site has a very thorough website worth checking out if you want more historical detail than I can add.

Inside the massive main building museum-more student groups.

Standing on the Parade Ground looking East

Inside a restored barrack-the communal room and more students.

Barrack washroom.

Three high bunks.

The large number of student groups I kept running into started to actually make me feel more positive about this trip. The teachers were lecturing and being very serious about the surroundings and the story and the students were clearly getting it and, I think by this point, were getting humbled, as I was. I did not once get the feeling that this site was just another tourist stop along the way or some kind of macabre peep show-rather it is a living remembrance of the many, many dead and a vivid reminder to all future generations of what can happen when things go very badly wrong with a society. It should be noted that the Dachau Camp started out as a prison for political prisoners in 1939- people who were opposed to Hitler and his group for political reasons. It quickly became a forced labor  prison for Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Priests, Russian POW's and Intellectuals from many countries. The fellow named Besse who tried to assassinate Hitler with a bomb in his podium in 1939 was imprisoned here as were a number of other noted individuals.

Picture on left was taken when the Camp was liberated-on the right is a barrack layout. Note the Infirmary barracks were to the right along the row and expanded as the Camp grew in number due to disease.

More student groups. Looking down the main road between the barracks towards the catholic Memorial Chapel.

A model of the Camp-barracks are to the right and the factories to the left.

Another shot of the main building from the sunken Memorial

Here were the row after row of  prison barracks on each side of this road-300 ft long each I think.
Towards the back of the site are four chapels as well as a Cloistered Carmelite Convent that has been here since the 60's. You enter it though an old guard tower.  The vibes I was able to pick up in this area of the site tells me these nuns, in constant prayer for 50 years, have done an amazing job in bringing peace to the dead buried here. And there are a lot of dead buried here in this part of the Camp. It's that point in the tour when it starts to hit just how much death this place has seen.
The Catholic Chapel Memorial

The Jewish Memorial

Entrance to the Convent through an old guard tower

the Polish Priest's Memorial
 From the Chapel area, the path leads past this long section of fence and ditch-it was once electrified-to the crematorium buildings. (note there is another school group here).
This is where the vibe starts to noticeably change-I will spare you the photos of the actual insides of this place. If you must see them, they are available on the above mentioned Dachau Memorial web site. Needless to say, I did tour the thing and walked through most of it. There is a gas chamber and a couple of crematoriums-also a large room where dead bodies were piled to feed into the fires. I stood in all of them. For the most part, I felt this is where the "museum" part started to separate from the actual energy in the room. It was very uncomfortable to be in there and I did not want to stay long. There is a path out the back that leads to several mass ash burial sites and a "pistol practice range" where thousands were shot. There are also a number of "Never Again" markers and carved stone markers. It was at this point in the tour that I started to experience the  feeling of dread-fortunately it was also at this point that I saw at least 5 large school groups all gathered  getting ear fulls from their teachers.


  1. Wow! Thanks you Michael for a job well done and for the education that we tend to forget.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for this profoundly moving visual and verbal tribute to the spirits of the dead who passed through and may still be lingering here. As it happens, I'm reading (actually, listening to the audiobook) the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. As you probably know Bonhoeffer was the Lutheran minister-theologian, from an aristocratic German family, who spoke out forcibly against the Nazi regime, and, despite embracing pacifism, took part in the assassination attempt on Hitler. He was hanged at a related camp, Flosenberg, originally designed for political prisoners. What I didn't know before was that DB was inspired to resist the Holocaust by his visit to the US a decade earlier, in which he traveled the country with an African-AMerican ministry student, worshipped at Adam Clayton Powell Sr's church in Harlem, and traveled the deep South. He was horrified at segregation and committed to putting his beliefs, and his body, on the line against what he saw happening in his homeland after returning.