Sunday, January 27, 2013

Visiting Dachau Concentration Camp

Seeing as how it's Holocaust Memorial Day, I thought it would be fitting to write about our visit to KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau outside Munich in Germany. As we were driving around Germany, for the most part, and happened to be close to a former concentration camp, it felt as if we owed history to visit and pay our respects.

Dachau was the first concentration camp used by the Nazis. To find out more about the history of the camp, please see the official website. A very brief summary would be that it started out as a camp for political prisoners and was a working camp during the war.

Here's the relevant part of my travel diary entry for 2 October 2012, a.k.a. day 9 of our Eurotrip:

We drove to Dachau and the concentration camp memorial, where we arrived maybe around 11 or 11:30. Walking up to the site, we first came across the visitors centre. There was a cafeteria, toilets and a bookshop. I bought a book about the camp, as a reminder of having been there, and because I wanted to know more about it.

So the visitors centre was the whole thing? Strange. Shouldn't there be some sort of museum to it? I expected there to be more. And there was. Outside, we followed people walking down to the left, and found the camp site, or what's left of it. The gate says "Arbeit macht frei".

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We went right after passing the gate. The first thing we came upon was the "Bunker", which was used as a prison. It's a long building with lots of cell doors. Most of them closed, but some were open so you could look inside.

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The second building, on the other side of a courtyard, houses the main exhibition. We entered this building through the back door, so the exhibition was a little disorienting. Lots of big boards of texts and photos, and from what I gather, the book I bought contains all the information from the exhibition itself.

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Outside this building is a big open space with a sculpture. Beyond it are a couple of barracks. The two barracks were re-built when the memorial site opened in the 1960s, so you can see what the barracks would have looked like inside during the war.

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Perhaps because the barracks weren't the original buildings, and the furniture had never been used, the sense of despair that I expected wasn't there. Instead, it felt more like it could've been a very austere and cramped summer camp building, which was a peculiar feeling in itself.

All the original barracks were demolished after the war, and the only thing remaining now are their foundations - which I think were re-built as well, just to show where the barracks would have stood back in the day.

Separating the two lines of barracks were lines of Lombardy poplars. What must those trees have witnessed in their time?

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At the other end of the poplar-lined way were a Christian memorial and a Jewish memorial. Behind them a wall with an entry way to a ... convent?! We only had a brief look, as it seemed fairly deserted, and - to be fair - it was a convent, so not a part of the actual camp itself.

Down some stairs was a building with a fascinating exhibition about non-heterosexuals in the times before and during the Nazi era.

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Through the reconstructed barbed wire fence, overlooked by stern guard towers was a Russian Orthodox chapel, and walking past it on the main road, the crematoriums. The old one was basically just a couple of ovens in a small, open building.

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The second, bigger, crematorium was the newer one, built when the old one couldn't keep up with demand. It screamed efficiency. This was an original building from the Nazi era and that alone made it creepy. Especially since it looked fairly modern on the outside.

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You could walk through the gas chamber in the middle of the building. The gas chamber was never used for the mass exterminations for which it was intended, but the room still had us both very nearly running to the exit, needing to escape. It was such a terrifying, oppressive and claustrophobic feeling to it, as if you couldn't - or dared not - breathe. I took a couple of photographs before getting the hell out of there.

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The next room wasn't exactly more cheerful, even though we were back in a room with windows, because that's where the ovens were. We didn't need to read the information signs to figure out what the hooks in the ceiling had been used for.

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We also walked around the wooded area (where they had their firing squads), and were both very much subdued walking back past the barrack foundations, through the wrought iron gates and back to the car, trying to make sense of it all. Despite it being about 15:30 in the afternoon (didn't realise we had been there that long!), and not having had food since breakfast in Schwangau around 9, neither of us felt like eating. Instead, we drove to the hotel in central Munich.

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Here's a slideshow with the photos above, and a number of others.

2 comments:

  1. I visited Dachau when I was a teenager. Since I am extremely phobic of dead bodies, walking into that crematorium was one of the bravest things I have ever done. I was terrified and horrified but I did it. For them. I always think of that moment in Maus when Vladek is in Dachau and has to walk on corpses just to get to the toilet...

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    1. I don't know Maus, but yeah, to read signs saying "and this is the room where they put all the dead bodies waiting to be cremated" was scary.

      When planning the trip, I was considering taking us up by Weimar and Leipzig, and then we could've gone to see Buchenwald instead. Reading about it on Wikipedia, however, made me feel sick. I'm glad we went to a concentration camp memorial site when we were there, but I'm also glad it was a (comparatively) "easy" site. It was hard enough being there as it was - seeing somewhere like Auschwitz must be soul-destroying, especially if you're highly sensitive and/or empathic.

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