For us, Dachau was the last site we visited on our tour of Germany. For about 32,000 people who were imprisoned here between 1933 and 1945, it was the place where they were starved to death, executed, tortured, committed suicide, or were worked to extinction. “Work makes you free” may have appeared on the entrance gate, but only if one interprets freedom as the escape brought by death.
When this very first concentration camp was liberated in April, 1945, there were 30,000 prisoners in a camp meant for 3,000. The conditions were unbelievable, and – despite the best efforts of the Allies – another 2,000 died after liberation.
Today there is a large exhibit hall in the former maintenance building. The displays use photos as well as survivors’ words and drawings to explain the various degradations and abuses of the camp system, starting with the intake and bathing process. Most dreaded were the twice-daily rolls calls, which could go on for hours. We were freezing today in the sun. What must it have been like at 5:00 in the morning on February 27, 1938?
It was good to see so many school groups coming through. Munich school children must come here, but there were groups from several other countries, very present in this holy place.
We also saw the bunker where special prisoners were tortured and isolated. The sun was just an added irony through the windows of these cells.
The final building we toured was one of the thirty-four barracks where prisoners slept and ate – and were supposed to maintain hygienic conditions. This is a reconstruction, as the barracks were used after the war and beyond to house displaced persons for many years. When the camp was at its fullest capacity, there was about one square yard of space per inmate.
What is horrifying is thinking of the misery that must have permeated these buildings. What is most interesting is the sign posted at the end, reminding us that many of the pictures we have seen reflect Nazi propaganda, and show a tidy reality where each inmate had his own locker with extra clothing (!), personal goods, and dining equipment. Not so. This exhibit will be very different in a few years time, it seems.
There are very touching commemorative plaques and sculptures, including one abstractly showing people trapped in barbed wire – which still surrounds the camp complex. This sculpture can be seen from inside the building, directly over a scale model showing the massive size of this camp.
In 2014, the front gate was stolen from the camp. In a bizarre end to the story, a tip led police to a house in Bergen, Norway, where in 2017 the gate was recovered and returned to the museum. Who would want such a thing? The thieves were never caught. What kind of nightmares did they have with that in their possession? It is a reproduction we walked through today, and that was certainly frightening enough for me.