Opened in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of the Nazi party, Dachau was originally intended to house political prisoners during the dire German economic depression – this was meant to “restore calm to Germany”, according to Himmler. Eventually the camp was used to house Jews and Catholic priests who opposed the Nazis, in addition to ordinary criminals, and the prisoners were forced to complete labor during their imprisonment. It was liberated in 1945 and it was the longest running concentration camp of the Third Reich.
Lack of records make it hard for historians to determine just how many prisoners were held at Dachau, but rough estimates indicate 200,000 during the reign of the Third Reich. Around 30,000 prisoners are believed to have died there, primarily due to malnutrition, disease, suicide and exhaustion.
Rolling up to the five-acre camp, I noticed train tracks right alongside the camp, which was surrounded by a fifteen-foot tall barb-wired fence, ditch, and several watch towers. These train tracks were where prisoners were unloaded, those who had survived the week-long train trip with no food or water. We were met by a tour guide who warned us right off the bat – prepare yourselves, because you’re going to see evidence of the worst moment in recent history, he said.
Entering the camp, I saw a large dirt field at the end of which lined a long row of small buildings, the rooms in which prisoners slept. The majority of these building were removed after the camp was closed, but stone foundations still mark where the rows and rows of bunk buildings used to stand. Inside one of the buildings that is still there, we saw the wooden bunks that prisoners slept on, stacked three beds high with about two feet of height room. They were given little more than thin blankets for protection against the harsh German winters.
We crossed the dirt field, which is where executions were held. At the other end of the camp was a larger building, the place where prisoners were fed (minimally) and tortured. Upon entering the concrete building, we saw several contraptions scattered around. The first was a long, wooden table, upon which prisoners were strapped and whipped, sometimes to death, for their infractions. Secondly, there was a stockade, where prisoners were held, sometimes for weeks until they died from starvation.
Finally, we moved on to the crematorium, which was located outside the camp. Prisoners themselves were forced to work there, cremating the bodies of their fellow inmates. Filled with a musty smell and eerie with memories of death, the oven was made of brick, with four half-moon entrance areas where bodies were slid inside. Although the ovens operated day and night, when Americans liberated the camp there was a large pileup of corpses inside the crematorium.
There was a gas chamber at Dachau, but the camp was primarily a work camp, not a death camp, and the chamber was never put to use.
Today a Memorial Site stands inside the camp, in remembrance of those who passed at the hands of Nazi Germany.
The atmosphere at the camp combined with the stories told by the tour guide made me feel so sick to my stomach, I was forced to take a seat for thirty minutes, while the rest of the tour discussed the lives of Dachau prisoners. Although it made me sick to think of the poor souls who perished there, I was still thankful that I was able to witness a monument that is so important to history.