Dachau concentration camp

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
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Sunday, June 4, 2006

Today we went to Dachau, the first concentration camp built in 1933 just after Hitler came in to power. Over the course of the 12 years it was opened (it was freed by the Americans on May 29, 1945) over 200,000 people were imprisoned there, and 43,000 killed. Sadly, as huge as that number is, Dachau was considered a work camp, not an extermination camp like Auschwitz where over a million people were killed. There was a gas chamber built at Dachau, but it was used for medical experimentation not mass killings.

We took a guided tour, and along the way our guide tried to convey what daily life would be like in the camp. Up at 4 am, working by 6, and they might finish by 6 or 7 in the evening. Hardly anything to eat, inhumane work conditions, and no end in sight. For the first time in 1933 German citizens could be imprisoned without trial, and no sentence placed. So prisoners had no chance to defend themselves, and no idea if they would ever get out.

Dachau was created as a place for political prisoners, but when it was freed in 1945 the prisoners represented 34 countries. Most of the Jewish, the aged or infirm, women, or anyone else they deemed not capable of work were sent to Auschwitz. Those who remained had to endure ridiculous punishments for alleged offences. An example of a story told by a survivor was one day he was out at work, when the button on his jacket fell off. He put it in his pocket to sew on later, as he had no means at the moment. On the way back to camp, he was confronted by guards who told him he had commited 2 offences. One, he was not properly dressed as he was missing a button. Two, he had an unallowable object in his pocket. Prisoners were not allowed to have property of any sort. For these "offences", he had his arms tied behind his back, and then was hung by them for one hour. This is only possible of course if your arms are dislocated. Afterwards, he was sent back out to work.

When you see the fences that surround the camp, they aren't very high. Many people asked why there weren't more escapes (only one in 1933). Near the fence is a small moat, then on the other side is a grass area about 15 feet wide. If a prisoner ever set foot on the grass, he was shot instantly by one of the guards in the tower. Some men used this as a form of suicide when they lost all hope.

We went first through the museum, then the solitary confinement cells, the barracks, past the religious memorials, and finally came to the crematoriums. When you cross over the bridge in to the area of the crematoriums, the first thing you notice is the trees and gardens. In the rest of the site there are virtually no trees, everything is grey and stone. But here there are flowers, benches to sit, lots of greenery. This is because the ashes from the bodies were not preserved, so for the family of those who died this is their cemetery.

The whole site is preserved as a memorial, but there are small monuments scattered throughout the area. There are 4 religious monuments: one Catholic, one Protestant, one Jewish, and one Russian Orthodox. Prisoners were not allowed to have services or pray while there. There is also a stone engraved in 5 languages that says "never again". The most chilling sign though is the one built in to the gatehouse, where every prisoner entered. It says "Arbeit Macht Frei", or "Work Brings Freedom".
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