Monday, May 5, 2014

Dachau Concentration Camp

After making sense of our train tickets in Munich, we arrived at our primary destination for our only full day in Munich, Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. The camp is named for the small town in which it was built. The site is managed and maintained by the government as a permanent memorial to what happened there.

The Memorial Site is free to enter and explore. Most of the buildings in the camp are open for visitors to see and examine. A very thorough museum occupies the large former camp administration building. During our half-day visit, we only had time to carefully read the interpretive materials of half of the museum. A short documentary movie on a rotation of several languages plays throughout the day.

In the museum I learned much that I had never heard in history classes. The exhibits begin with the timeline of Hitler's early political activism and ultimate rise to power, and are very explicit and direct with information. Seemingly no effort has been made to mitigate the horrors of the camps or excuse the people involved. Particularly disturbing were photographs blown up to life size of inmates being subjected to physical experiments, most of which caused death. The Nazis used prisoners to test the limits of human endurance and tolerance to high altitude, rapid changes in barometric pressure, and extreme hot and cold temperatures.

Dachau was among the very first Nazi camps, and was initially used to hold political dissidents. The location was selected so near Munich because the Nazis first took political hold in Bavaria and Southern Germany. It was later used to imprison the undesirable people captured in Germany's seizure of Europe. It was never used as a mass-extermination camp, but there was no shortage of killing and mistreatment in the camp.

After the museum, visitors can explore some of the remaining and reconstructed buildings. A long bunker was built like a traditional jail with individual cells for special or high-profile inmates. Two of the barracks bunkhouses have been reconstructed, and a large empty stretch of dirt and gravel lined with trees shows just how many identical bunkers like this sat in two rows in the camp. Visitors can walk in a replica of the barracks to see beds, bathrooms, and wooden lockers for camp uniforms and personal effects.

Beyond the barracks and the long empty space is a row of religious memorials and prayer shrines. Four unique structures welcome Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Russian Orthodox visitors to pray or meditate. Beyond the prayer shrines is a working convent on the premises of the camp.

Near the religious shrines is a small building housing gas chambers and the camp crematorium. The gas chambers were built and functional but were reportedly never used as they were in other camps. The crematorium was in use, often round-the-clock. During the height of the war, camps ran short of wood and coal to fuel the crematoriums.

Don't look for political opinions here from me. This isn't the venue. I can and will say that the camp was presented and preserved very carefully and tastefully. I have to admire that the officials assembling the interpretive displays were so frank and candid about what their own parents and grandparents did.

One might wonder how we could have enjoyed any more of our trip after visiting such a sad place. We wondered, too. After visiting, though, I was less depressed and more hopeful than I had thought. At the camp we saw student groups from countries all over the world, other cargo-shorts-wearing-and-big-camera-toting tourists like us, and elderly people for whom the camp would have much more meaning. I saw what I think was a WWII veteran in a wheelchair with his family. They were gathered around a huge map of Nazi-occupied Europe with the name and location of every concentration camp marked. The old man was showing his family where he had been during his service in the war. That so many people, young and old, were traveling to see and learn from the past was very inspiring, and we were able to leave without the crushing weight of depression and despair.

Photo note-

I have decided not to include any of our photos of the camp in the post. A very nice photo gallery from Dachau can be found on the Wikipedia entry for the camp and memorial site if you want to see photos of the buildings and places described here.

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