Hell on Earth: Dachau Concentration Camp

Our last couple days of Christmas vacation were spent in a somewhat depressing, but very educational, fashion.  First, we stopped in Nuremberg, home of the Nuremberg trials, where Nazi leaders were tried (and mostly convicted) after WWII.  Although the biggest players in the Third Reich — Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels were not tried (all three committed suicide prior to the indictment), the proceedings brought to light the horrible crimes the Nazi regime had committed.  Every country around the world watched these trials, and it seemed as though “justice” was finally being served on an international stage.  Next, we traveled on to Munich, where we visited Dachau Concentration Camp, the site where it all began.  Built in March 1933, Dachau was the Third Reich’s first camp and served as the model for all those built afterwards.  Over 200,000 incarcerated prisoners passed through its gates, and over 43,000 died there.

Nuremberg

The “Trial of the Major War Criminals” before the International Military Tribunal (made up of Russia, the United States, France, and Great Britian) was held between 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946.  During this trial, 23 top Nazi leaders were tried for 1) conspiracy 2) wars of aggression 3) war crimes and/or 4) crimes against humanity.

4 countries that headed up the Nuremberg trials

Nuremberg Trials poster

List of Nazis who were tried

The Palace of Justice, home of the Nuremberg trials, still serves as an active courthouse.  This is the very room where the Nazi leaders were tried, although the present-day layout is a bit different.

Courtroom where the Nuremberg Trials were held

Also in Nuremberg, we toured the Documentation Centre Nazi Party Rally Grounds, where Hitler often gave speeches and strengthened his base.  After the war, 5 American soldiers were awarded the highest award for bravery in combat, the Medal of Honor” on these very grounds as well. The large “Zeppelin Field” has since been turned into recreational land, but Hitler’s podium still stands.

Hitler’s podium

On the rally grounds, there is also a pretty great museum, generally explaining the history of the Third Reich and the progression of the Nazi regime during WWII.  I found the propaganda and news coverage to be especially interesting.

Propaganda

In this exhibition (one of my favorite rooms of the museum), you could compare news coverage from all around the world.  The article on the left, is a clipping (not even a headline!) from an Italian newspaper during Mussolini’s reign, while the right is a US paper. My favorite part is that the story is from the “diplomacy” section in the Italian newspaper.

Italy on the left, US on the right

Money under the Third Reich

Another exhibition highlighted all the main concentration camps.  The map below shows you the majority of them spread across Europe.

Major concentration camps

Dachau

Dachau Concentration Camp was placed on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory near the medieval town of Dachau.  Apparently, a lot of the people of Dachau welcomed the camp, in hopes that it would boost their struggling economy.  As early as 1935, the camp established a reputation of eliciting horror.  Jingles warned: “Dear God, make me dumb, that I may not to Dachau come” (“Lieber Gott, mach mich dumm, damit ich nicht nach Dachau kumm”).  Dachau started out as a camp for political prisoners, but quickly turned into a camp for prisoners from every country the Third Reich occupied.  In the end, it was even a camp for SS officers awaiting trial for violating orders.

Prisoners donned special markings (badges) to show what “offense” he/she committed.  In addition to political prisoners, there were badges for those who had been in prison before, homosexuals, gypsies, emigrants, Jehovah’s witnesses, people who were deemed “asocial,” and Jews.  If you were a repeat offender, you received an additional bar for your “uniform” (generally a worn pair of pajamas).  There were also other “special badges” that some prisoners wore (see below).  Jews donned a gold star in the shape of the Star of David.

Ranking system for prisoners

Special badges/Badge layout

Entering Dachau Concentration Camp, new prisoners had to pass through the front gate, where the SS interrogation rooms were head.  The gate reads “Arbeit macht frei,” or “Work makes you free”.  How ironic, huh?

Makes my stomach churn

Every morning, prisoners had to attend roll call before work.  No matter the weather conditions, they were told to stand motionless for about an hour (sometimes more).  In the winter, a prisoner wrote that they were forced to stand without coats and sometimes without shoes.  In summer, they were given coats.  If a prisoner died, they had to be dragged out to be counted. If someone collapsed during roll call (often due to sickness or malnutrition), the other prisoners were not allowed to help them.  If they did, they were beaten or killed.

Large roll call area

If a prisoner tried to escape, they were immediately executed.  A large ditch was dug around the perimeter of the camp to keep the prisoners from climbing the adjoining fence and barb wire.  Prisoners who were mentally broken would hurl themselves into the ditch knowing they would be gunned down.

Large ditch

Barbed wire fence

In each “dormitory,” there were beds for 208 prisoners.  In total, there were only supposed to be space for 6,000 people, but at the time of liberation by American soldiers, there were approximately 32,000 prisoners, crammed 1,600 to each of 20 barracks  The prisoners were not allowed to spend time in their barracks on their breaks, even in the winter.  As the following drawing shows (drawn by a Polish prisoner), prisoners are standing outside with only wooden clogs.  Some have wrapped cloths around their legs to try and keep warm.

Prisoner drawing

The space where a dormitory once stood – now imagine 1,600 people in this space

Prisoner bunks

25,613 died at Dachau and almost another 10,000 in its subcamps, primarily from disease, malnutrition and suicide. Although Dachau didn’t “exterminate” a high number of the prisoners (for which Auschwitz is better know), it did occur.  Entering into the extermination chambers was one of the most chilling experiences I’ve ever had. In early 1945, there was a typhus epidemic in the camp due to influx from other camps causing overcrowding, and large numbers of the prisoners died. Most were cremated in large ovens on site.  Sometimes three bodies were stacked on top of each other in a single oven.  Toward the end of the war, death marches to and from the camp caused the deaths of large but unknown numbers of prisoners. Even after liberation, prisoners weakened beyond recovery continued to die.  In total, over 43,000 are said to have died at or as a consequence of Dachau camp.

Cremation/Extermination building

Prisoner clothing was often recycled.  When bodies were cremated (after typically dying from disease), administrators took their clothes and “disinfected” them with poison gas. The clothes were then given to new prisoners.

Disinfection chamber

Cremation ovens

If prisoners were deemed too old or not fit enough to work, some faced immediate extermination, while others were shipped off to another camp, often separating families..  They were told to strip down to “take a shower,” but were gassed to death.  In a period of 15-20 minutes, 150 prisoners could be put to death.  There are no words to describe this room.

Extermination shower

On April 29, 1945 American soldiers liberated Dachau camp.  A tablet near the front gate honors them.

Memorial to the Americans

One American soldier wrote this about the liberation:

We…..went through the gate into a large cement square surrounded by low black barracks and the whole thing was enclosed by barbed wire. When we entered the gate, not a soul was in sight.  Then suddenly people (if you could call them that) came from all directions.  They were dirty starved skeletons with torn clothes and they screamed and hollered and cried.  They ran up and grabbed us…..and kissed our hands, our feet, and all of them tried to touch us.  They grabbed us and tossed us into the air screaming at the top of their lungs.”

After the war ended, Dachau Concentration camp was turned into a permanent memorial site.  There are several monuments throughout the grounds.  Most are general memorials to the entire population, but there are several to specific groups (like a church dedicated to Polish prisoners) or individual people.

The main memorial reads:

“May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men

Main Memorial

Never Again

Memorial for Jewish prisoners

Sculpture depicting prisoners caught in barbed wire

Visiting Dachau was one of the most sobering and emotionally exhausting days of my life, but one that I will never forget.

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