The Dachau concentration camp memorial site is the actual site of the Concentration Camp, a place to hold the first political prisoners of Hitler’s reign from 1933 until the end of WW2, during which it also held Jewish people and others persecuted under his rule. It was not called an extermination camp, however many people were gassed to death there.
The weather on the day matched the mood of the place, overcast and cloudy. Greeting you at the entrance gate were the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work makes you free), and upon entering the gate was a large open area, the former parade ground. From the parade ground was a museum, former barracks that had been reconstructed, and a monument that stated: ‘May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 – 1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defence of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.’
The colours of all the triangles each prisoner had been made to wear, dependent on the category of ‘crime’ they had supposedly committed, were visible in another monument, along with the yellow star that all Jews were forced to display on their clothing.
Red triangles = political prisoners;
Green = professional criminals/convicts;
Blue = foreign forced labourers/emigrants;
Pink = homosexuals;
Purple = bible students/Jehovah’s Witnesses;
Black = ‘asocial’/work shy (inc mentally ill, alcoholics, vagrants, prostitutes, drug addicts, lesbians);
Brown = Roma/gypsies; and
An uninverted red triangle = an enemy POW/spy.
Only two barracks had been reconstructed, and showed the bunk beds in tiers of three, with no space between each person’s sleeping compartment – only a small wooden plank separated each ‘bed’. Although made for only 50 prisoners, each barrack often housed at least three or four times that many, with three people sleeping in each wooden shelf filled with the straw mattresses they called beds.
Listening to the audio guide as I walked slowly around the site was a chilling sensation. Hearing voices of people who had been imprisoned there, and recollections from others who had been part of the liberation of the camp brought a living reminder to the place where so many had died. A lump formed in my throat and silent tears escaped from beneath my sunglasses as I heard these voices, and I cried for those who suffered so severely at the hands of their fellow humans.
A road ran through the centre of the camp, with tall poplar trees lining either side. The barracks were divided by this road and in their place are now large pebbled areas with numbered cement blocks indicating the old barrack numbers. At the end of the road are the religious memorials, including the Jewish Memorial.
At the very end of the camp, and off to one side, is the crematorium – which is also the site where many of the prisoners in Dachau were gassed to death. They were told to undress in preparation for a ‘shower’, and the gas chambers were even made to look like showers with fake shower sprouts to mislead the victims and prevent them from refusing to enter the room. During a period of 15 to 20 minutes up to 150 people at a time could be suffocated to death with prussic acid poison gas (Zyklon B). Towards the end of the crematorium building sat the ovens – the machines used to dispose of the many people who were gassed to death. Some prisoners were hanged to death, and this would occur directly in front of the burning ovens.
Leaving the crematorium you walked through a dark and misty area, full of damp shrubbery and fern covered trees. The crunching gravel underfoot was the only noise to break the stifling silence, and stone tablets noting the atrocities committed loomed large in the eerie cover of darkness. The pistol range for execution and the blood ditch were clearly marked, as were the graves of many thousands unknown.
As I retreated silently to the exit the skies finally burst open and the rain bucketed down. Not having an umbrella I got soaked through, yet it was cleansing, as if washing away the shadows of inhumanity I’d been immersed in for the past few hours.
Never Again the memorial sign reminded me as I departed, Never Again.
Photos of Dachau can be seen here. Enter ‘ europe’ if asked for a password.