Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Dachau Concentration Camp

The purpose of this blog is to describe my experiences abroad. As a study abroad student, I’m often times writing about the best places I’ve ever been. But what about the worst place I’ve ever been? This post is dedicated to my visit to Dachau Concentration Camp in Munich, Germany.
            Dachau was camp that was in use for 12 years. It can be categorized into 3 phases. Dachau was used as the “model” camp for other camps. The prisoners would be marched to the camp entrance down the streets of Dachau (the town). Our bus to the camp purposely followed the same route to the camp that the prisoners would have taken.
The Gate:
            There is only one entrance to the camp. The prisoners entered through the same gate that we entered through. Since the camp is no longer in use, the government leaves the front gate open at all times. This is a symbol of freedom. Leaving the gate open (even at night) lets the person know that they are free to enter and leave at their leisure; they should never feel trapped like the prisoners did. I really admire this small symbolic gesture.

Once through the gate, you can basically see the entire camp. In front of you is a gigantic courtyard that was used for role call. Prisoners would stand there for hours on end while being counting. Those who had died during the night were brought out to the courtyard so that their bodies could also be counted. If a prisoner died at work (90% left the camp to work), their fellow prisoners would have to bring their bodies back to the camp to be counted. Prisoners were to stand completely still with their head pointed down. If they did anything to be noticed, they would be shot. It was unsettling to see just how big the courtyard is and to realize that the giant courtyard in front of me was completely filled with prisoners.

It was interesting because we had the same tour guide we had the day before. Only today, instead of the funny good-humored beer-drinking German, we had a very different man. He was very mellow and calm. He showed us how the prisoners were not allowed to step on the grass, if they did, they would be considered “escaping” and would immediately be shot. If a guard shot someone “escaping”, they’d receive a reward. Therefore, a guard could take a prisoner’s cap, throw it onto the grass and order them to go get it. If they didn’t, they’d be refusing orders and be shot. If they went to get it, they’d be considered escaping and would be shot and the guard would be rewarded. The guards could kill anyone they wanted to basically. After a couple years at Dachau, they stopped recording the deaths because it was too much paperwork and too many deaths to explain.

Our guide showed us the main building where the prisoners were taken first. Dachau was an all-male camp. The men would first be taken into this room and be stripped of 3 important things. The first most important thing to be taken from them was their personal belongings. Everything they had on them such as photos of their wives, letters from their family and ID cards. Then they would lose their names. Before this visit, I had never realized how lucky I am to have my own name. It is the one thing that has been and will be with me the longest. It is mine. There have been ex-prisoners who had been so mentally tortured that when asked what their names were, they couldn’t remember. These prisoners lost their identity, and most importantly their individuality in this room. The last thing the prisoners lost was their clothes. They were stripped naked, shaved from head to toe with a knife, and then placed under the showers. These showers were purposefully a couple degrees above freezing in the winter and just before boiling point in the summer. After the shower they were to find 1 pair of pants, 1 shirt, 1 light cotton jacket, 1 hat and 2 shoes. They had about 2 minutes to get all of these and get out. They had no time to make sure they fit or they would be beaten. So if a fat man had a very small man’s jacket, he had to make it work. That was now his jacket and he only got one.

This is a rare photo of the men waiting to enter Dachau
Here is the man in the long jacket from the above photo  

The list of names and number assigned
He then took us into the room that was used for torture. I won’t elaborate too much on this subject because it makes my stomach churn. This was the point in the tour when I could feel myself mentally shutting down. It had become so much to handle that my brain shut it out. I was on the verge of tears at this point. My heart had never felt so heavy until this moment. It’s very true that we walked away from Dachau with more questions than answers.

After the now museum, we walked through a building with 137. This building was used to hold prisoners for torture. 137, and in every single room several people have died. Each room was used for a different form of torture. One room for example was used to keep a prisoner in complete darkness. One prisoner was kept in darkness for 2 years. He was then brought out into the sun during role call one day where they removed the blindfold. Immediately he was blinded, and a blind man cannot work and therefore he was shot. It’s important to know that the prisoners taken to Dachau in the first phase were Germans who were not in agreement with Hitler’s government. The next phase was homosexuals, gypsies and prisoners. The final phase was the Jewish people and basically anyone else.

137 rooms for torture. One hundred thirty seven
One of the rooms 

We then walked to a model building of how the housing was set up for each phase. As each phase progressed, the worse and worse conditions got. In the first phase they each had their own bed. By the third phase, there had been so much overcrowding that there was 4 to a bed. People were not permitted to get up during the night so they would go to the bathroom in their bed, leaking through onto those under them. One survivor said that the thing that what he remembers most from his childhood was waking up on the bottom bunk one morning to find that his two best friends had drowned in their sleep from the waste products of those above them.

This one building was the model, behind it were the foundations of hundreds of the exact same building. It was haunting to see the rows and rows of identical foundations. The Nazi’s had everything perfectly in order, everything was clean and simple; everything was right angles. Therefore the memorials on site have little to no right angles in them.

We were also shown a piece of the electric fence that surrounded the camp. There was no way a prisoner could even get to the fence because they would have to step on the grass. If they somehow got past the grass, they would then have to jump across the bunker, over the trip wire and over the electric fence –all of this while being shot at by the guards.
Photo from the curb to the electric fence

We then were taken to the crematorium where thousands of bodies had been cremated. We walked by mass graves where thousands had been buried. So many people that below the surface is 2m deep of ash. After the crematorium we were shown this long building where the gas chambers were located. The gas chambers in Dachau were not used for mass extermination like in other camps. The purpose of the gas chambers here were for testing purposes. Still, many people died for the purpose of “testing”. The people would be told that they were going in for a shower, so that they would go inside willingly. Still today in Germany, they do not call the shower rooms “shower rooms”, they call them something else instead.
Tombstone for a mass grave 
The crematorium
Outside the gas chamber
Brausebad means showers

At the very end of the tour we stopped at a statue outside of the crematorium and gas chamber. This statue is of a survivor. Notice his posture is relaxed. He has a long jacket, his hand in his pocket and no hat on. Everything about this statue shows him being an individual again.

One aspect of Dachau that really got me was not only the physical torture that the prisoners had to endure on a daily basis but the psychological torture. They would place shelves above the beds, but the prisoners did not have anything to put on them. They would have coat hangers in their sleeping quarters but the prisoners didn’t have any coats to hang. The slogan of the camp was “work will set you free” because the prisoners were supposed to be on their path to “re-education”. But work will not set them free, if they work too hard they will die, and if they don’t work hard enough they will die. They had a sign that hung in the room where they confiscated all of the prisoner’s personal belongings. It read “Smoking is Forbidden”. But the prisoners didn’t have cigarettes to smoke since everything had been taken from them already. Alone these small psychological tortures seem silly, but put them all together and they contort and torture the mind.
Smoking is forbidden
Visiting Dachau camp was not a pleasant experience. I’m aware that many students on their spring break usally visit tropical islands and beaches, not concentration camps. Although I did not enjoy my time at Dachau, I feel it was necessary to pay my respects to the thousands lost. One of my favorite aspects about Germany is how open and honest they are about their dark past. Other countries would never allow the public to come and tour their concentration camps where their people brutally exterminated people by the thousands free of charge. I truly admire Germany’s openness. They use their past history as a way to prevent it from happening again. Each year, the German police are required to visit Dachau to have a refresher course where they are taught that if something like this were ever to happen again, they should listen to their humanity rather than to orders and stop it. German schools are required to teach students about their past.

Like I said, I could have went anywhere else. My heart probably would have felt lighter and my skin would probably have become tanner. But instead, I chose to catch of glimpse of humanity in one of its darkest forms. It took an entire day for me to come “back to life” after visiting Dachau. I literally just wanted to fall apart and cry hysterically. What I took away from my visit though is much more important than tan skin and key chains. I became grateful for everything I have. For my coat, my clothes, my pictures, my hair, my license, my bed, my name. So the next time you go to hang up your coat, remember how lucky you are to have a coat to hang.
"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 man"

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