I hate to start off my series of trip posts this way, but, well. This is what happened.
My friend John, from SLU, is studying in Rome for the semester and came up on a trip to see Munich (he also visited Sienna and Assisi on the way), where I showed him around, and then we went together to Dachau, where I hadn’t been yet.
I think one of the reason I hadn’t been to Dachau (the concentration camp) yet is because of how close it is to where I live. It is only two S-Bahn stops away, or about seven miles from “my” house. It was strange to finally visit. After six months here I feel enough familiarity and loyalty for this area of Munich that going to the camp left me with an odd sense of betrayal. It is so hard to believe that this could have happened anywhere — but here in these quiet suburbs?
This is actually John’s picture – I’m standing in the background on the right.
Dachau Concentration Camp was opened in 1933, less than two months after the Nazis took power, and was liberated on April 29, 1945. While not a “death camp” like Auschwitz (all the death camps were located in Poland), somewhere around 32,000 people died in Dachau due to overwork, starvation, disease, and murder. The exact numbers of prisoners or those killed in the camp will never be known.
Backing up, this is the gatehouse or Jourhaus. It held the administrative offices and SS interrogation rooms. The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign is on the gate in the center.
The bridge in front of the Jourhaus spans the Würm Canal, an offshoot of the Würm River which runs by our house, and which has popped up in so many of my posts here.
Inside on the right are the main work buildings, and to the left the main camp courtyard where roll call took place.
Here I’m looking left from the courtyard to the barracks.
Prisoners after liberation.
A Nazi propaganda picture showing roll call.
“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.”
“Ashes of the unknown concentration camp prisoner.”
Behind the main buildings on the right, you had this bizarre sight. That’s a watchtower on the right, and on the left some suburban house is built right up to the gate. Real estate is tough in Munich and the surrounding districts, but really. Who would buy that house and live in it? You can literally look out your windows into the windows of the Bunker/prison block where prisoners were tortured and murdered.
Here is the Bunker…
It was really strange to walk into a building in a concentration camp for the first time. When I was younger, and visited the old forts along the Washington and Oregon coast, they always seemed to evoke some kind of creepy horror that was my only frame of reference for concentration camps. I sometimes half-believed they were the real thing, or at least evocative enough to cement the association. (I attribute some of this to seeing the movie “The Hiding Place” at a very young age…) Walking into the prison actually felt the same way. The feel and sound of the concrete walls, the damp and smell, or something. The rest of the camp, being outdoors, felt for the most part disconcertingly mundane and harmless.
The toilets. (This is John’s picture. Thanks John.)
Prisoners were sent here for special punishment or interrogation. “Pole-hanging” was one of the most notorious punishments.
The prison was also used to house “special prisoners,” well-known political figures or clergy. Many clergy, 95% of them Catholic priests, were sent to Dachau, most of them as regular inmates, including a great number of Polish priests. One of the better known Catholic clergy was Johannes Neuhäusler, later a bishop, who actually grew up in a village a few kilometers away from Dachau. He was imprisoned for opposing the Nazis and later wrote an account of his experience in the camp, which I bought while I was there.
This cell, on the far end of one wing, was allowed to be used as a chapel. Here is the portable altar where, unthinkably, Mass was celebrated in the middle of everything. After 1941 all non-German clergy were refused access to the chapel, and after 1942 the prisoners were forbidden all religious practices, but the “special prisoners,” carrying some international public relations weight, were allowed a bit more freedom. There are amazing stories in this memoir by Bishop Neuhäusler, describing how the priest inmates were able to make vestments and altar vessels and things in their workshops, or how Polish priests secretly got ahold of some bread and wine (through the black market that existed in every camp) and were able to celebrate Mass while pretending to work in a field. There was even a priest ordained here, though he died shortly after liberation.
Inside one of the medical examination rooms. Dachau prisoners were also subjected to numerous medical experiments, which resulted in the deaths of many human subjects.
The barracks in 1938.
And as they stand now. Only the foundations remain, although there are two reconstructed buildings with examples of the living conditions at different periods.
Bunks in the 30s. At that time Dachau held mostly German political prisoners.
This was by the mid 40s.
Toilets. Sanitation was terrible and many died from typhus epidemics.
At the far end, beyond the barracks, are the religious memorials. This is the Catholic memorial, which was erected almost immediately upon liberation, but for a while it was just a simple cross. This monument/chapel was built in 1960 and is called the Mortal Agony of Christ (Todesangst) Chapel.
To the right is the Jewish memorial, built in the late 60s.
Further behind the camp itself is the Carmelite convent of the Holy Blood. “The nuns regard it as their duty to offer prayers of worship and atonement at this sight of immeasurable suffering and inhuman atrocities.”
In the outer courtyard they have on display some of the handmade religious objects crafted by the prisoners.
“In addition to our simple wooden monstrance we had another one for important feasts. It sparkled like real silver, yet it had been made from empty tin boxes. An Austrian communist prided himself, and quite rightly too, on the fact that he made this monstrance secretly in the workshop under the eyes of the SS men.”
(This display is from the museum.)
Now here comes the crematorium, the worst part.
The river-ditch with its double-fence on the perimeter of the camp.
In between the camp and the crematorium, they added an Orthodox chapel in the 90s I think.
This is “Baracke X” in 1944. It was the second, and bigger, crematorium built here.
The crematorium is (and was even at the time) placed in the middle of a wooded area with paths through it, arranged almost like a garden.
Just the act of taking a picture gives it a more dramatic feel than it has in person, where it feels very unimposing and even peaceful from the outside.
This is how they found it in 1945.
This is either the undressing room or the “waiting room” for the incinerators. The liberators found it filled almost to the ceiling with human bodies.
Entrance to the “showers.”
The gas chamber at Dachau was never used for mass killings, and it’s possible it was never used at all except for tests. Some testimonies say that it was used on individuals or small groups.
However, the five incinerators in this complex and the two in the first building were used in the cremation of thousands of victims.
The picture on the upper right shows “Dachau residents viewing the heaps of corpses. The US Army forced the residents of Dachau to view the crematorium and piles of corpses. Afterwards members of the NSDAP (Nazi Party) had to assist in burying the dead.”
There are a number of memorials in the paths around the complex.
Walking back past the barracks to the main building.
The main building holds the museum, which was full of information, but we had already been there for 3-4 hours and were starting to lag. Still, it took a while just to walk through and look at everything.
A Bavarian dance scene, illustrated on the walls of the room where the guards (I think) ate.
“Smoking forbidden.” This was also on the walls of the prisoner registration rooms during the Nazi era. (The camp was used for other things — holding SS prisoners before trial, as a shelter for refugees, etc — until about 1960, so it was not preserved in its “pristine” state.)
Prisoners in 1933.
Death rates had peaked during the last months of the war, due to overcrowding, as prisoners from other satellite camps were brought in on the trains. By liberation, about 200 prisoners were dying per day. A day or two before liberation, a train came in from Buchenwald with 800 survivors out of some 4,800 original “passengers.” Over two thousand corpses were simply left in and around the trains as the SS officers abandoned the camp. When the American soldiers found this, and the bodies piled in the camp and especially in the crematoria, they began a massacre of the German soldiers and guards remaining in the camp. Some allowed freed prisoners to beat and kill the guards who had tortured them in the camp.
One week after liberation, May 6, was Eastern Orthodox Easter. Quoting from Wikipedia:
May 6 (23 April on the Orthodox calendar) was the day of Pascha, Orthodox Easter. In a cell block used by Catholic priests to say daily Mass, several Greek, Serbian and Russian priests and one Serbian deacon, wearing makeshift vestments made from towels of the SS guard, gathered with several hundred Greek, Serbian and Russian prisoners to celebrate the Paschal Vigil. A prisoner named Rahr described the scene:
In the entire history of the Orthodox Church there has probably never been an Easter service like the one at Dachau in 1945. Greek and Serbian priests together with a Serbian deacon adorned the make-shift ‘vestments’ over their blue and gray-striped prisoners’ uniforms. Then they began to chant, changing from Greek to Slavonic, and then back again to Greek. The Easter Canon, the Easter Sticheras—everything was recited from memory. The Gospel—In the beginning was the Word—also from memory. And finally, the Homily of Saint John—also from memory. A young Greek monk from the Holy Mountain stood up in front of us and recited it with such infectious enthusiasm that we shall never forget him as long as we live. Saint John Chrysostomos himself seemed to speak through him to us and to the rest of the world as well!
It was a draining trip. We ate at the cafeteria there at the visitor’s complex and slowly made our way back into the city, but first we stopped off to visit Schloss Blutenburg and walk through the beautiful paths along the river in Allach and Untermenzing. The feeling has worn off by now, but at the camp itself it was hard to feel anything beyond disbelief and horror. We all know what things happened in these places, but it’s something different to stand where it actually happened. There isn’t really much you can say.