Visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany might not be something most people choose to do while on vacation. For some, the mere thought is too much. We attended Oktoberfest in Munich and made a conscious decision to visit.
First, I am a firm believer that to understand the world, you must understand its history. Sometimes, this requires seeing it with your own eyes. I wanted to see firsthand what the concentration camp looks like today.
Secondly, I wanted to see how these death camps are positioned. For example, are they marketed as history? Do they portray an accurate representation of what happened? Do they honor the lives lost? Or is there an inch of pride lurking in the shadows like American Plantations?
Lastly, I wanted to see the location, the surrounding area, and experience the grounds.
Some people claim that the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site is exploitation. However, it came to be “on the initiative of and under the surviving prisoners’ plans” who joined the Comité International de Dachau. It is not exploitation; it reminds and informs people of the events under Hilter’s leadership.
The memorial opened to the public in 1965 and welcomes around 900,000 visitors each year.
Should You Visit Dachau Concentration Camp?
Yes, however, you will need a strong stomach to face Dachau. Any visit to Dachau concentration camp will put you up front and center with the greatest crimes against humanity.
Until you have visited a concentration camp, you will not understand the true depth of the Holocaust. Some people will say that this is a place you should not visit – I’m afraid I have to disagree. Dachau concentration camp is not a tourist attraction; it is a memorial to the thousands of people who died in conditions so disgusting and vile that it is difficult to write about.
Most importantly, a visit to the Dachau concentration camp dispels any myths or attempts to diminish the Holocaust. You only need to be there for five minutes to understand the reality and scope of the lives lost.
Facts About Dachau Concentration Camp
Dachau opened on 22 March 1933.
It was initially intended to hold political prisoners.
The camp evolved to include forced labor provided by the imprisonment of Jews, German and Austrian criminals.
Dachau also housed foreign nationals from countries that Germany occupied or invaded.
The Dachau complex included the actual concentration camp, factories, and other facilities spread across 20 acres.
The facility was a training facility for Nazi SS guards.
Following the passing of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which enabled institutionalized racism. Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and emigrants were sent to Dachau for discrimination.
Dachau was the longest-running concentration camp.
There were 32,000 documented deaths at the camp. However, some estimate that 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries died in the camp.
The main camp was liberated by U.S. forces on 29 April 1945.
Dachau, by all accounts, was the testing ground for a much larger scale genocide.
Arriving at Dachau Concentration Camp
I think everybody has seen photographs of the train leading up to the gates of concentration camps. I will be the first to confess conceptually this is not what I imagined.
When you first arrive, you go to the visitor center; it is here where you will start your journey.
You will walk down a path from the visitor center that takes you to the train station’s actual remains and the main entrance, the God-awful gates that anyone would recognize.
Two things struck me as odd. The first one is that as you walk up to the gates, an enchanting river flows beside you, creating the illusion that you are in a park. The second oddity behind the river is a community of two-story row houses occupied to this day. The back-yard view is literally a view of the concentration camp. When I tell people about our visit to Dachau, I make a point to tell them that there is a community that lives right next door.
As you approach the infamous gates, there is a feeling that comes over you that I can only describe as cold. I do not mean cold in the physical sense. Granted, the day that we visited was not the warmest. I mean, there is real cold soberness that lingers in the air.
The gates read “Arbeit Macht Freiwas”. Translated, this means:
Work makes you free
Work makes one free
Work shall set you free
However, there is no freedom found at Dachau.
Inside Dachau Concentration Camp
Once you get beyond the gates, what may have started as a good day is about to turn into one of the saddest days of your life. For context, Brian only viewed the first prison bunker and then left sick to his stomach.
Once you get into the main courtyard, you can either tour the barracks or the “bunker” or camp prison. The barracks are to the left, and the prison cells to the right. We started by going to the right-hand side to view the prison cells.
The Camp Layout
Dachau Concentration Camp, 1944
Image Courtesy of US Holocaust Memorial Museum
The Prison Cells
Row after row after row after row of seemingly endless prison cells about a queen bed size. A coldness will embroil you as you walk these halls. Many of the cells tell the story of the prisoners that occupied them.
Following the prison cells, you head to the main courtyard. The first thing you will come across is the rack. It does not take very much study or imagination to understand how this contraption was used.
Human beings were hung in various positions from these contraptions for hours on end in freezing conditions. It is known as the so-called “tree or pole hanging.” There is something undeniably chilling about this contraption. This is where I started to feel death. Even if you try not to imagine what happened, the images come to you vividly. No pictures of the victims are required.
And the courtyard was where prisons would stand in freezing conditions for hours on end during a roll call or prisoners’ count. Just one of many cruel punishments endured.
Dachau consists of 32 barracks, 30 of which were accommodation barracks. The two barrack structures that are there today are replicas that were erected in 1965. Each of the accommodation barracks was designed to hold 200 people. Before the closure, the barracks were holding 2,000 prisoners. In these bunkers, people lived on top of each other, literally sleeping in quarters the coffin’s size. In fact, the sleeping arrangements look like coffins. I wondered if this was deliberate.
The Remains of the Barracks
As you leave the reconstructed barracks, you then walk through the ruins of the original ones. Quite possibly the largest display of inhumanity you will ever see. There is a brick boundary for each barrack, and a stone number identifies the barrack.
There are trees lined up symmetrically to lessen the blow. Sadly, as beautiful as the trees are, they do nothing to dimmish the reality of what you are seeing.
There are many memorials at Dachau through the complex. I found the memorials touching. Germany, while she cannot erase her history, she has accepted it. And, most importantly, Germany does not hide or downplay the atrocities. There is no sugarcoating.
Rather, Germany pays respect and uses the opportunity to educate the world. Something Plantations in American should consider.
At the end of the barrack rows, you get to a bridge crossing the river. Sadly, I had no preparation for what was next.
I would strongly advise you to think about crossing the bridge. Be prepared to see things you cannot “unsee.”
The bridge looks inviting. There is a chapel that is inviting – the irony of it is disgusting. If you cross the bridge, you will witness the gas chambers and the crematoriums.
There are two crematoriums. The original one was too small to handle the volume. Then, the larger version was commissioned to manage the volume of dead bodies.
The gas chambers at Dachau were not used for mass execution. There are varying accounts of the intent, and the most likely one being testing the capability and design of things to follow. And, they were used on a small scale purely for execution.
There are no words to describe seeing the crematorium. A picture says it all.
Crimes Committed at Dachau Concentration Camp
Most prisoners met their death from starvation, disease, of torture. Then there are the medical experiments that were carried out.
If you have not heard of or read about Sigmund Rascher – do so. It was at Dachau that hundreds of people were subjected to medical experiments, often resulting in death.
Some examples of experiments:
High altitude experiments
Getting to Dachau Concentration Camp
Located just 10 miles from Munich, it is easy to get to Dachau. You could drive or take an Uber; however, it is much easier (and cheaper) to take the train and bus.
Purchase a single person day ticket called “Munich XXL.” This covers all the public transit you need for the day for a 24-hour period.
Take the S2 train in the direction of Petershausen/Dachau/Altomünster.
Get off at Dachau.
Directly outside of the Dachau, there is a bus station.
Catching the bus to Dachau Concentration Camp
Board bus 726 in the direction of “Saubachsiedlung.”
The bus stops directly outside the entrance to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site.
Getting back is as easy; reverse the route.
What You Need to Know
Visiting Dachau Concentration Camp is free.
You can purchase a guided tour for a few euros.
Children under the age of 13 are only permitted with their parents.
If you travel with children, there are restrictions. For example, children are not permitted to view some of the films and some of the exhibits.
The tour requires a lot of walking, mostly on gravel.
The site spans 20 acres; if you plan to see it all, expect to spend four hours here.
The visitors center has restrooms and a Cafeteria.
There is paid parking available at Dachau Concentration Camp.
I will never forget what I saw at Dachau Concentration Camp. I will never understand anyone who still believes or thinks the Holocaust was made up.
If anybody believes that it is made up, they need to take a tour through some of Europe’s concentration camps.
While I learned new historical facts, I left with a heightened sense of appreciation for people’s struggles.
I cannot say that this is for everybody. I found our tour depressing and disturbing. Easy for me to say as a spectator because I did not experience the horrors. However, the whole point of visiting a concentration camp is to pay respect, learn, and remember.
You can visit a museum, and you can watch a movie, read a book or listen to a podcast on the holocaust. Yet, until you have been to an actual concentration camp, I do not think you can fathom the depths of cruelty that racism and genocide caused.
For this reason alone, I recommend that anybody in Germany takes the time to pay their respects to the millions of people they lost their lives during the holocaust.
Nikki Webster is a travel writer who covers how to travel while grinding a day job, how to travel without breaking the bank, hotels, cruising, and off-the-beaten-track experiences. She is particularly fond of Florida and writes extensively about the state. She flies around 60,000 miles per year and has visited 54 countries, 50 states, and six continents. You can read all about her travels at www.britonthemove.com.