On our first morning in Munich, we drove out to Dachau concentration camp, the first such camp to be opened in Germany during World War II. Visiting the site of a former concentration camp is certainly not a very happy or fun way to spend a morning; however it can be an extremely moving and important experience, and I think that anyone who has the chance to visit one should consider doing so.
One of the many surprising things about Dachau concentration camp is that it is only about a 30 minute drive from Munich, and it is right next to what seemed to be the residential neighborhoods of a charming little village. When we embarked on our journey, I expected that the concentration camp would be in the middle of nowhere. It was shocking to me that the horrors that occurred there took place only a few hundred meters from ordinary citizens living their everyday wartime lives.
The main buildings, gates, and guard towers of the camp have been preserved, with the main buildings now housing a museum about the rise of the Nazi party and their use of concentration camps. The museum served as a poignant reminder that the horrors of Nazism are very recent, having taken place during the lifetimes of many people still living. The exhibits also offered important lessons and warnings that are very much applicable to us today.
Dachau had once contained 32 barracks for prisoners, but only two such structures remain. While the camp was in operation, it imprisoned many different types of people who resisted, or were scapegoated by, the Nazi party. Jewish people represented the majority of the camp’s population. They were joined by political prisoners, such as politicians, journalists, poets, actors, artists, lawyers, scientists, people of other political parties, and others who resisted Nazism. Prisoners of war, homosexuals, German royalty, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, and some ordinary criminals were also imprisoned at Dachau. The over 188,000 people confined there were subjected to forced labor, starvation, and in many cases, medical experimentation and murder.
It was very impactful and eerie to see how the Nazis had created a very organized, intentional, systematic structure to their cruelty. They had specific protocols for tormenting prisoners and organized systems and mechanisms for killing them. The Nazis also had structured methods for desensitizing and brainwashing their own ranks so that they would carry out inhumane acts without regard to conscience or religion.
Religious memorials and chapels now stand at the edge of the vast area where the barracks once were. A Jewish memorial evokes a feeling of deep loss, remorse, and pain, as well as a tender care for those who died and a commitment to preventing such tragedy in the future. A Catholic church is home to an order of nuns and provides a peaceful place to reflect and pray. A Protestant chapel expresses a sense of regret and repentance, committing to improving life for all for the future.
Next to the camp’s main yard, visitors can cross a little tree-lined brook and follow a gravel path that passes a Russian Orthodox memorial and winds through a beautiful, coniferous forest-like area. The little wooded area was so beautiful, peaceful, and full of life. It stood in stark contrast to the grayness and devastation of the camp just a few meters behind us. Beams of sunlight filtered through the tall pine trees, and nature created almost an affirmative silence there. It was almost impossible to fathom how anyone could be angry or hateful in this place.
This serene path took us to what was probably one of the most surreal parts of our tour – a red brick building with a large smokestack. This was the building that housed the gas chambers and cremation ovens. Although this particular building at Dachau was never used for its intended purpose, the fact of its conception, design, and existence was thoroughly alarming.
In many ways, Dachau puts on display the best and worst of humanity. On the one hand, visitors are immersed in reminders of how extremely cruel people can be. On the other hand, Dachau is also saturated with the remorse of the community, respect for the victims of Nazi persecution, and the commitment to preventing similar atrocities in the future. The camp reminded me of the interconnectedness between past, present, and future and the ever-present tension between hatred and compassion, fear and hope.