As soon as you walk through the large iron gates branded with “Arbeit Macht Frei”, a confronting sensation overwhelms you. “Work makes you free” was the first thing prisoners saw when entering the concentration camp. It illustrates the false belief and mentality that was reinforced into the prisoner’s mindset, and somewhat downplays the harsh and inhumane conditions that prisoners faced when they were held in the camp.
Located 16km from Munich in the town of Dachau, this free-entry memorial site is a must-see and incredibly moving experience for those interested in the Holocaust and World War II. Dachau Concentration Camp was the first of the Nazi concentration camps to open in Germany on March 22nd, 1933. The camp was intended to hold political prisoners, however, over the following 12 years it imprisoned criminals, Jewish people, Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals, and foreign nationals from the countries in which Germany occupied or invaded. The concentration camp was liberated on April 29th 1945. It’s estimated that over the time of operation, there were over 200,000 prisoners and at least 32,000 deaths at the camp – however it is unlikely that we will ever know exactly how many people died there.
From the moment we stepped inside the memorial site, you could feel the silent and eerie atmosphere. It’s often hard to picture the horrors that people faced when simply reading about World War II, but walking through Dachau Concentration Camp was definitely an eye opener and gave me a firsthand insight into the reality that these people faced.
Rather than doing a walking audio tour, we opted to walk around at our own pace, which allowed us to spend as much time as we liked at the different areas of the memorial, especially important in such a somber place.
The first buildings we entered in the Dachau Concentration Camp were the barracks. The front two barracks are reconstructions of the original barracks. These barracks were fitted to hold 200 prisoners and divided into day rooms and dormitories. However, during the time Dachau was in operation they held up to 2000 prisoners. The other 30 barracks have since been pulled down but stone foundations highlight the areas where the barracks once stood. Despite being such an open area now, you can still picture the cramped spaces that the thousands of people were confined to in the concentration camp. Walking through these barracks, you get to view the bedding and bathroom facilities that the prisoners lived in – it was confronting to think that one family would share just one of the tiny little beds every night.
We made our way past the barracks along the barbed-wire fence line of the concentration camp, and past one of the seven watchtowers that surrounded the camp.
It was beyond here that we found the most uncomfortable and unsettling area of the Dachau Concentration Camp – the death chamber and crematorium. This area was used to store the corpses from the camp to be cremated. Most deaths in Dachau Concentration Camp were a result of disease that spread rapidly due to poor sanitary conditions and overcrowding, as well as starvation, malnutrition and suicide. According to official records the gas chambers were not used for mass murders, however many survivors claimed otherwise.
We then visited the main exhibition that highlights the history and details about the prisoners of Dachau Concentration Camp through images and various other artifacts – a very powerful display.
Although very emotionally draining, it is definitely worth the visit.
Travel Tip: Don’t forget to have a look in the bookshop if you’re looking for some more in-depth information or personal stories of survivors from this tragic time.