This is probably going to be the least funny thing you ever read on this blog, however, I believe it is a story that definitely needs telling. Ugly criers, avert your eyes! Actually, writing this is a lot like watching a sitcom tackling a serious subject in an attempt at public education. For instance, that time DJ Tanner got busted for drinking beer at the school dance. Or that time Zack and Slater found that “roach” in the school bathroom. There’s no hope, with dope! And do I even need to mention the time that Carlton Banks bought a gun? OK maybe this was just an awkward phase of the 90s… but I’m bringing it back! That, along with scrunchies and Lisa Frank.
Fast forward to this week – January 27th, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Germany and got me thinking about the time I visited one.
Cue squiggly lines and flashback music…
On a 2012 trip to Munich, Germany I made it a point to check out Dachau Concentration Camp on a recommendation. Now, it’s something that I recommend to EVERYONE. How do any of us know exactly how lucky we are until we see something like this with our own eyes? We don’t. We can’t possibly.
Dachau (pronounced Dak-ow) Concentration Camp. In 1933 Adolf Hitler takes power and almost immediately opens a concentration camp for political prisoners in Dachau, Germany. Dachau becomes the first of approximately* 20,000 concentration camps established by Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. Of the 200,000+ prisoners at Dachau, 45,000 were murdered here. On April 29th, 1945 American troops liberated the surviving prisoners and began using the camp for arrested members of the SS.
Regarding the photo above, the SS had placed their motto, ARBEIT MACHT FREI, on the main gate of the camp. WORK WILL MAKE YOU FREE. Can you think of anything more gut-wrenching than this? From the Dachau official website:
The SS had affixed the motto “Work will make you free” to the camp gate. The motto reflected the Nazi propaganda meant to trivialize the concentration camp for outsiders as a “labor and re-education camp.” The motto also characterized the cynical mentality of the SS, who implemented forced labor as a method of torture and as an extension of the terror of concentration life.
In November of 2014 this sign was stolen from the gates of the camp and has yet to be recovered. At the time of this publishing, they do have leads they are examining. Two, not one, but TWO of the thieves (driving without headlights around the area) are believed to have stopped and asked for directions to the camp the night of the theft. How is it these criminal masterminds have not yet been caught?
Dachau Concentration Camp can be visited in about 2-3 hours. They have guided tours but you are also free to explore on your own. I recommend taking the guided tour to get the most out of it as possible. There are many areas of the camp to explore including an enormous indoor memorial site with all of the information you could ever want, and a lot more than you probably do (bringing children under 12 is not recommended). The camp is located about 30 minutes outside of Munich and is very accessible by all modes of transportation. I’ve included some visitor information at the bottom.
To me, it’s simply mind-boggling to think that such a vast space could be so incredibly jam-packed with prisoners. Also, at first I felt pretty guilty that I visited on such a beautiful day. It’s as if a place like this can only be covered in clouds, cold, and the color gray. However, the more I think about it the more it comforts me. This means that even though these prisoners were living in, quite literally, hell on earth, the sun still shined for them. As awful as their situation was, they still had blue skies, green trees, and sunshine there for them. I hope that brought them at least a smidgeon of comfort.
From this week’s Auschwitz liberation anniversary ceremony: Auschwitz survivor Halina Birenbaum said her greatest duty was to “tell others how much people [in the camps] had wanted to live”. Reading this, I knew my above thoughts were right on.
The photo above shows the markings of the former locations of the prisoners’ barracks. They were destroyed after liberation but are now marked with raised concrete so you are able to better judge just how many were located here.
One set of barracks remain at the camp that visitor’s are allowed and encouraged to walk through. Here you will learn about the tight quarters prisoners lived in and their highly strict daily routines that if not done 100% perfectly warranted extreme punishment. Basically, just another instance when they were set up for failure.
Above is Dachau’s main memorial center, the camp’s former maintenance building. Here you can learn all the history of the camp and of the building itself. Each room of the building tells the story of itself through photos, videos, and the prisoners’ personal effects. Outside of this building is where prisoners would take part in the twice daily roll call procedure that would last hours, all while staring at the roof of the building with the inscription:
There is one path to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, honesty, cleanliness, sobriety, diligence, orderliness, self-sacrifice, truthfulness, love of the fatherland.
This photo above is a painting by David Ludwig Bloch, a former prisoner, of the roll call process at Dachau. Now you can see why it took hours upon hours.
One of the many watchtowers where armed guards would wait and shoot anyone who even looks like they are thinking about running.
The trees along this main pathway at the center of the camp were planted by the prisoners themselves in an attempt by the Nazis to beautify the camp prior to a human rights inspection. During operation, the camp was actually abundant in flower beds as a makeshift cover for the hellish activities taking place in case of visitors.
At times prisoners were told they had earned the rare privilege of taking a shower (brausebad). They were brought here, stripped down, and allowed to enter. However, it wasn’t water that came out of the “shower heads”; it was gas that would kill them all. One of the saddest parts of this is the waiting room that was just outside where people would wait in anticipation for the chance to finally be able to clean themselves.
The photos above show two of the crematoriums. One sad realization about the Dachau concentration camp is that the local residents of Dachau had no idea what was going on behind the gates (I’m not entirely convinced of this though). The camp was portrayed as a well organized and well-kept camp for prisoners and they didn’t start to ask questions until towards the end of the war when the crematorium became so backed up, mostly due to lack of coal for burning, that soldiers began simply piling up the corpses outside, resulting in an incredibly foul smell.
After the camp’s liberation, residents of Dachau were forced to march through the camp to see the devastation that had been happening in their very own neighborhood.
Dachau concentration camp presents a horrific picture of history to those who visit but in my opinion, it’s something that everyone should see. To stand in the space where all of these atrocities happened is surreal. I wish I could present to you the complexity of Dachau in its entirety but instead I will direct you to this page that contains a wealth of information.
I promise to follow this up with loads of lighthearted and hilarious self-mockery, but in the meantime, check out the important PSA brought to you by the students of Bayside High:
*I really don’t like using the term ‘approximately’ in these cases because I hate the thought of discounting any of the lives spent and lost in these camps. Unfortunately though an exact number will never be known.
YOU’RE TURN! WHAT’S THE MOST SURREAL / EMOTIONAL / DEPRESSING / INSPIRATIONAL PLACE YOU HAVE VISITED?
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