Travel: Dachau memorial site reveals grim chapter of world history
April 23, 2014
DACHAU, Germany (April 23, 2014) -- In Europe, history saturates the geography. Through the cobblestone streets of a large city's older district, it's easy to come across a restaurant or pharmacy that is older than the establishment of New England. Ruins of a castle might sit atop a hill only a short walk from a modern fish farm.
Though much of European history can be characterized by social, philosophical, scientific and artistic enlightenment, there are also incredibly grim reminders of humankind's capacity for both committing and enduring evil. One of those reminders, the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, is only a day trip away from U.S. Army Garrison Ansbach.
Dachau is a small city in Upper Bavaria. It has a population of nearly 45,000, many of whom reside in the town to commute to nearby München. To most outsiders, however, the town is known for its infamous camp.
The Nazis set up a concentration camp at the site of an abandoned munitions factory in 1933. Initially the work camp imprisoned the political opponents of the Nazi party. During the 1930s, the Nazis expanded whom they incarcerated to include Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies, homosexuals, criminal offenders and others. During Kristallnacht Nov. 9, 1938, or "Night of Crystal" or "Night of Broken Glass," which was a violent, anti-Semitic demonstration -- also called a pogrom --Jewish-owned business and homes were looted and destroyed. Following the demonstration, thousands of Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps, including Dachau.
Dachau, as the first concentration camp under the Nazi regime, served as the prototype for all other concentration camps. Many regional sub-camps fell under the auspices of Dachau, and camp guards received training at the camp.
From its inception in 1933 to its liberation in 1945, the camp incarcerated more than 188,000 prisoners, at least 28,000 of which died there, either because they were murdered outright or died from horrifying living conditions. These numbers do not include unregistered prisoners.
The former camp became a memorial site in 1965.
After renting audio guides at the visitor's center near the bus stop, the visitor walks down a short pathway through a woods. They enter the camp through the main camp gate.
The permanent exhibit of the memorial site resides in the former maintenance building. There the rooms now contain a thorough informational tour about the camp, including information on the rise of Nazism in Germany, the formation of the camp, details about how the camp was run, details about the lives of the inmates, the liberation of the camp, and the conversion of the camp into a memorial site. There are also many artifacts about the camp and a room for a short documentary. All the information is printed in English, and the audio guides include the information in English as well. The film contains English subtitles.
Close to the maintenance building are art installations created in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust in general and the victims of Dachau in particular.
There are two reconstructions of the barracks used during World War II. Visitors can see what the cramped spaces were like where the prisoners were confined. The ground where the rest of the barracks used to stand contains plaques with more information about the camp.
Behind where the barracks used to stand are a chapel, a church, a Carmelite convent and a Jewish memorial. Outside of the main internment part of the camp is the crematorium area and another chapel.
Being at the site can be a powerful experience. The scale of the Holocaust can be difficult to gauge, but Dachau brings the Holocaust to a fathomable specificity. The Holocaust didn't just happen "in Europe," but it happened close to the quiet satellite city of a southern German city.
And although the cruelty of the Nazi regime is laid out in detail, the museum also recounts the endurance of the prisoners. The camp is not just a reminder of the evils that humans are capable of, but of what strength humans are capable of in horrifying circumstances.
The concentration camp can be reached without driving. Getting to Dachau by train from Ansbach takes approximately 2.5 hours, and a bus leaves directly from the Dachau train station to the memorial site.
The memorial site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but is closed Dec. 24.
To learn more about the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, visit www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de. To learn more about the Holocaust, visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's website at www.ushmm.org.