The drive to the concentration camp was tense. I was nervous. I have seen Holocaust memorials and the like, but never have I ever been to a camp. The day was perfect for such a visit. It was cold, rainy, and raw. The cold sucked the heat out of my bones and I had a perpetual chill running up my spine. The walk to the camp was fairly long from the parking lot. The path takes you through a beautiful section of forest and eventually an information placard appears with information regarding Dachau’s concentration camp. We crossed the very train tracks that were used to transport prisoners to Dachau. At the crossroads before the gate entrance prisoners were sorted (only men at Dachau) and sent through the wrought-iron gate. The gate is at the end of a short tunnel made of brick and at the top of the gate stands the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” or “Work makes you free”. The entire camp is surrounded by a relatively tall fence with barbed wire around the top and on each side is a watchtower standing ominously in the gravel.
It is massive. I had not expected the camp to be so big. Enormous. It is flat and gray and cold except for a massive line of poplars standing in the middle of the camp, which marks the road that ran between the two rows of barracks. We went to the museum first and read for three hours or more about the camp and its history. We could have stayed two more hours and still not read everything. I could spend hours talking about all that I experienced, but I will stick to a few key informational points that I think are important. Dachau was the first really extensive concentration camp built in Germany and is the one that a lot of other camps were modeled after. It was completed in 1933 with the rise of Hitler. A lot happened at this camp other than the internment of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Czechs, Homosexuals, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. The prisoners were used to produce artillery for the German armory in addition to which all able-bodied prisoners had to work at some kind of job, especially demeaning, useless, strenuous, and repetitive jobs. There was also medical testing at Dachau, where doctors used the prisoners as guinea-pigs to test what the effects of extreme altitude are without assistance, new drugs, induced hypothermia, and many other diseases were given to prisoners to see what would happen.
A constant fear of death without trial or reason pervaded every corner of Dachau. Torture was regular and horrifying. Conditions were treacherous: hardly any food or water, incredibly ridiculous work conditions, living situations that were filthy, cramped, and cold. Constant harassment and degradation of the prisoners meant morale was in the deepest darkest realms.
The crematorium lay outside the fenced-in camp, but only just. This building was original, which made it even more unnerving. My heart was racing. The large brick chimney towering above the rather unassuming crematorium was sign enough: this chimney wasn’t used for the expulsion of smoke from baking… The ovens are huge. They could fit two to three corpses comfortably. Two sets of three each, six ovens total. At the end of the building was the gas chamber. Apparently the chamber had never been used for mass killings (150 people at a time), but there were accounts of small groups of 4 or 5 being murdered with Zyclon B.Personally, the most intense part of the visit was the trees. About fifty enormous poplars stand at attention lining the aforementioned road between the rows of barracks. In a picture taken when the camp was first built in 1933, the trees were still rather small. They had been planted when the camp was built. They were there through the entire war and still stand today. They saw everything. If those trees could talk, what would they say? Could they describe the horror? Now they stand there still, tall, strong, and innocent.