Through the gate of Dachau Concentration Camp

Castles, mountains, medieval villages.. a trip to once-upon-a-time Germany can be like stepping into the pages of a fairy tale. It can also reveal the horror of Europe's fascist nightmare.

Visiting a concentration camp is not exactly a fun and exciting holiday excursion, but it's one that you'll never forget. I can't imagine travelling to Germany without paying tribute to the barbaric crimes that were committed there. I wanted to learn about a place that played such a dark and pivotal role in human history.

It first started to hit me on the train ride from Munich to Dachau. I realized that these same tracks took cattle cars full of prisoners to their worst nightmare. I wondered how much of the landscape had changed since their journey. I wondered what it must be like to live in that town of Dachau today, in the shadow of a former concentration camp.

Dachau is a small, sleepy town nestled in the Bavarian countryside, just 30 km away from the hustle and bustle of Munich. Dachau concentration camp was Germany's first work camp and served as a model and prototype for subsequent camps. It was operational from 1933-1945 and was first used to hold political prisoners.

You enter through a gate that reads "ARBEIT MACHT FRET" or "Work will make you free". This famous slogan also appears on the gates of Terezin and Auschwitz.

You find yourself in a large courtyard where prisoners would have stood for roll call and executions. To the right lies main hall and kitchen. To the left are the bunkers. You are surrounded by a barbed wire fence and seven watch towers.

We proceeded on the journey that the prisoners would have taken when they first arrived at Dachau. We walked where they were stripped down, examined, shaved and sterilized. It was an eerie feeling to be standing in the same place where these photos were taken.

Each prisoner was labeled with a number and a color coded patch, identifying them as a homosexual, political prisoner, Jehovah's Witness, Jew etc.

The Nazis conducted many inhumane medical experiments at Dachau.  This mosquito net was used for malaria tests. One prisoner recounted that he was whipped for not standing still while he was infected.

Other experiments included: high altitude, hypothermia and syphilis. If the subjects survived the tests, they were often shot so that doctors could study the effects post mortem.

Roughly 400 hypothermia experiments were conducted on approximately 300 inmates. In these tests, prisoners were immersed in ice water to determine how long the human body could withstand freezing temperatures. Survivors were often subjected to various body “rewarming” procedures that also involved tossing them in boiling water.

Inmates were also farmed out as slave labourers to various factories in surrounding areas, including BMW and Audi.

There were 32 barracks, one was specifically dedicated to hold medical subjects. The original barracks were destroyed, however two were reconstructed for the memorial.

Originally the camp was built to hold 5,000 prisoners. But Dachau soon became overcrowded and living conditions quickly deteriorated.

Smaller and more compact bunks were constructed to hold the increasing number of inmates.  Seven men would sleep in two small beds with no mattresses. 

Upon liberation on April 25, 1945 there were 30,000 feeble souls piled in these barracks. This photo was taken post-liberation.

I didn't cry. I expected myself to cry. More than anything I just felt numb.

This should without saying, but when visiting a concentration camp, please keep photos to a minimum. Selfies are definitely inappropriate and I have even heard of people getting in the bunks to take photos. This infuriates me and is disrespectful on so many levels..

I would definitely recommend following a tour guide. It is easy to get lost in reading all of the history, statistics, personal accounts and testimonies. We were at the camp for an entire afternoon and spent hours reading until we were kicked out. The memorial closed before we got a chance to see the crematorium, which is in a separate section of the camp.

Dachau was not an extermination camp such as Auchwhitz. Train loads of sick and feeble prisoners were sent elsewhere to be executed. However, many inmates died as a result of overwork, malnourishment, disease, suicide and execution. Medical experimentation left subjects dead or disabled.

Officially there are 32,000 recorded deaths at Dachau. This number does not account for many undocumented deaths. Bodies were sent to the crematorium so that the Nazis could dispose of the evidence. The death toll is estimated to be closer to 43,000.

Dachau is a chilling symbol of human suffering, racism and the depths of human cruelty. The Holocaust did not develop overnight. It all started with the small, dangerous idea that some human beings are inferior to others. It was fuelled by fear and hate. It ended with the greatest tragedy in human history.

The underlying message of this memorial is to recognize the capacity for human cruelty, and insure that it never happens again.

Although this visit to Dachau was an uncomfortable and haunting experience, it is something that I wish everyone could be exposed to. In light of recent American politics, I think that a few more people could use a trip to Germany. One of the key elements in German propaganda was the pledge to make a "new Germany". In other words, you could almost say, "Make Germany Great Again".

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” - Mark Twain 

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