We have enjoyed so many of the beautiful aspects of Bavaria on this trip. The joys of the holidays are celebrated by locals across every town we visit, the magic of the season is highlighted by snow-capped trees and twinkling lights everywhere you look, and the great food and fellowship (of which, beer plays a central role!) warms your spirit. But there is darker side to the rich German culture and history, which is why we intentionally planned to visit Dachau on our final full day. We didn’t want to minimize the experience of visiting this historic site by throwing it in the midst of holiday celebrations. Instead, we chose to separate this and give it the respect we believe it deserves.
Dachau, located a short train ride from the Munich city center, was the first concentration camp created by the Nazis in March 1933. In its early years, its internees were primarily political opponents to the Nazi regime, in addition to disciples of Jehovah’s Witness, gays, others deemed as “asocials,” as well as common prisoners. It wasn’t until 1938 that persecuted Jews were brought to Dachau.
While Dachau was never officially an extermination camp, there was a small crematorium with a gas chamber onsite, and thousands of prisoners died there – whether from illness, punishment or torture, or attempted escape.
Dachau played an important role in the rise and overall cruelty of the Nazi regime in three key ways: as the first camp of its kind, it became the model for future concentration camps and other incarceration sites (there were an astonishing 44,000 Nazi-controlled sites across Europe between 1933 – 1945). Secondly, it served as the official training center for all SS concentration camp guards. This particular attribute made for extreme and cruel punishment methods – as a way for Dachau guards to “show off” for trainees. Lastly, it was an experiment site – meaning German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners in Dachau. It is estimated that hundreds of prisoners were brutally tortured or died at the hands of these doctors.
Visiting the site in the coldest of winter made for a quiet, serene, and – in a very eery way – almost peaceful day. It was bitter cold, which only underscored to us how these human beings had to brave the grounds and inhumane living conditions wearing minimal clothing for protection against the elements.
The grounds of this camp were massive. Very few of the original buildings exist, but you can still see the outline of former barracks throughout the site.
I can’t capture in words what it felt to walk these grounds, and read about its gruesome history in the onsite museum (located in the original “intake” building).
My favorite photo of the day, and perhaps of this entire trip, wasn’t even planned. I was standing back at the main museum building looking ahead at the expansive space and path that leads through the vast grounds of the camp – a path outlined by the tallest of poplar trees. I snapped a pic – one of many from the day. A few minutes later, I happened to look down at the image captured on my camera.
Instead of seeing trees lining this long path, I saw a pair of massive angel wings. Perhaps a fitting and redeeming symbol. Tears streamed my face, as I absorbed this image and said a prayer for those who lost their lives or the lives of loved ones. May they rest in peace, and may we never forget – so that their deaths were not in vain.