After travelling along the so-called “Romantic Road”, we decided to visit Dachau before crossing the border from Germany into Austria. The concentration camp in Dachau was established soon after Adolf Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor and was a prison camp for political prisoners, German and Austrian criminals, jews and homosexuals.
Unlike Treblinka and Auschwitz, Dachau was not a death camp but a forced labour camp. The prisoners were forced to carry out hard manual work whilst living in atrocious conditions with little food.
Visiting the camp is a haunting but educational experience. Entrance is free but visitors can buy an audio guide or, of course, get a guided tour in various languages. We opted for audio guides but the signs around the museum offer plenty of information and the museum, located within the old camp headquarters building, is very informative and well presented. There is also a film to be watched which shows in various different languages throughout the day.
Before entering the former camp itself, you can see the railway lines where thousands of prisoners arrived before their brutal introduction to the camp. The prisoners had all their belongings taken from them and had their heads shaved, all of which served the purpose of dehumanising the inmates and mentally torturing them.
From this spot, the former SS buildings are visible. Interestingly, the buildings are still in use, currently by the Bavarian riot police.
Moving on, the next point of interest is the former Jourhaus (dayhouse) building, where camp administration took place. The building is also the location where inmates (and now visitors) entered the camp. The gate, with the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes free) slogan, is actually a replica as the original gate was stolen. Even so, it is a very odd feeling to voluntarily enter a camp in which so many people were forced into and never left.
There are several memorials and tributes to victims by the former headquarter building.
There is an art installation, designed by a Yugoslav sculptor. It shows mangled bodies and barbed wire and is symbolic of prisoners suffering in the camps but also represents the desparation of many prisoners who jumped into the electrocuted barbed wire fence as a way of commiting suicide.
This relief shows the marks given to prisoners to identify their “crimes”. It does not show the pink triangle worn by homosexuals.
At the far end of this memorial is a marble stone with the words “Never Again” in several languages.
After absorbing this monument, we moved on to a long building behind the camp headquarters which was known as the bunker. This building more was where prisoners were “disciplined and punished” by the SS camp guards, although a more accurate word to describe what happened in the building is torture.
The former cells, which line either side of the bunker’s single long corridor, house exhibtis on the former prisoners and the guards. There are many stories of prisoners being taken from the camp for almost trivial reasons and never returning from the bunker.
A long walk from the bunker to the other end of the camp via the camp road gives you an idea of the enormous scale of the camp. All of the barracks buildings, built by the prisoners themselves, have been destroyed but the few reconstructed barracks show how the prisoners lived. A room with triple tier bunks, designed for around two hundred men, held up to 2000 by the end of the war. The camp was built for 6000 prisoners but held 30,000 by the time it was liberated in 1945. The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions the prisoners were forced to live in led to many deaths by diseases such as Typhus.
At th far end of the camp, the original crematorium can be seen, it was not used for long before being replaced by a bigger one named Barrack X. Even Barrack X could not cope with the number of deaths and, by the time the camp was liberated, hundreds of corpses were found here by US troops.
The gas chambers can also be seen here. They were not used on such a large scale as Auschwitz or other death camps but they were used to kill some prisoners and were an early model for those used in the mass murders of millions of jews.
Auschwitz and Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Visiting Auschwitz was, at first, a confusing experience. We arrived at what we laater discovered to be the Birkenau camp. We did not realise that the original camp was located a little further down the main road (and is in fact clearly signposted). Another point to consider when visiting Auschwitz is that, as of this year, entrance to the camp between 10am and 5pm is by guided tour only. The Auschwitz guided tours are very popular and booked up well in advance. Due to our confusion we ended up seeing the two camps on different days but we did see it all in the end.
Another option for visitors is to take a day trip and visit Auschwitz from Krakow.
The Birkenau camp is a good place to get an idea of how big the camp became. There are a number of barracks, based on the design of the stables used by Polish cavalry, to look inside which give an idea of the conditions prisoners lived in.
The large brick entrance to the camp has an arch under which the railway track leads into the camp. Many jews were unloaded from these trains, women and young children included, and taken straight to their deaths in the Auchwitz gas chambers.
The gas chambers in the Birkenau camp were destroyed by the nazis as the Red Army advanced through Germany. The rubble and mass grave filled with the ashes of victims makes for a sombre sight.
The Auschwitz camp itself has all of its two storey barracks intact and can easily take 3-4 hours of your time. The barracks have different exhibitions about the holocaust, prisoners lifes, conditions in the camp and the most grave building of all dedicated to the belongings of the murdered prisoners.
The gas chambers are still intact at the camp and the gallows where Rudolf Hoess, the comanndant of the Auschwitz camped was hanged.
One of the exhibitions was art produced by a former prisoner.
Our tips for visiting Auschwitz are:
- Allow a full day for your visit
- Book online well in advance if you want a guided tour or if you plan on visiting between 10am and 5pm
- Read a book about the camp, I recommended Auschwitz, The Nazis and the Final Solution by Lawrence Rees. It is great to know some Auchwitz facts and more of the history before visiting the camp.