Remembering Dachau

Remembering Dachau

I stood in the gas chamber and ran my hands across the low smooth ceiling.  It had many recessed holes in the ceiling that were supposed to contain shower heads.  Instead they were lined with metal.  By the time the occupants realized this, the airtight door would have been closed and the poison gas would have started to flow.  I walked out of that room and entered the crematorium. I stared at the brick structure in silence.  What could be said?  I felt a strange feeling that bothered me.  So much death had occurred there that it felt almost ghost-like. Several metal hooks were mounted in the ceiling.  This allowed the Nazis to hang their victims and expedite their departure by rolling them into the brick crematorium.  This procedure was used when spies or popular political opponents had to be “dispatched” quickly.

Dachau, about 30 miles outside the City of Munich, was an embarrassment to the West German Government.  From 1945 until 1965, they did everything they could to hope the world would forget.  Yielding to pressure, they opened the concentration camp to the public on May 9, 1965.

As early as March 21, 1933, Heinrich Himmler, then Police Commissioner of Munich, announced to the press that the first concentration camp for Communist and Social Democratic functionaries was to be opened on March 22, 1933 in Dachau.  Originally planned to accommodate 5,000 prisoners, the camp was primarily intended to eliminate all political opposition.  In the course of time, in addition to Jews, gypsies and anti-Nazi clergymen, as well as any other citizens who made themselves unpopular with the regime were imprisoned in Dachau.

Although Dachau was not intended as a mass extermination camp, records showed that 206,000 prisoners were registered.  When the camp opened in March of 1933, 7,800 “prisoners” had been rounded up and sent to Dachau.  The camp was famous for its arbitrary killings and mass executions along with the SS doctors’ pseudo-scientific experiments that resulted in the continual extermination of prisoners.

Russian prisoners of war never made it into the camp.  The trains stopped outside the camp, and the Russian prisoners were forced to disembark, and were shot to death in a quarry.  No records were ever kept of these killings.  What is known is that approximately 2,900 priests and other clergy were killed in Dachau.  The Nazi were kind enough to erect a small altar in one of the prison buildings so that a mass could be said before the priests were shot.

The SS barracks still stand, a monument to the outstanding German construction dating back to early 1933.  It is hard to imagine that these Nazi officers lived with their wives and children 500 yards from the death camp. They had parties, watched movies, and entertained.  Murals were even painted on the ceilings of the dining hall.  The children’s swings and picnic tables still remain as they were 60 years ago.  The administrative buildings also remain almost untouched after decades with the infamous metal gate that contained the saying “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Freedom through Work).  The famous white prison building still stands with its 60 cells next to the “bunker” prison yard where prisoners were routinely shot.

Dachau was not only the longest running death camp, it was the first prototype camp built so that the Nazis could perfect future camps.  Adolf Eichmann, Rudolf Hess, and countless Nazi SS officers trained at Dachau.  The electric fence surrounding the camp also still stands with its evenly placed cement towers.  When I visited Dachau in 2005, four chapels had been built by Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Russian clergy.  The Russians erected their chapel outside the camp itself as no Russian prisoner was ever housed in Dachau.  On April 29, 1945, the liberators of the Dachau camp found more than 30,000 survivors.  During the period of 12 years, 31,951 deaths were registered.  However, the true total number of deaths will never be known.  Estimates are that it roughly ten times higher than what was recorded.

I will never forget my tour of Dachau and I hope that the world never forgets.  I am not sure that I would wish to tour another camp.  Recently, I taught a class in world history.  The text book was 1135 pages long.  On page 910, there were a few small paragraphs about the Nazi treatment of the Jews and the death camps that had been constructed across Germany and Poland.  I guess as history keeps growing, and in an effort to keep the textbooks from growing to thousands of pages, some effort has to be made to condense history.  However, as the years go by, we have to find some way to keep reminding ourselves that freedom is precious and that tragic events like Dachau must never be forgotten.

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Written by
Donald Wittmer