All four of us found ourselves at the front gates of the Dachau Concentration Camp on a cold but beautiful sunny morning as we were about to start the Memorial Tour. This has been open as a visitor centre since 1965.
“Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work will set you free” reads the inscription on the entrance gates.
This was very strange as only two hours before I was resigned to the fact that none of our crew wanted to go on the tour so I wasn’t going to force it on anyone.
After all why would anyone want to inflict such misery and horror on a few days holiday?
For me it was just 8 miles from Munich where we were staying, it is a huge part of the German story and I really wanted to see it – I knew it was morbid and would be upsetting but something brought me there. It was quite a difference to the “Sound of Music” bus tour of Salzburg the previous day!
In a bizarre coincidence we missed the bus tour that we intended to take and hopping off the train at Dachau station we bumped into a lad from Templemore in Tipperary who is an official guide …off we went with Gordon!
Dachau is unique as it was the very first concentration camp, opened in 1933 initially for male German resistors who needed to be “re-educated“. After 1938 as the Nazi terror machine reigned across Europe the camp became a cruel home to many other male Jews and other persecuted minorities.
We learned that Dachau was the sophisticated “pilot” camp, which was to be used as a training ground for the Nazi’s who would practice, develop and use this model and replicate it over 2,000 times across Europe. This camp was so sophisticated that it was even shown to visiting dignitaries as part of PR, propaganda tours – this was no secret.
Dachau was a clever place to locate the camp as it is a beautiful area with a proud history – a camp there must surely be legit?
The top, well respected SS commanders would be trained here in detail about how to run a concentration camp. I always pictured the concentration camps as prisons but in reality it was an imprisoned workforce who were there to service factories, which were located outside the grounds. These factories included big companies who are still popular brands today.
This was a system designed both to imprison “Imperfect” people but also to make money from them in a brutally efficient industrial model.
Torture, humiliation and unimaginable cruelty ensured that all prisoners stayed in check – there were worse camps than Dachau Gordon told us.
I photographed the entrance – on a sunny day it looked nice.
I photographed the famous gate with that “motto“.
I took a photo of the prisoners as they were photographed on the day they were liberated on the 29th April, 1945 – lots of happy faces.
I took a photo of the huge yard where the roll calls would have taken place – gorgeous day.
I took a photo of all the prisoners who were photographed in a roll call – lots of unhappy men lined up.
I took photos of the room where the prisoners were taken on the day they arrived – they were stripped, and then totally shaved and deloused with disinfectant, which would burn their skin we were told.
On display in the room were some large prints with graphic images, which started to reveal the full awful story – I didn’t photograph these.
We were shown a wooden table over which men were humiliated and whipped with a cane if they stepped out of line (not making a bed properly for example) – I didn’t photograph this.
If a man tried to stand up to the officers they tied his hands behind his back with a chain, hoisted him over a wooden beam (in this cleansing area) and would drop him. This would dislocate his shoulders, break his arms and tear his muscles.
At this point I wanted to leave, I got the picture …I had heard enough.
The movie was about to start – we watched in horror at the black and white footage that was taken when the camp was liberated. Bodies found on railway carriages (this was unusual for this camp we were told), piles of naked corpses stacked on top of each other and the terrible state of the survivors.
This camp that was built for 7,000 prisoners ended up with over 32,000. After liberation 2,000 prisoners passed away from ill health – their condition was so poor that nothing could save them.
At this point I wanted to leave again – I felt the others were the same but no one said a word.
We went back out to the yard and the fresh air and sunshine. We viewed the memorial sculptor and the beautiful tree lined passage that would have run through the middle of the camp – the trees had been there at that time, to make the camp look nice. I took a photo.
We walked over to the rebuilt barracks that the prisoners would have lived in – I didn’t take a photo.
We walked down the tree lined avenue which would have run in between the rows and rows of barracks on each side – these were dismantled after the war.
The crematorium where the human “waste” was disposed of was next on agenda. This was to the back of the site and would never have been seen by the prisoners. Some prisoners were given the job of running this area.
We first saw a little cabin with two ovens inside – it was clear what they were for. I didn’t take a photo.
Due to capacity issues a new and very sophisticated and impressive looking building was erected. This consisted of rooms where prisoners would remove their clothing, a gas chamber (with shower heads, which they would have been used to – The sign at the entrance overhead read “showers” in German) and a bank of ovens. Its not sure if this gas chamber was used much – maybe it was just for training purposes?
Some women were hung in this room and then cremated because of something they did which upset someone ….it’s a blur.
We quickly walked through this area. I quietly blessed myself in each of the rooms. Towards the end of the war the crematorium was shut down as there was a coal shortage.
I didn’t take a photo.
Behind this building was a little garden walk where assassinations took place against one of the walls – young boys as young as 14 were doing the killing at this point in time.
I didn’t take a photo.
The Dachau Memorial was created by the survivors who wanted it to be shown and experienced in this way. They want the full story to be told so that all of us understand and none of us forget.
In Germany schools are brought here as part of their curriculum.
According to Gordon some of the remaining survivors still return and perform meet and greet duties and tell their stories to visitors.
The last part of the tour is a simple statue of a lone survivor, which is directly facing the crematorium – the statue is of a skinny, prison weary survivor standing proudly in a long trench coat.
He could now walk out of Dachau ..
I took that photo.
We are all busy with our own lives and it is often easier to turn away and not look at things that are unpleasant and make us feel uncomfortable.
Today l look at my photos – while I went to Dachau I did my own filtering job and I left the really unpleasant stuff behind.
It’s easier that way.
Greg Canty is a partner of Fuzion