Dachau is a small town that is an hour's train ride north of Munich (Curious fact: In Germany it is called Munchen, not Munich. Why do Americans insist on calling it Munich?). The train station is located half a block from the main bus station, so catching a bus to the actual concentration camp was simple.
Within five minutes we arrived at the camp. It looked like a small prison from the road, with a guard tower at the front gate and a chain linked fence with barbed wire all around. Crowds of people speaking many different languages pushed through the front entrance.
Immediately inside the first building was an information desk that sold thick books translating the various articles inside of the museum. These books were over 100 pages and included many high quality photographs. They cost about $12, were optional, and were the only expense of the entire camp.
The first building was basically a museum center, with many poster sized photographs on display that were taken during the war and immediately after the liberation of the camp. Thin and starving people was pretty much the theme, though there were some photographs of scientific experiments done on prisoners. For instance, in one series of photographs a man was subjected to varying levels of low pressure. In another series of photographs a man was submerged in a tank of cold water wearing the survival equipment of Luftwaffe pilots. Fatalities from these experiments were high, and those prisoners who survived them were subjected to experiments guaranteed to kill them, such as the dissection of the brain while the prisoner was still alive.
Now for some history. Dachau was not an "extermination camp" like Auschwitz was. Instead, it was a true concentration camp, intended to get undesirables out of the way. Although exterminations on a large scale did not take place in Dachau, life was worth very little. Over 30,000 people died of starvation or disease at the camp over its operational life, testimony of the squalid conditions afforded to prisoners of the Third Reich.
In this first part of the museum very few actual objects from the camp are present. One object that comes to mind, though, was a table and whip used to punish prisoners.
After walking through the first building, we continued on into the main yard. Now the crowds that we had pushed through to get into the museum seemed like only a handful of people. It immediatley became apparent that the camp had been designed to hold thousands of people, and what had seemed a crowd only moments before was a pittance compared to the capacity of the camp.
Two large barracks buildings were available to walk through. Bunk beds that were probably six feet long and perhaps 20 feet wide were arranged in efficient rows. Many people were put into the same incredibly wide beds, lying side by side with absolutely no privacy.
Next was a building that looked much like the barracks from the outside, but contained small individual rooms on both sides of a long hallway. This was where prisoners were taken for solitary confinement.
Walking deeper into the camp, it was apparent that most of the buildings were missing. Many foundations remained in a perfectly organized grid of three buildings wide by perhaps 20 buildings deep, but the buildings themselves were gone. Immediately after the war, occupied Germany was understandably not proud of its Nazi past. The concentration camps accross Germany were left to rot and slowly dissapear, and by the mid 1960's most of the buildings at Dachau had decayed to the point where they were dangerously unstable. Most of the buildings were bulldozed, but some of the buildings were restored as the museum/memorial was established.
At the far rear, left corner of the camp there was a special brick building that was quite different from the wood architecture of the rest of the camp. Several wide, squat smokestacks rose from the roof, testimony of the crematoria furnaces inside. The crematoria furnaces were in perfect condition, and looked like all they needed to become operational again is the fuel to run them. They were made of red brick, and had slots for two bodies each. Inside of them were steel "beds" on runners that could be used to slide the bodies in. Some 30,000 people died at Dachau during the Third Reich, and I imagine these crematoria served to dispose of most of that number.
Immediately next to the crematorium room was a "shower room" gas chamber. A plaque said that this room was the prototype for the gas chambers at major killing sites such as Auschwitz and was not used on the prisoners of Dachau. Despite this I strongly suspect that at least some prisoners were murdered here as part of the "scientific research" that occurred at Dachau.
Finally, there were several religious memorials that have been built over the last 30 years at the rear of the camp. A few were very traditional in architecture, though most were very artistically driven. For a traditional example, there was a small Russian Orthdox church with an onion dome. On the artistic end there was a Western Christian church (I'm not sure of the denomination) that was built with very few right angles. Everything was wavy and curved, even the floor. A plaque written in many languages said that the church had been built with no right angles because right angles represented the architecture of death at Dachau. All of the buildings in Dachau had been made as efficiently as possible, efficiency meaning rectangular, single story buildings that were filled with right angles.
Other examples of memorials at the camp was a Jewish one and one dedicated to Christian Polish nationals.
So there is the general description of the Dachau concentration camp. What was my reaction? Curiously, I felt that the concentration camp was very plain and ordinary looking. In the middle of a town that could have been found in my home state of Minnesota had it not been for all of the signs being in German, was what appeared from the outside to be a small prison. On the inside of this small prison were clean white buildings that looked like long trailer houses. I had to keep reminding myself of what I had read and the pictures I had seen of the terrible conditions and hardships that occurred there. It certainly wasn't apparent from just walking around in the camp 50 years later.
I also had some fairly angry thoughts about the Germans. Though the German people I had met on my trip were very nice and helpful, I wondered how such people could do such terrible things to the Jews and political enemies of the state. Yes, this was over 50 years ago, and yes, the people who committed these crimes were "only following orders", but something inside me wondered if perhaps the Germans were happy to be rid of the Jews. The Germans who had treated me kindly saw in me a white, young man with blond hair. What would their reaction have been if my name had been Goldstein or if I had been black?
Of all of the events that occurred during World War II, the longest lived effects will be the annihilation of the Jews in Europe. 1,000 years from now there will still be very few Jews living there, while the economic prosperity of post war America will be but a memory. Western Europe has few racial problems, and its people look at the crime and social unrest of the U.S. with contempt. It is easy to look down on another nation for racism when you have irradicated racism in your own country through the most violent of means, the "Final Solution".