Reflections from a Sunday Morning at Dachau

Posted 02.02.2015

dachau-1As I write this, I’m in Munich, Germany on a business trip. Last night, I was tagging a photo of a classic German Biergarten meal and noticed that Dachau came up on the list of geotag options. This is a very quick trip that I’m on and, to be honest, I did zero research on what I might see or do in Munich before I came over. When I saw Dachau on my smartphone screen, though, I immediately knew how I was going to spend my Sunday. For reasons that I can’t completely explain I knew I had to go there.

After being there today, I wish everyone could go. I’ll try to explain why in this post.

Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp. It opened in 1933 and by the time it was liberated in April 1945 was the only camp to span the existence of the Third Reich. Most of the horrors – brutal slave labor, torture, medical experimentation, gas chambers and crematoriums – that would be replicated throughout a vast network of Nazi concentration camps and sub camps started at Dachau. It was literally a training school for the SS.

Via various legs of public transport, the camp was a little more than an hour from my hotel. I arrived there just before 10:00 a.m. It was cold, 28 degrees Fahrenheit, and overcast. For the first couple of hours, I was one of less than a dozen people on the grounds. I’ve been reflecting on my morning at Dachau and some of the impressions I had and emotions I felt while I was there. Here are some of them.

dac-pic2-fullThe first is that the Dachau camp was an island of evil surrounded by a small town that, for the majority of the camp’s existence, went about its “normal” business. While you can see the guard towers just before you reach the camp, there’s really not much visible evidence of anything like the killing grounds it was. The memorial visitors center for the camp is right off a residential street. There is very little in the visitors center that prepares you for what you’re about to see. When you leave it you walk down a path a few hundred yards until you come to a gatehouse to your right. There’s no doubt in my mind that the entrance was designed to create a sense of fear and foreboding in those who were sent there. It had that effect on me eighty years after the fact. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I walked through the gate. dac-pic3-fullOn a cold February day, I faced a vast open field that was the roll call area for anywhere from 6,000 to 32,000 prisoners. Each day, they lined up for at least an hour and often much more in any kind of weather with very little to protect them from the elements, let alone the other human beings who were holding them captive as their tormentors.

dac-pic4To the right of the field is a main building that was used for slave labor for local manufacturers. To the left are two reconstructed bunkhouses. The foundations of the other 28 bunkhouses stretch out in two lines behind. They were designed for around 500 prisoners each but by the end of the war had six times that many people crammed inside. dac-pic5The bunks inside were built in squares of two sections of three rows each with nine bunks to a row for a total of 54 prisoners to a square. On a 28 degree day, I had on three layers and a scarf and was still cold inside the bunkhouse. I can’t imagine the privation of those who had to live there with only one set of threadbare clothes.

dac-pic6As I walked around the grounds I was struck by the order of the walkways, the way the buildings were laid out, the symmetry of the trees that lined the walks, the thought that went into creating a place designed to inflict such enormous suffering. At the far end of the camp, past the bunkhouses and to the left across a bridge over a stream is the crematorium. What you see when you cross the bridge is actually the second crematorium. With its four ovens and rooms to store dead bodies before cremation, it was built when the first crematorium with two ovens didn’t have enough capacity. dac-pic7-crematWalking though it, I came upon a room that was dimly lit with a low ceiling. I saw a capped pipe on the wall to my right and vents above me and knew it was a gas chamber. There was an open metal door on the other side of the room. My chest tightened. I walked through thinking of the millions who didn’t walk out of rooms like this in the vast network of Nazi concentration camps.


On that same end of the camp are various memorials and religious structures that have been built or established in the past forty or fifty years. There’s an unforgettable Jewish memorial, a Catholic convent, a Russian Orthodox memorial and a non-denominational Protestant Church of Reconciliation. As I walked by it their 11:00 am Sunday service was starting so I went in. The service was all in German so I didn’t understand it but a nice lady sitting next to me translated the main messages for me. It was a relief to be there and listen to the prayers and the music.

Before I left the camp, I spent another hour in the museum that now occupies the work building off the roll call grounds. After you walk though the prisoner processing area known as the shunting room, you walk through room after room of posters that explain what happened at Dachau and in the rest of the camps and how and why it happened at all. Survivors of the camps fought hard for the restoration of the camp at Dachau. They wanted to make sure the world remembered and learned from what happened.


Like you, I’ve read about the concentration camps, seen the pictures and the films taken by the Allied liberators for most of my life. None of that prepared me for actually being at Dachau. Words and pictures including those in this post can’t convey the scale of what was done and what happened. I kept thinking today, “What if?” What if everyone could spend a quiet Sunday morning at Dachau reflecting on and confronting what we humans are capable of -the evil we can inflict, the resilience to rise above it and the wisdom to examine and remember all of it? I have to think the world would be a different and more compassionate place if we could all visit Dachau.