Touring Dachau will be our third and final concentration camp tour. Each camp and tour has been slightly different. The first camp, Sachsenhausen, was primarily a work camp, but was also used as an extermination camp. Auschwitz/Birkenau was primarily an extermination camp but also had prisoners housed there that were sent out to work. Dachau was exclusively a work camp. Though prisoners died there from mistreatment, its purpose was not to murder outright.
We booked a 5-hour tour with Sandemans through Viator. We met at the HBF at 9:00 and took a train to the city of Dachau, then a bus to the actual site. We were given a few minutes to use the toilet at the visitor center, then began our tour.
Dachau was the first concentration camp in Germany and was originally used to house political prisoners. Their life for the first few years was not the typical concentration camp experience; they were treated as regular prisoners. Each had their own bunk; the bunks had space to store personal belongings. Dachau was known as a protection or custody camp. There were very few Jews. In the first five years, no one died of starvation. Following Kristallnacht, all of that changed. The original camp housed 2500 prisoners but more space was needed so a new camp was built adjacent to the old camp. Now, the original camp area is used for training police. All old Nazi buildings were taken over by the German government and can only be used for governmental purposes. That way, no neo-Nazi groups can use them.
We walked through the “Arbeit Mach Frei” gate into the “new” camp which was built to house 6500 prisoners. Incidentally, it is illegal to use that phrase in today’s Germany. Also, though the camp was built for 6500, it swelled to 22,000 by 1940 and continued to grow until liberation.
When prisoners arrived here, they would be met by the camp commandant and some of the younger guards. Aristocrats and Jews were beaten upon their arrival. Rules and off-limits areas were explained and men were sent to the showers. Unlike the other camps we have visited, the showers here were actually showers used to disinfect the prisoners.
Prisoners immediately lost three freedoms:
- Their dignity (they were stripped naked and shaved)
- Their personal belongings
- Their name – they were given an identity number and had to be able to read it aloud in German to the guards, no matter what their native language
The chart shows the minimum number of prisoners that arrived at Dachau from each country since many were executed upon arrival so were not included in the counts.
Following the showers, prisoners were issued their uniform. New prisoners were given the worst uniforms, usually hand-me-downs from those that had died in the camp. Their shoes were wooden soled mules.
Our guide explained the triangle patch system. Some of the prisoners were capos, and had to punish their fellow prisoners to keep them in line. The “camp elder” had to prove their willingness to kill by going to other camps and hanging prisoners. Capos and camp elders received special privileges and more food. If they refused to do what the Nazis told them, they would be removed from their position and thrown back in with the prisoners they had mistreated.
The shower area also had whipping trestles. These were used to punish prisoners. Twenty-five lashes was a typical punishment. As the prisoner was being whipped, he had to call out the number of lashes in German. If he lost count or misspoke, the guard would start over at zero. Some did not survive the whipping.
There were also pole hangings here, up to 40 at a time in the shower room area. Prisoners hands were lashed behind their back and then they were dropped from a pole to hang, hands behind their back, for 1 to 12 hours.
Prisoners were fed three times per day, which was a bit more than the other camps we visited. But, the total calorie count was still only 640 calories per day, which is not enough to sustain a person. Being a bread thief was the worst crime among prisoners. The soup was not nutritious and so bread sustained them.
The prisoners were sent out to work at local factories, including the BMW factory. They returned to the camp for a one hour lunch and then completed their shift before returning for evening roll call. Following roll call, there was supposedly a few hours of free time before 9 pm bedtime, but during that time, prisoners had to polish the floor in their barracks in preparation for morning inspection, so didn’t have much (if any) free time.
Conditions improved in the last few years of the war. So many prisoners were dying from starvation and disease that there were not enough workers, so food rations improved during that time.
Where the church and synagogue memorials now stand, there used to be a brothel (1943-1945). The women there were prisoners from other camps that were promised that they would be released if they worked as prostitutes for 6 months. Of course, they were never released. Mainly the capos used the brothel; everyone else was too exhausted. These were the only women at Dachau.
Medical experiments took place here. The doctors needed healthy victims. They did altitude, hypothermia, malaria, and chemical experiments on the prisoners.
We walked past the original door to the prison, which had been stolen at some point. It was located in Norway in 2016 and returned to the prison. The gate we had walked through earlier was a copy.
Next up was a walk through the prison bunker. This was used for interrogation and punishment. The cells were completely dark; the windows were covered up. What struck me about this prison compared to the others we had seen was how large it was.
Following the war, the camp was used as a refugee center and was torn down. The barracks that exist now are models of the three different eras that the camp had. The first era was when prisoners had one bunk per person and were allowed to keep their personal belongings.
Next, one per bunk, but personal belongings were taken upon arrival, so no space for storage. Each barrack had a washroom, a toilet room, and a communal room which was never used because no one had time to relax. Typically, the capo slept in here, separate from everyone else. The cupboards were used to store eating utensils.
As the camp became more crowded, the bunks became smaller and more men were squeezed in. There were 44 different barracks here.
The final roll call on the day of liberation:
The statue in the courtyard where roll call took place is very stark. It is to commemorate those that committed suicide on the fences surrounding the camps.
We walked along the camp road, where the 44 barracks used to stand.
At the end of the road, where the brother used to stand, there are several memorial buildings – Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox.
Though there were no mass killings here, many were shot, or died from starvation or disease, so a crematorium was needed to dispose of the bodies. The original, small crematorium was used for 3 years to burn 11,000 of the dead. The new crematorium was built in 1944 and did have a gas chamber, but it was never used on a mass scale. It was used only once; our guide was not sure why it was not used more.
We walked through the rooms leading to the gas chamber. Outside the building, you can see where the gas was dropped in. The holes in the ceiling are where the gas where the shower heads used to be. They were stolen so are no longer visible.
Behind the crematorium is a path that leads past multiple small memorials to those that were murdered here.
If you are in Munich and want to visit here, I think it is easy enough to do on your own rather than taking a tour. There are audio guides and informational plaques that guide you through the exhibits. If, however, you have not visited a camp before, it might be worthwhile to book a tour. As usual, we wished that we had a little bit more time to explore on our own, which is always the downside of being part of a group tour.