Kendra's Chronicles: A Meaford Teacher Shares Her Travel Stories
Dachau Concentration Camp existed twelve years throughout Nazi rule and was one of the first concentration camps to be built. The liberation of the camp by the 42nd Rainbow Division and U.S. 7th Army Division was on April 29, 1945.
My group (four teachers and forty students) were trekking through Europe while the students completed their History and English credits. The previous three weeks had been spent learning about history prior to the Second World War and now, educationally speaking, we were ready to face one of the many horrors that happened during that time. As we rode the train from Munich to Dachau, we informed students that how they chose to experience the next three hours was their decision; they could be in a group, with a friend, or alone. I chose the solidarity route, and when I walked through the front gates, I felt a type of sadness and sorrow that words are not strong enough to describe. Nor are there strong enough words to describe the disappointment towards the human race for what happened at Dachau and other concentration camps.
As soon as you entered the camp your eyes were drawn to a large memorial monument. It was a tall black and gray blockade, and in four different languages it read, “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.”
Adjacentto the memorial was the museum that was once the maintenance building. Prisoners built it between 1937 and 1938. They built a kitchen, laundry room, bathrooms, a clothing supply room, and the room where the degrading registration process for new prisoners took place. However, those rooms are now full of hundreds of educational placards with pictures to depict the atrocities that took place there and of the people who committed them.
In addition to the maintenance building, 34 barracks were also built by the prisoners. The barracks could hold up to 200 prisoners, but by the end of the war they each had over 2,000. Now, only one of the barracks remains, and where all the others once stood are rectangular gravel pits with the associated number on the ground in front of the building that once housed prisoners.
A perimeter fence surrounded the camp and was designed to make escape impossible. SS men fired upon prisoners from their watch towers the instant one of them entered a restricted zone. The towers and fence still encompass the camp.
From 1940 onwards, mass deaths occurred and to conceal the horrific reality from the public, the SS built a crematorium. Now, behind the crematorium there are several monuments marking memorial graves of the ashes of bodies cremated or graves for people murdered by other unspeakable methods.
The SS conducted inhumane medical experiments on prisoners that included malaria, phlegmon, altitude, and hypothermia. Despite Dachau’s medical wards being well-equipped, the medical care of prisoners was barbaric. In 1943, prisoners who were doctors were allowed to care for their ill comrades, but, unfortunately, for those prisoners who were too ill and could not regain good health quickly enough, their deaths in the infirmary were imminent.
Overcrowding at the camp took place towards the end of 1944. Prisoners from evacuated camps began to arrive, and the hygienic conditions and food rations became deplorable. In November, a typhus fever epidemic broke out and thousands died.
After the liberation of Dachau, the U.S. army and the International Prisoner Committee (IPC) were faced with taking care of more than 60,000 survivors and their rehabilitation. They had to battle the typhus epidemic, take care of the ill, and bury several thousand people. In July 1945, the last 30,000 prisoners were finally able to leave Dachau. For many, their families had been murdered and their livelihoods completely annihilated, so there was no reason for them to return home. In response, the U.S. army set up separate camps for them where they were able to prepare themselves for emigration to the USA, other Western countries, or Palestine. Sadly, that meant for many survivors that they were forced to stay in Germany for years before they could leave.
I spent a good chunk of my three hours engrossed in the information that the museum offered. On the informative placards, nothing is hidden, and nothing is sugar-coated. Every heinous act that is known to have occurred at Dachau is told, and there are so many that readers lose count. While walking around the camp, there are very few restricted areas where visitors are not permitted to go; even where some of the most monstrous and appalling acts were committed, visitors are allowed.
One can read about concentration camps in a textbook or watch movies, but nothing compares to the reality of going to one.
What an unforgettable experience.
*All historical information is from placards throughout Dachau Concentration Camp*