There are some dark places you never want to let your mind wander. Standing in the open sunlight, the heat of the morning already causing sweat to gather at my back, those nightmares were all too real. This was Dachau Camp, the first permanent concentration camp of World War II. It was also the beginning of every nightmare the people held captive went through.
Less than an hour by public transportation from Munich, Dachau Camp is on the outskirts of the town of Dachau. What was a living nightmare for a generation, is now a memorial site to those who escaped and those who never left.
Only 70 years after VE Day, this camp was liberated at the end of April 1945. However, Dachau Camp has a special place in history. As mentioned, it was the first permanent camp set up to hold Holocaust victims — all those before it were temporary structures that would close after a few years.
Additionally, Dachau was epicentre of the concentration camps at the beginning of the war. The camp was overseen by Heinrich Himmler, who would become one of the most powerful men of Nazi Germany. He set up and commanded the concentration camps, creating Dachau as the example for the many more camps throughout the war. It was also the headquarters of SS training in the 1930s.
Today, the site still has the original prison, maintenance building, gatehouse and gas chamber. Additionally, two barracks have been reconstructed and religious memorial sites have been developed. Originally there were 34 barracks lining a central road, where prisoners would be marched into the open courtyard.
These bunks are not forgotten. Memorial markers are placed along raised platforms that outline where each bunker was. Some of these markers have personal memorials to those who never escaped the camp.
Even in the sunlight, this place had an eerie, disturbed feeling. You could hear children chattering to their friends; tourists snapping photos; and yet the alarm and anxiety was real.
The tour began with the prison, and learning about the many horrific ways humans could find to torture one another. Of course, many never made it as far as the prison cells.
Perhaps the most haunting for me was walking through the rooms centered around the gas chamber. The Nazis originally told prisoners that they were to take a group shower — so they were herded into the building, told to disrobe, and led to their tortured deaths. The sign above the chamber even says Brausebad, which is the original way of saying “Showers” in German. This word has since been removed from the German dictionary for its connection to the concentration camps.
The horror that had occurred in that room brought me close to tears. I watched as teenage students took photos of the cavern like room, with holes in the ceiling that looked like fire sprinklers. I had never felt anxiety like this, willingly walking into this chamber with hundreds of other people. Unlike those during the war, I knew what this chamber meant. A mass killing machine — conceived by the human mind; built by human hands; designed to take human life in a way never seen before. The whole prospect of this room makes you question humanity’s capabilities to torture and kill each other.
My experience at Dachau evoked many dark nightmares from my subconscious. Even after reading about Holocaust stories, through Anne Frank’s diary and Night, my imagination could never delve to the dark waters necessary to be prepared for the horrific realities the people trapped in these camps experienced.
However, its important place in history and the significance this place still has for many, I would not have made a different choice. Dachau is not about the Nazis, it is about remembering both those who survived and those who died.
It is important not to forget the scars of history, because it has taught us many lessons in the present. In all the darkness, it inspires visitors to be the best version of yourself — to help people and encourage this change in others.
You can follow Caitlin Burns for more travel fun at The Globetrotting Graduate on Facebook at Facebook.com/GlobalGraduate, Twitter @GlobalGrad and Instagram @GlobalGrad. For more about the amazing places she travels, go to her blog, globetrottinggrad.wordpress.com.