On our trip to Munich we decided to visit the former Nazi concentration camp Dachau which is now a memorial site. We’d previously been on a guided tour around the site on our first visit, but wanted to revisit and take our time looking around the site and museum. Guided tours are a good way to get to know the history and main parts of the site, but don’t allow enough time to take everything in and reflect on what happened. The journey to the site is strange in itself, the first time I visited a former concentration camp I was struck by w it was in the middle of a quiet residential estate and Dachau is no different. The local bus takes you through residential streets with pretty houses and lovely green parks with children playing, and then all of a sudden you’re dropped of at a place where thousands of people perished. It highlights that life has to go on around memorial sites, with the pressures of space and the needs of local residents to go about their daily business.
A lot of the houses were built before the camp opened so it’s not surprising that it seems unlikely people living in the town during the 1930s and 1940’s wouldn’t have known what was going on in the camp, especially as many of the prisoners worked outside the camp and walked through the area every day. Today, only part of the site is open to visitors, the part where the prisoners would have lived. The SS guard’s section, which was on a much bigger scale, is now used by the Bavarian riot police. This surprised me, firstly that Bavaria needs riot police on such a large scale, probably because I associate riots mostly with Northern Ireland, and also that they are still using the buildings instead of rebuilding new ones. I guess economics has to play a part in that, and there are certainly many fine examples of architecture built during the Nazi era that I wouldn’t want to see destroyed. Going through the famous ‘Arbeit macht frei’ gates to the camp makes everyone stop and think about the past, and from here you can see the vastness of the camp. The museum exhibition had a lot of information, the majority of it was reading panels and photographs with explanatory text. It covered the background of German history, the origins of the camp, the stories of people who lived there and their daily life. We started by watching a film about the liberation of Dachau by US troops, which is very disturbing to see the condition some of the survivors were in.
There weren’t many artefacts in the museum because of the nature of the camp, inmates had their possessions confiscated on arrival and the original barracks have since been destroyed after housing refugees in the post war period. There were a lot of inmate drawing of everyday life, including some extraordinary sketches of extreme cruelty by the Nazi’s, sketched in the same way as if they were normal portraits of people. The artefacts that really struck me were a cup, bowl and spoon with names carved into them. These would have been the prisoners’ prized possessions and it must have been difficult to ensure that they weren’t stolen, as the camp offered no security or privacy to the inmates.
I liked reading the personal stories of the prisoners, why they were sent to the camp and if they survived what had happened to them after the war. There were some great stories of survivors becoming involved in local communities, supporting other survivors and emigrating to a life of happiness with their families. We walked down the row of outlines where the barracks used to stand and it started snowing, but neither of us felt we could complain about being cold. It made us think about how difficult life must have been for the prisoners in the extremes of temperature, especially in the winter working outside all day in the snow with such a terrible diet lacking in nutrients.
The crematoriums were in a separate part of the camp, though a gate and into the SS part of the site. Even now, almost seventy years later the gas chambers have no doors so any traces of gas remaining in the fabric of the building don’t get a chance to build up. It’s a strange feeling seeing the crematorium ovens where so many people perished, thinking about how recently this happened and the huge scale of the Nazi operation. There was a final memorial room in the museum where nations who had lost citizens in Dachau had given plaques and memorial, which was full, and this reinforced to me just how much of the world was affected by one dictatorship.
The heritage of former Nazi concentration camps is a difficult proposition, visits to these sites are becoming more popular year on year, is this because people feel the sites offer a way to conserve collective identity, or is it just that ‘dark tourism’ is the latest popular concept? There’s also the question of displaying artefacts from the camps, at some of the sites huge piles of prisoners belongings almost detract from the individual stories and make it harder to engage fully with the heritage presented. I think this is why I found the display of a plate, spoon and mug so powerful and thought-provoking, it was easier to connect with the individual person behind the item.