I loved Munich because being there was ridiculously festive, with the copious beer, gluhwein, Christmas markets and company, so when my travel companion S suggested heading up to Dachau to visit the concentration camp memorial, I was definitely not very keen, and put forth my suggestion to go up to see Neuschwanstein* Castle
*You have no idea how long it takes me to spell that every time. Pronouncing it, even worse. Even after Germans have repeated it to me, slowly, I still can’t get it right. Noy-Won-Stein.
Now, I know places like Dachau are important historically and etc, but I really get a bit depressed around places like these so I tend to avoid them on my itinerary if possible… especially when I’m alone; It just leaves you with a downer the entire day which is not what you want to have on holiday! If you noticed from my Vietnam trip, I didn’t really visit too many of the war memorials either – the last time I visited one was in Taiwan Lyudao, where the political prison now Human Rights memorial really left a heavy shadow in my heart somehow.
Having said all that, S was persuasive, and I was persuaded, and so we ended up visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp instead of my Disneyland castle inspiration, ah well.
But first, breakfast at Marienplatz:
Many places offer Dachau tours, but it’s pretty easy to get there yourself from Munich. We took the S2 train from Munich towards Dachau/Petershausen; it was about a 20-25 min train journey to get to Dachau Railway station, and at the main exit, we found the bus stops and took bus 619 for about 10 mins to the memorial. You could walk from the train station, but it was kinda cold and rainy so we didn’t chance it. Also, there are bound to be other tourists headed there so just follow them when in doubt!
It seemed a pretty apt day to be visiting Dachau – it snowed the night before and was really cloudy and cold, the gravelly ground wet with puddles and mud splashing on your boots, and the bare tree branches… it definitely added to the atmosphere.
The visitor centre is right up front – it was about 11am and just in time for the 1.5 hour English tour, but we decided to just walk around on our own instead sans audio guide. We grab a brochure and head back down the path to the main blocks, it’s still cold and gloomy and altogether a little melancholic.
There, we were greeted by the infamous iron gate that once taunted the concentration camp prisoners: Arbeit Macht Frei – loosely translated to be the rather ironic “Work will set you free.”
The external areas seem pretty unremarkable at first glance – large grey gravelly expanses with rows of neat white rectangle buildings lined up at intervals, breaking up the space. Then you notice the bars on the windows, and remember how many people they squeezed into this place and wonder what it must have been like when the camp was overcrowded with prisoners.
We headed inside to check out the museum and the prison cells, and partly to escape the chill of the outside air. The building we entered was just one long stretch of cells that apparently housed the special prisoners – these people were kept in better condition than the others and had their own cells. They set up little stations where you could read or listen to actual prisoner accounts of their life in the Dachau camp. Just a little depressing, but oddly the cells didn’t give me the eerie feeling I was expecting like the Lyudao prison.
Dachau camp was actually quite a large compound, many of the buildings were torn down because of their poor condition, but a few of them were restored for the memorial.
Then we headed over to the museum block, and were just in time to catch the English version of the documentary in a little theatre. I was glad to have someone to watch it with; it’s not particularly gory, but horrific in knowing what cruelty humans are capable of. Was definitely a little more somber after that.
The museum itself is quite large – one big permanent exhibition hall filled with numbered panels that take you through the journey of how Dachau came to be, and the atrocities that happened in this very area. We wandered through, but didn’t linger long, the documentary from earlier still fresh in our minds. There was another long block called the Barracks, and this was where the other prisoners were cramped – in wooden bunk beds all in a row – 1,600 people stuffed into a building built for 250, imagine that.
We headed back outside – all around the compound you can find artwork and memorial plaques in homage to the people who died here.
There was an avenue of tall trees lining the camp road, with concrete planter like extensions running perpendicular to it. Back in the day these were all bunkers, only 2 were restored, the rest were marked out by concrete.
At the end of the camp road sit various religious memorials – Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, even a Russian Orthodox Church and a Carmelite Convent. The bell tolled mournfully from the Catholic memorial.
Another pathway led to an innocuous set of small buildings in a clearing – this was where the crematoriums were and the bodies were burnt. The death toll was so high, what with disease epidemics and killings, that the old crematorium was worked 24/7 and far from able to cope with the workload, so they had to build a bigger and more efficient one. It was here too that they built a gas chamber like the Auschwitz ones, disguised as showers though this particular one in Dachau was never used. Going in there, this low ceiling-room with heavy doors and suspicious vents in the wall… I got out of the room pretty quickly.
Outside is a quiet little woody clearing, charming if not for the fact that the signs say that several people were brought out here and shot in the head. Several memorial stones can be found here too.
By this time, S and I were both tired, somewhat melancholic and rather cold so we decided to call it a day and head back to Munich. All in all, definitely a different experience than what I would usually have picked for myself – I would visit a castle on my own on the penultimate day of my trip after S had left, but that’s a story for another time.