The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site wasn’t on my itinerary when I first made plans to visit Munich, but my travel companion S really wanted to head up there, and while I left the site with an extremely heavy heart, on hindsight I’m glad I did go visit after all.
DAMPENING THE HOLIDAY SPIRIT
I loved visiting Munich so close to Christmas because it was ridiculously festive, with the copious beer, gluhwein and Christmas markets, so when my travel companion S suggested heading up to Dachau to visit the concentration camp memorial site, I was definitely not very keen – I intended to go see the Disney-inspiring Neuschwanstein Castle instead (Side note: You have no idea how long it takes me to spell Neuschwanstein. It’s one of those words that my brain can’t remember for some reason)
Now, I know places like Dachau are historically important, but honestly I really get a bit depressed after visiting them and it does cast a bit of a dampener on the rest of my day, so I sometimes avoid putting them on my itinerary, especially when I’m alone. There’s something about these places that leaves shadows and vibes behind that I can feel and holidays are supposed to be happy times for me.
Having said all that, S was persuasive, I was persuaded, and so we ended up spending a day at Dachau.
GETTING TO DACHAU
Many tour agencies in Munich offer Dachau tours, but it is pretty easy to get there by 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. At the main exit of the railway station, we found the bus stops and took Bus 619 for about 10 mins to the memorial stop KZ Gedenkstätte. You could walk from the train station, but it was kinda cold and rainy that day. 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.
DACHAU CONCENTRATION CAMP MEMORIAL SITE
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.
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 somehow the cells were not as eerie as some others I’ve visited in the past.
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 much 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 did go visit a castle eventually after S left.
Check out my much more festive Munich posts here.