The Holocaust: My Visit to Dachau, a Concentration Camp

Last Week, someone asked me the question, "What is the most memorable place you've ever been?" For me, it occured on July 5, 1995. I know the exact date, because it was the day after my 18th birthday. The place: Dachau Nazi Concentration Camp.

(Survivors on Liberation Day: April 29, 1945)

I was in Germany on tour with a choir. I'd already visited Anne Frank House in the Netherlands and wasn't quite sure what I would find at Dachau. I knew it would not be positive. Although I was nervous about going there, I am glad I had the opportunity to experience the terror that was the Nazis up-close. It gave me a new appreciation for what the prisoners went through. It made the unimaginable, imaginable.

When I entered the camp, I was struck by the eerie silence and calm of the place. It was as if sound did not exist. I did not hear the wind. I did not hear birds. I did not hear anything but silence. No one spoke. The air was too thick to speak. It was as if I could feel the generations of souls that had either lived or died there. I was among the living dead. I've never before or since experienced anything like that.

Dachau, which opened in 1938, was the first concentration camp created by the Nazi regime and the model for all others, like Auschwitz. It was mostly comprised of political prisoners who opposed the Nazis and Christian clergy. Women weren't sent to the camp until 1944.

1/2 of the camp was comprised of barracks where the prisoners lived; the other 1/2 held the crematorium as well as the gas chambers, which were disguised as showers. The gas chambers were never used at Dachau like they were in other camps. Most prisoners died of malnutrition, exposure, typoid fever (which broke out in 1943), and other diseases. Some were hung from the rafters above the ovens. I was able to walk through the gas chambers and let me tell you, that was scary as all get out even if they were never used. A second crematorium was built in 1942.

The original crematorium

(The fake shower heads disguised the gas spouts)

By 1945, there are a report 55,000 prisoners including 2,000 women. There was only 1 black prisoner (Jean Voste). As a result of the total number of prisoners, 30 subcamps are built to accomodate them. All of them were required to wear badges.

3 days before liberation, the SS forced 7,000 prisoners on a death march for 6 days, during which anyone who could not keep up was shot. They were liberated by US soldiers when they reached their destination.

The death march

On liberation day, the US forces found 30 coal cars filled with decomposing bodies. There were more than 30,000 survivors in the camp. Of the 200,000 prisoners registered as living in the camp during its reign, 30,000 of them die. Since not all prisoners living at the camp were registered, the entire number of deaths is not known.

What struck me the most about my visit to Dachau, besides the lack of sound, was seeing the rows and rows of cement foundations where the barracks once stood. There were rows and rows and rows. Silence and rows. Rows and silence. I was so taken aback that no tears would come.

The barracks as they look today.

I realized that as important as it was to recognize and remember those who lost their lives at Dachau, it was equally important to recognize the survivors who made it to liberation. Instead of showing the piles of dead, I thought I'd share a few pictures of those who survived.

Today, please say a prayer for all prisoners of camps, for those lost and those who lived.

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