What a pleasant surprise the city of Munich was. When I began looking into visiting the city, all I really knew was that there was a concentration camp just outside of city limits called Dachau. What I didn’t know was just how historically captivating Munich’s past and present truly are.
We were pretty ambitious to say we were going to make the 5:45am train on Saturday morning, but we managed to do it. It was pretty motivating to know we just had to wake up, call a cab, and we could fall right asleep on the 4 hour train ride. Trains are relaxing and with hardly anyone on in the wee hours of the morning, it was a quiet ride. When we got to the train station to catch the train I couldn’t help but laugh at all the people who were still making their way back home from the night before. European nightlife is much different than it is back home. By 2 am you’re kicked out of the bar, but here, that’s when people start showing up to the bar.
It seems that luck was on our side, if you believe in that sort of thing. Arriving in Munich around 10:20 or so we stored our bags in the lockers at the train station and made our way to the main square, Marienplatz, to see if we could still get tickets for the free walking tour of the city. Luckily, the groups were still getting organized and we were able to join. I am glad we did, because I learned so much about the city and its history, and it was a perfectly sunny, warm (yes, I just said warm) day. It also helped that our tour guide was fun, interesting, and talked with a British accent. Because who doesn’t love listening to people with British accents?
Munich was created as a trading city, central to Austria, eastern European countries, with gateways to the western and northern cities and countries. In the 1600s, a religious war took place and the Swedish Army held the city ransom until they were given everything the city was worth. After such a strenuous war, the city constructed the Virgin Mary statue in Marienplatz to symbolize the strength of faith, and it is the largest outdoor shrine today.
After a few more stops, we got into the history of World War II and the Holocaust. To my surprise, Munich was the capital of the Nazi party movement. After experiencing the history of Berlin, I had just assumed that Berlin was the most influential city in the rise of the Nazi party.
I don’t think anyone can disagree that Hitler was a force to be reckoned with. He took over the country and ruled from the Reichstag building in Berlin, but not before establishing fear and terror in the citizens in Munich. He had a favorite beer garden in Munich where he would spend most of his free time. Bodyguards stood outside of the garden 24/7, threatening those who failed to salute or “heil Hitler”. Later on we would find out that many were sent to Dachau Concentration Camp for failing to follow this minute ritual.
One night, there was an uprising that required police action. Police even attempted to shoot Hitler. He was shot at 11 times and almost killed. Hitler’s bodyguard covered Hitler with his own body, taking all 11 shots to his back, surviving the trauma. Just think how different history would be had the police been successful with even one of those bullets. It’s almost frightening.
Not only was the population affected by Hitler’s reign, but the city itself was also severely affected by the war. The city we witnessed was almost entirely rebuilt, as about 80% of this beautiful city was destroyed during World War II.
We cut out of the tour when we reached the Hofbraühaus. For those of you who have never seen movies or experienced for yourself, this is the bar that you would picture in your head if you were thinking of German bars. The important thing to remember about Munich is that it is in the region called “Bavaria.” Also in this region are the castles I visited a couple months ago. Rich in genuine “German culture,” you see men in lederhosens and women in dirndls walking down the street. We especially saw these outfits inside the Hofbraühaus. Bavaria is known for their delicious shandy, half light beer and half lemonade. If you like Summer Shandy back home, it’s got nothing on the Roß (pronounced “Ross”) beer that we shared at the Hofbraühaus.
Germans don’t mess around with their beer, either. At the Hofbraühaus, they only served beer in liters, with the occasional half-liter beer being ordered. I’m not the biggest beer fan back home, but this was delicious.
After sampling and experiencing the Hofbraühaus, we were more than ready to head to our hotel for an afternoon snooze. We relaxed for a bit before venturing out for dinner and to see what Munich’s nightlife had to offer.
We were all still exhausted, so it was a very low key, relaxing night complete with a glass of wine and some quality conversation. Sometimes it’s the little things that keep you going. I also knew I needed to emotionally and physically prepare myself for Sunday, when we would be touring Dachau Concentration Camp.
We got a good night of sleep and headed out in the morning for our tour. Even the weather knew it was going to be a gloomy experience, because the skies were overcast and it looked like it could downpour at any second. The weather was already foreshadowing the emotional drainage I would feel at the end of the day.
It took about 30 minutes, a train, and a bus to reach the camp. The price we paid included a tour guide who was very knowledgeable and pleasant to listen to. We began our tour outside the gates, where she briefed us on some history of the time period. Before the tour even began, I learned a lot about what fueled Germany’s fire in World War II, eventually leading to the Holocaust.
America’s Great Depression deeply affected Germany and caused an economic crisis throughout the country. Not only was the Great Depression disheartening in America, but it was also a tragedy in Germany, putting a strain on President Hindenburg and the choosing of his chancellor. Hindenburg feared communism, but he hated Hitler. This left him in a very tough spot. In the end, he feared communism more than he hated Hitler, leading him to choose Hitler as his chancellor.
It was downhill from there. Hitler was granted a position of power and began his power-hungry strike.
Originally a gunpowder factor to contribute to war weapons, Dachau became the first concentration camp in 1933. It is the only camp to last the entire war and holocaust, surviving the length of the entire third Reich. It was originally opened for Germans (mostly convicted Communists), but soon became a temple of doom for any and all depreciated minorities, homosexuals, and Jews.
It seemed that overnight Hitler and the Nazis had taken the liberty of enforcing new laws and making up their own. It all started with the Reichstag Fire Decree. The Reichstag (government) building in Berlin had been set on fire, and the consequences were that all civil rights were taken away from the population. This is when the Nazi party took it upon themselves to enforce this, fueling the rise of the Nazi regime.
Dachau quickly became a death sentence. The people of the city knew it existed and could make pretty accurate guesses as to what was going on there, but the question was: Did they care? A newspaper article was published, so the public definitely knew what was going on, but for fear of resistance, most kept their mouths shut and turned the other way as thousands were marched through the streets from the train station to the camp. We took the same route that thousands took to their death on the bus from the train station.
Not only was Dachau a place for those who chose to rise against or dare to have different opinions, but it was also a training camp for guards. Dachau became the model camp for any and all other concentration and labor camps that were established throughout Europe. The guards trained here became the most cruel, the most brutal guards.
To soften the blow to the public, they mostly referred to the camp as “protective custody rehab” because if people were sent here, they obviously needed help in correcting whatever problem admitted them. Or so the Nazis thought.
With focus on labor, the gate that stood at the entrance of the camp, and other camps such as Auschwitz, read “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Sets You Free.” Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see these words because in the last couple of months the gate was stolen from the camp. Our tour guide suggested that whoever stole it has some bad karma coming their way, and I have to say I agree.
When we entered the gate, we passed under a building that was closed off to the public. Our guide explained that places where extreme torture or places that could cause extreme uprising or emotion are closed off to the public. The watch towers are also closed off. The watch towers are seen as highly sensitized because if anyone dared to step on the grass that surrounded it, they were considered dead. The slightest movement triggered machine guns positioned and ready to kill. If that didn’t work (which was highly unlikely), the electric barbed wire fence would get them next. The building under which we passed had about four or five rooms in it, used to interrogate prisoners who were entering the camp. These interrogations were often personal, and came with some sort of abuse by guards. These rooms were also places where the prisoners were stripped of their last ounce of dignity and strength. Many didn’t make it out of these rooms alive
After discussing these two areas, we talked about the vast, open land that stretched out before us. Known as ‘Roll Call Square’, it is perhaps one of the most brutal areas besides the two I just mentioned and the gas chamber I will talk about later. This square is where all prisoners would gather, rain or shine, sleet or snow. Attendance would be taken here and if a prisoner was absent, everyone had to stand in the square until that prisoner was located. Exhaustion, malnutrition, and fear took many lives in this square.
We made our way to the barracks. Only two reconstructed buildings stood today, but about 20 were present at the height of the camp. There were three rooms, symbolizing how the barracks degressed in the three different stages of the holocaust. The first room had dividers between each bed, ladders up to the top lofts, and shelves above each bed. The shelves were a psychological form of torture—the prisoners had no personal belongings, no photographs, and no keepsakes. If they came to the camp with them, they were taken away along with every ounce of individuality they had left. The second room had barracks that were similar, but with no ladder to climb to the lofted beds and no shelves. By the third room or the third stage of the holocaust, it was simply rows of boards where as many people as could fit squished together in hopes of gaining body heat and that ounce of human interaction that might allow them to survive until the wee hours of the morning.
They had a regimented schedule. Prisoners would be woken up at 4 a.m. and spend two hours cleaning every inch of their barracks. There was to be no smudges on the window, no dirt on the floor, and their beds had to be pristine. Perhaps the biggest challenge of cleaning was their beds. Seemingly a mathematical equation, the angles of their comforters were to be at certain degrees and the sheets had to be pulled up to a certain inch below the top of the bed.
If you think that sounds bad, imagine these barracks at 4-5 times over the maximum capacity. Then think about the bathrooms at that level. With 12 toilets and 2 sinks, it was nothing short of a sewage system. With disease already running rampant, the survival rate was basically zero.
After viewing the barracks, we walked across Roll Call Square to what the guards referred to as the ‘maintenance building.’ Here is where prisoners’ belongings and clothing were stripped, where they became anything but individual, visible only as a threat, as garbage, as worthless as dirt. There were also showers in this building—these were actual showers and not gas chambers. They were brought here to ‘cleanse themselves’ of their wrongdoings, where they were shaved and sanitized and made to look no different from one person to the next. I’m actually surprised that this area was not closed off, as some of the punishments that took place here were unimaginable and I would classify the area as an area of extreme sensitivity.
After the maintenance building, we trekked to our last stop. It began to rain lightly on this walk; it seems the sky just couldn’t hold back the rain any more than I was holding back my emotions at this point. I contemplated a lot on the walk from the maintenance building to the gas chamber.
The gas chamber at Dachau is the only original chamber in any camps that is still standing. We stood outside of the chamber as our tour guide explained that this is a very controversial chamber. A sign used to advertise that this chamber was never used for mass killings in five different languages. However, no one will ever really know if it was.
I took a deep breath before walking in, a little hesitant about even walking through it. I started at the end where the victims’ clothes were sanitized. Five or six short and narrow closet-like rooms were used to clean the clothes of the soon-to-be-dead and prepared for the next group of prisoners who would be arriving. From there, I walked into the room where they were ordered to undress and wait for a ‘shower.’ Next, I walked through the shower. Hundreds of thoughts and emotions ran through my mind as I walked through, trying to hurry but also trying to even remotely understand the feeling of the victims who unreasonably lost their lives in this room. The next room was even more disturbing—it was the room where the bodies were placed until they could be cremated in the ovens. I continued into the room that housed the ovens. The original ovens, where there may or may not have been thousands of cremations of innocent people who had no way of knowing that their lives would come to this moment. And for no reason at all.
As I finished walking through the chamber, I took a second to look around. Perhaps the most disturbing part of this experience was not the horror of the past, or the images burned into my mind, but the insensitivity of some of the tourists around me. It wasn’t until this moment that I heard the shutters of cameras going off, or flashes illuminating the darkness. I could barely muster up the courage to walk through, let alone even think about taking pictures. I didn’t want to document this experience—the images in my head will not go away any time soon.
I walked out of the chamber and took a deep breath of the fresh, rainy air. We reconvened by a statue that read, “To honor the dead and to warn the living.” Not only was it a tribute to those who suffered at Dachau and throughout Europe during the Holocaust, but it is also a reminder of just how capable humans are of breaking other humans and causing so much pain.
What a memorable, impactful, and historical weekend we had in Munich. It makes me grateful that I get to learn about this experience and don’t have to witness it myself. If you’ve ever contemplated visiting a concentration camp, I highly recommend it. I guarantee it will open your eyes, open your hearts, and make you more grateful than you’ve ever been.
Stay humble and stay grateful.