Like many people, I’m extraordinarily intrigued by WWII history and the Holocaust. The cascade of bizarre political events leading up to the war and the atrocities committed throughout it can’t help but demand interest and attention. Berlin and Munich, while beautiful cities in their own right, are tremendously more captivating to me due to their saturation of historical sites, landmarks and monuments. After spending three days exploring Munich, I felt like I’d experienced a good deal of the city and decided to take what would end up being one of the most humbling and somber day trips I’m sure I’ll ever experience.
Dachau Concentration Camp is about 30-40 minutes drive from Munich and easily accessible by train/shuttle bus in about 20-30 minutes. To visit on your own, you take the S2 train from Munich Central Train Station (Hauptbahnhof) towards Dachau train station & then take bus 726 towards “Saubachsiedlung” to the entrance of the camp. But if you’re like me, utilizing the public transportation systems in foreign countries can seem really intimidating even when it seems straight forward. It usually takes me two or three visits to a city before I’m feeling brave enough to potentially get lost, so I decided to schedule myself for a guided group tour with Radius Tours & Bikes. Their kiosk is conveniently located in the Munich Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) near track 33.
The price for the tour was € 22 because I had my student ID (albeit I was not actually an active student at the time, don’t tell anybody). Otherwise it would have been € 24, but this included the train fair & bus to and from, entrance into Dachau (which is free, but there are charges for parking [€3]) and the informative guided tour. Dachau offers it’s own guided tours in English twice a day for €3 or self-guided audio tours for €3,50 (€2,50 for students); but if you add up all the transportation and guide costs, +the risk for irritation you’ll experience when you get lost or miss your tour time because you couldn’t figure out which train ticket you needed, the guided group tour can be a convenient alternative to self exploration. If you decide to try visiting solo, the official Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Website has very clear and easy information outlining costs, tour times & transportation options.
My tour was tremendously informative, which I loved. We got to see all parts of the camp and learn the significance behind each location. Many of the areas of the camp were destroyed at the end of the war by the Nazi SS in an attempt to cover up what was being done in the camps. For this reason I feel strongly that to really experience the significance of the camp, you need some sort of guide, whether it be a knowledgeable individual or an audio guide; because unless you have someone to be able to explain the significance of that open area in front of you, it won’t be anything more than just that open area in front of you, and there’s a lot of that in this location. There are several areas that would seem insignificant if you weren’t aware of their histories.The tour started outside the camp’s main entrance, which is infamous for the the proclamation on it’s cast iron gate: “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to appreciate this historical icon because it was stolen in November of 2014, 5 months before my visit, and still has not been recovered (see photo above with missing gate).
We were taken throughout the entire prisoner area of the camp. We were shown the prisoner barracks, the bunker (where a lot of the human torture took place), the crematoriums (pictured left) & museum area where we watched a short film & then were given free time to explore on our own (which I appreciated very much since there were areas I’d wanted to spend more time in than the tour had allotted for). I really felt after the tour that I’d increased my knowledge not only of Dachau but of the entire era of it’s existence and truly felt emotionally moved and humbled by the history of where I was. It was impossible not to.
My only complaint from the tour, was that it provided hardly any time (really no time at all) to appreciate the memorial museum. I’m a sucker for museums, and the displays at Dachau were intriguing, personal, informative and very aesthetically pleasing considering the seriousness of the content. As soon as we entered I was distracted and wanting to step away to look at all the photos and read the letters from the prisoners, etc. but it never happened. The entire group was actually told directly, by the tour guide, almost immediately upon entering the museum, to please just walk through the museum and don’t stop to look through the displays because there’s not enough time for it on the tour. Heartbreaking.
Luckily, even though there was no time to visit in depth, I didn’t have to completely miss out on the museum, because they have an amazing catalog for sale for € 18 that contains all the text and photo documents from the exhibitions as well as a CD with additional information to view on your computer at home. While this in no way compares to the encompassing experience of being surrounded by the displays, it does allow you to still have all the information; better than nothing. If I could do it again, I would have probably paid closer attention to the train we took in and requested my return ticket from the tour guide, spent time on my own at the museum, and then returned home solo instead of with the tour group. In the future, I’ll definitely return for a museum visit.
History is hard to learn from books. It’s monotonous & hearing about people’s struggles may sometimes lead to knowledge, but less often leads to true understanding or intellectual growth. Traveling changes that. Standing out in the field, under the sun, sweating yourself, even for just 5 minutes while you listen to the stories from an actual historian, forces you to experience history. Visit Dachau to experience WWII and the Holocaust. You will stand in a room that was once filled to the ceiling with the corpses of innocent people and you will come to understand the events that brought them there. You’ll learn to understand how fear can be used by people with power to justify unthinkable acts, and how the the idea of less freedoms for more safety directly translates to less freedoms and even less safety. Most importantly, I hope you’ll begin to notice parallels between the events superseding the Holocaust and current events, so that hopefully when history tries to repeat itself, which it undoubtedly will, together, we will recognize it and not allow those with power to use fear as justifications for their bigotry and hate.