We’ve all seen movies about the atrocities carried about by the Nazis during the holocaust. Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Diary of Anne Frank are among the most famous.
While the films are shocking, nothing can compare to standing in one of the places where these crimes against humanity took place.
It was during a month-long Contiki tour of Europe that I visited Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany. It wasn’t in the itinerary, but as we were driving along the autobahn our tour director announced we were running ahead of schedule and we were going to include an unscheduled stop.
The more famous Auschwitz concentration camp had been on my list of places to see in Europe during my gap year living in London, but I knew getting to Poland was unlikely. This was my unexpected chance to try to grasp this horrific chapter in world history.
Around half an hour from Munich, Dachau concentration camp was the first opened by the Nazis and became the model for other concentration camps throughout the continent. More than 40,000 of the 200,000 prisoners interned at the camp between 1933 and 1945 are believed to have died, mostly from disease and malnutrition.
Visitors follow the same path new arrivals to the camp did during World War II. The first thing you see is the iron gates, emblazoned with the famous slogan Arbeit Macht Frei, or “work will set you free”. Wandering throughout the site, we learn about the degrading and brutal treatment endured by the prisoners, who included Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, communists, priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homeless people. Upon arrival, they were forced to undress, stripped of their valuables and had their heads shaved.
We see the reconstructed barracks lined with wooden bunk beds. Designed for 250 prisoners, it’s hard to fathom how they housed up to 1600. Then there’s the prisoner baths, where the punishment known as “pole hanging” was carried out. Victims had their hands tied behind their backs with a chain and were forced to hang from hooks attached to wooden beams between pillars.
But one of the most distressing exhibits outlines the medical experiments performed on prisoners, which included unnecessary bone transplants and seeing how long they could survive in freezing water. There’s also a crematorium where bodies were burned, the roll call square where prisoners were forced to assemble daily and endure counts that lasted for hours, and areas where Soviet PoWs were executed by firing squad. It is a confronting and emotional experience.
Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site was founded by survivors in 1965 in the hope people would learn from history. Now, more than 800,000 people from around the world come to visit each year. There has been much debate around the concept of “dark tourism” – travelling to places associated with death and suffering. But holidays aren’t always just about cocktails by the resort pool and ski trips to Aspen.
Travel helps shape who we are. It changes us and compels us to think about the world more deeply. Visiting Dachau is a much more sobering experience – in more ways than one - than clinking steins of beer with strangers and singing along to an Oompah band at Oktoberfest, just down the road. While it’s impossible to measure, I’m sure that visiting Dachau, Cambodia’s Killing Fields, Ground Zero in New York, Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, in South Africa, has helped make me a more compassionate human being. And that can only be a good thing.
Angela Saurine is a freelance travel writer. You can find more of her work here.