Day 6 – Part 1: The Death Camps

WARNING: There maybe disturbing text & pictures in this post.  This was not an easy post to write.  Many thoughts and experiences are still swimming around in my head after having visited this place almost 9 months ago.


The plan for today was to visit the WWII Nazi Concentration Camp at Dachau on the outskirts of Munich.  What I experienced on this visit tests ones faith and trust in mankind to the very core.  It questions the sensibility & common sense of the individual, their ability to confront fear yet maintain dignity, and to say no when everyone else says yes.  It shakes your being both intellectually and emotionally.  Dave would later comment that it felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.  Powerful effects.

Dachau concentration camp was the first of the Nazi concentration camps and opened in 1933.  It was located in the grounds of an old abandoned munitions factory northwest of Munich.  It was opened by Heinrich Himmler for the purpose of holding political prisoners but it was later expanded to include forced labor, the imprisonment of Jews, German and Austrian criminals, and eventually foreign nationals from countries that Germany occupied or invaded.  The Dachau camp system grew to include nearly 100 sub-camps, where forced labour could be shipped from Dachau throughout southern Germany and Austria to be used where ever it was needed.  Dachau served as a prototype and model for the other German concentration camps that were to follow.  It was used to train SS guards for other camps and in fact the number of SS troops stationed here outnumbered the prisoners all most 2 to 1.  Newspapers continually reported the removal of the enemies of the Reich to concentration camps and as early as 1935, a jingle went around: “Lieber Herr Gott, mach mich stumm, Das ich nicht nach Dachau komm” (Dear God, make me silent, that I may not come to Dachau).

Dachau was the concentration camp that was in operation the longest from March 1933 to April 1945, nearly all twelve years of the Nazi regime.  From 1933 to 1938, the prisoners were mainly German nationals detained for political reasons.  After the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), 30,000 male Jewish citizens were deported to Dachau and other concentration camps.  More than 10,000 of them were interned in Dachau alone.  As the German military occupied other European states, citizens from across Europe were sent to the camps.  Subsequently, Dachau was used for prisoners of all sorts, from every nation occupied by the forces of the Third Reich.  History will likely never know how many people were interned or died there.  Over the 12 years of use as a concentration camp, the Dachau administration recorded an intake of approx. 210 000 prisoners from more than 30 countries, of whom two-thirds were political prisoners (including many Catholic priests) and nearly one-third were Jews.  Some 32 000 prisoners are believed to have died in the camp and almost another 10,000 in its sub-camps.  Towards the end of the war, death marches to and from the camp caused the deaths of numerous unrecorded prisoners.  After liberation, prisoners weakened beyond recovery by the starvation conditions continued to die.

The prisoners of Dachau concentration camp originally were to serve as forced labour for a nearby munitions factory, and to expand the camp.  The prisoners’ entrance was secured by an iron gate with the motto “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will make you free”). This reflected Nazi propaganda, which trivialized concentration camps as labour and re-education camps, when in fact forced labour was used as a method of torture and murder.  Over 4,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered by the Dachau Commandant’s Guard at the SS shooting range located two kilometers from the main camp in the years 1942/1943.  They were used for target practice.  These murders were a clear violation of the provisions laid down in the Geneva Convention for prisoners of war.  The SS used the cynical term “special treatment” for these criminal executions.  The prison enclosure at the camp was heavily guarded to ensure that no prisoners escaped.  A 3-metre-wide no-man’s land was the first marker of confinement for the prisoners; an area which upon entry would elicit lethal gunfire from the guard towers.  Guards were known to have tossed inmates’ caps into this area, and forced the prisoners to go fetch them resulting in their death by machine gun fire.  Pure entertainment!  Despondent prisoners often committed suicide by entering the zone.

In the last months of the war, the conditions at Dachau deteriorated.  As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners from concentration camps near the front to more centrally located camps.  They hoped to stop the Allies finding out and to prevent the liberation of large numbers of the prisoners.  Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau.  After days of travel with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, often near death.  Typhus epidemics became a serious problem as a result of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, insufficient provisions, and the weakened state of the prisoners.  During April 1945 as U.S. troops drove deeper into Bavaria, the Commandant of Dachau SS-Obersturmbannführer Martin Weiss suggested to Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler that the camp be turned over to the Allies.  Himmler, in signed correspondence, prohibited such a move, adding that “No prisoners shall be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy alive.”

On the 19th of April 1945, a freight train from Buchenwald on its way to Dachau with nearly 4,500 was diverted to Nammering.  SS troops and police confiscated food and water, which local townspeople tried to give to the prisoners. Nearly three hundred dead bodies were ordered removed from the train and carried to a ravine over 400 metres away.  The 524 prisoners who had been forced to carry the dead to this site were then shot by the guards, and buried along with those who had died on the train.  The train continued onto Dachau.  Once it arrived in Dachau it wasn’t even unloaded as the soldiers fled ahead of the arrival of U.S. troops.  Consequently, those remaining on the train died of exposure to the cold and lack of food & water.  On the 24th of April 1945, just days before the U.S. troops arrived at the camp, the Camp Commandant and a strong guard forced between 6,000 and 7,000 surviving inmates – on a death march from Dachau, south, deep into the alps.  Any prisoners who could not keep up on the six-day march were shot.  Many others died of exhaustion, hunger and exposure.  Months later a mass grave containing 1,071 prisoners was found along the route.  The SS offered little resistance as the Allies approached and on the 29th April 1945 the camp was surrendered to the allies.  American troops killed some of the SS camp guards after they had surrendered while others were grabbed by the internees and beaten to death.  So badly, they were unidentifiable afterwards and in some cases the body were ripped into pieces.

The Dachau complex included the prisoners’ camp, which occupied approximately 3 hectares, and a much larger area for the SS training school including barracks, factories & other facilities of around 9 hectares.  Outside the main gate was the railway platform to which the death trains arrived.  The prisoners would depart the train and enter through the gatehouse which bore the words on the gate “Arbeit macht frei,” then out onto the large parade ground called Roll-call Square in front of the large U-shaped Administration building with the words on the roof, “Es gibt einen Weg zur Freiheit. Seine Meilensteine heißen: Gehorsam, Ehrlichkeit, Sauberkeit, Nüchternheit, Fleiß, Ordnung, Opfersinn, Wahrhaftigkeit, Liebe zum Vaterland” (“There is one road to freedom.  Its milestones are: obedience, diligence, honesty, orderliness, cleanliness, truthfulness, self-sacrifice and love of the fatherland”).  The area was able to hold forty to fifty thousand persons and served mainly as the assembly point for the prisoner roll calls, during which the prisoners were counted every morning and evening, or for carrying out punishments.  They could be held here for hours in all kinds of weather.  From the parade ground they entered the administration building by the left hand side, to be identified and then passed through a series of rooms slowly being removed of personal possessions, stripped of their dignity, humiliated and degraded before returning to the parade ground to be sorted into groups and dispersed to the barracks according to the sorting system.

Dachau was mainly a camp for adult men, but there were a few children who were of Slavic decent.  The largest number of prisoners in the whole Dachau system were classified as political prisoners.  The majority of them were Catholic but also included Communists, Social Democrats, anarchists, spies, and anti-Fascist resistance fighters.  They came from the all the Nazi occupied countries such as France, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, and Poland.  The second largest group of prisoners were the Jews.  The third category of prisoners were the regular criminals who were considered too dangerous to return to society after they completed their prison sentence.  Finally the smallest group were the undesirables – they were homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies and anti-socials.  Each group and sub-group had their own colour codes of triangles and bars, and within the groups there was a hierarchy with often the yellow, black & pink triangles at the bottom.

  • Red triangle – political prisoners: social democrats, socialists, communists, anarchists, rescuers of Jews, trade unionists, Freemasons.
  • Yellow triangle – Jewish (was often used in combination with other triangles).
  • Green triangle – convicts and criminals
  • Blue triangle – foreign forced labourers and emigrants.
  • Purple triangle – Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as members of other pacifist groups.
  • Pink triangle – primarily homosexual as well as sexual offenders including rapists & pedophiles.  Prior to this dehumanising classification system, gay men were marked with a capital A, sewn onto their left breast or trouser leg.  This stood for Arschficker, the German for ‘arsefucker’.
  • Black triangle – people who were deemed anti-social elements, work-shy, Gypsies, mentally ill, mentally disabled, alcoholics & drug addicts, vagrants & beggars, prostitutes & lesbians
  • Brown triangle – Romani males.
  • Uninverted red triangle – a special enemy POW, a spy or traitor, a military deserter or criminal.

People who wore the green and pink triangles were convicted in criminal courts and after the camps were liberated were transferred to the post-war criminal prison systems.  Shocking for the pink triangles that even after all they endure at the hands of the Nazis they were further mistreated by the Allies!  Shame!

The concentration camp labels

Homosexuality was classed as a “degenerate form of behaviour” in Nazi Germany that threatened the nation’s “disciplined masculinity”.  Under Nazi law, homosexuality was deemed non-Aryan and as such homosexuals were far more persecuted in Nazi Germany than under previous regimes.  Ironically it had been the support of Ernst Rőehm, a known homosexual, and his SA followers that had greatly helped Hitler gain power on the 30th of January 1933.  Heinrich Himmler, estimated that there were 2 million homosexuals in Nazi Germany.  In a speech given to SS men in February 1937, he compared the campaign against homosexuals to be no different from digging up weeds in a garden.  During the speech, Himmler made it clear that if any SS man was found to be homosexual, he would be arrested, publicly humiliated, sent to a concentration camp where he would be deliberately shot trying to make a fictitious escape.

The layout of Dachau follows a very strict and precis order.  There were 34 barracks arranged in 2 rows of 17.  The barracks were designed to hold 6000 prisoners but held almost 30,000 by the end of the war.  The first four buildings were designated Blocks A, B, C & D.  Block A was the camp canteen; Block B the camp library; and, Blocks C & D the hospital & morgue.  Each of the remaining 30 barracks was designed to accommodate 180 prisoners with 90 men in each section.  There were two living rooms and two dormitory rooms in each section.  Each dormitory room had 15 three-tiered bunks with a total of 45 beds.  Blocks A & B have been rebuilt to show us what conditions were like in the original barracks.  The original barracks were demolished in 1964 due to decay.  The foundation foot-prints of the other barracks however remain as a monument to those who lived in them.  Some of the more infamous barracks were: Barrack 9 – the quarantine for newcomers;  Barracks 2 & 4 were for German prisoners;  and the catholic priests were housed in Barracks 26 & 28 (Priesterblock) at the northern end of the camp.  Some barracks gained notorious reputations.  Barrack 30 was for the invalids who couldn’t work (the barrack closest to the gas chamber & crematorium).  Barracks 15, 17 & 19 were the punishment blocks (Strafblöcke).  Barracks 1, 3, 5, 7 & 9 were where the horrific medical experiments were carried out.  Barrack 15 was reserved for the Jews who were kept isolated from the other prisoners.

Prisoners lived in constant fear of brutal treatment and terror detention including the standing cells.  These were stone chambers similar to chimneys and measured 75 x 80 cm with a small hatch on top for air.  It was impossible to sit down.  Prisoners who had been condemned to this punishment were put into a standing cell for 72 hours at a time with no light or air.  The prisoner was compelled to stand for three days and three nights and was given only bread and water.  Every fourth day they were shifted to a normal cell, allowed to eat a normal prisoner’s meal and to sleep for one night on a bed.  Then the next three days’ of the standing punishment would begin again.  This was repeated over and over again until their sentence was completed.  There were floggings where the prisoner was stretched over a table and caned across the back and lower limbs.  In some cases there was barely any skin left on the prisoner’s back.  Tree or pole hanging was a particularly brutal form of punishment.  The victim’s hands are tied behind their back and they are suspended by a rope attached to the wrists, typically resulting in dislocated shoulders.  Weights were some time added to the body to intensify the effect and increase the pain.  This kind of torture would not last more than an hour because without rest, it was likely the prisoner would die.

Punishment by flogging

Hundreds of prisoners suffered and died at the hands of the SS in medical experiments conducted at Dachau.  Doctor Sigmund Rascher was one of the doctors in charge of these facilities.  Hypothermia experiments where prisoners were exposed to vats of icy water or being strapped down naked outdoors in freezing temperatures.  Attempts at reviving the subjects included scalding baths.  High altitude experiments were also conducted. Victims were subjected to rapid decompression from pressures found at 4,300 metres to ground pressure where they experienced spasmodic gasping convulsions and eventual death.  The experiments were meant to help provide information on how pilots could survive bailing out at altitude or landing in water.  Rascher also experimented with the effects of Polygal, a substance made from beet and apple pectin, which aided blood clotting.  He predicted that the preventive use of Polygal tablets would reduce bleeding from gunshot wounds sustained during combat or during surgery.  Prisoners were given a Polygal tablet and shot through the neck or chest or even had their limbs amputated without anaesthesia to see if the tablet helped in stopping the bleeding.

Another infamous area of the camp was the Bunker & Courtyard.  This was an area secluded behind the Administration building separate from the barracks area.  The bunker had 136 prison cells.  Detention in the bunker was a method that enabled the SS to isolate rebellious and defiant prisoners.  To confine and expose them to harsher prison conditions out the reach of their fellow prisoners and to torture or indeed murder them.  The bunker was used from 1938 to 1945 to incarcerate high-level “enemies of the state.”  Several cells at the west end were set aside for “honor prisoners” who were high-ranking clergymen or important political prisoners.  They did not have to work and were not subject to punishments.  Their cells were often left unlocked.  These privileged prisoners who lived in the bunker had access to a grassy courtyard where they could walk around and receive visitors.  They were well treated because the Nazis viewed them as possible hostages and bargaining chips with the Allies.  At the eastern end of the courtyard between the Administration building and bunker is a wall where prisoners were hung or shot by firing squad.  There was even a special wing set aside for camp guards who had broken the strict rules of the SS, and Police officers & Air Raid Wardens who failed in their duties.  The former SS prison has been demolished as the Memorial Site is devoted to the victims and not the perpetrators.

Several prominent individuals were held in the bunker: Catholic Cardinals & Bishops, members of the Austrian, Bavarian & Prussian Royal families (who were ardent anti-Nazi); the captured Greek Military leadership, prominent writers of the time; and German Generals of the Old Wiemar Republic who opposed Hitler.  Many resistance leaders were brought to the bunker and tortured.  A future Nobel laureate in Physics in 1992, Georges Charpak, was imprisoned here after being captured in France.  Georg Elser who almost succeeded in killing Hitler in the Bürgerbräukeller (a large beer hall in Munich) by implanting a time bomb in a pillar just behind Hitler’s podium.  Hitler escaped death by sheer luck.  That night for some reason he cut his rambling speech short from 2 hours to 1, and left before the bomb went off killing many others.  Georg was shot in one of the bunker cells after horrific torture that went on for months over the 5 years of his incarceration.  One of the most notable incidents involving Allied POWs was the execution of the four Special Operations Executive (SOE) women who had worked for the French resistance including the famous Noor Inayat Khan.  On the September the 12th, 1944 they were taken to the crematorium and shot, then disposed of in the furnaces.  After the war, German war criminals were imprisoned in the Dachau bunker during their war crimes trials and it was often the site of their execution.  Many infamous Nazi names were associated with the site:  Himmler, Eichmann, Wiess, Höss, Hintermayer, Schumann, Rascher and many more.

In the far north western corner of the camp is Barrack X with its gas chamber and crematoria which had been constructed to dispose of the dead.  The prisoners entered through a door on the south side and proceed through the waiting room, and then into the undressing room before entering the gas chamber.  The room was disguised as “showers” and equipped with fake shower heads to mislead the victims and prevent them from refusing to enter the room.  During a period of 15 to 20 minutes up to 150 at a time could be suffocated to death by prussic acid poison gas (Zyklon B) in the chamber.  The bodies were then removed into the next room for storage until the furnaces could take them.  The furnaces operated day and night.  By the end of 1944, the furnaces lacked the capacity to cremate the scores of dead from the camp.  Upon liberating the camp at the end of April 1945, American soldiers came across countless corpses piled up in the crematorium.  Barrack X is a horrific building to be inside of and I couldn’t wait to get out of the place.  It left me physically and emotionally shaken.  The area surrounding the barracks has been turned into lovely memorial gardens.  The gardens rest upon the ash piles of the thousands who perished in Barrack X and the greenery veils the walls where some were shot.

Barrack X - Gas chamber

Our visit to the camp ended in front of the Administration building as it had begun.  In front of the International memorial.  The International monument is made up of 3 parts on the gravel parade ground:  the East, the West and the Centre.  On the west side is a wall whose inscription in English reads “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.”  In the centre, is a sculpture made of dark bronze by Nandor Glid.  It features short strands of barbed wire on which skeletons are hanging with their heads dangling.  On either side of the sculpture are concrete fence posts which closely resemble the ones actually used to support the barbed wire fence around the camp.  On the wall of the ramp down to the sculpture is another sculpture which features a base relief depicting three links of a chain held together by bars in between.  This signifies the unity among the prisoners, many of whom were political prisoners who shared the same beliefs.  On the links are enameled triangles in the colors of the cloth badges worn by the prisoners on their uniforms to identify their prisoner classification.  On the east side, are words on a wall saying “Never Again” in five different languages.  In front of this wall is a box of ashes of the victims of the Dachau concentration camp.

The only fitting way I see of finishing this episode in my blog is to leave you with the words of those who survived lived it:

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”Primo Levi

“When their bodies had finished scouring for gaps in the door, their souls rose up.  When their fingernails had scratched at the wood and in some cases were nailed into it by the sheer force of desperation, their spirits came toward me, into my arms, and we climbed out of those shower facilities, onto the roof and up, into eternity’s certain breadth.  They just kept feeding me.  Minute after minute.  Shower after shower.” Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

The the loudspeakers broadcast some noisy classical music while the SS stripped him naked and shoved a tin pail over his head. Next they sicced their ferocious German Shepherds on him: the guard dogs first bit into his groin and thighs, then devoured him right in front of us.  His shrieks of pain were distorted and amplified by the pail in which his head was trapped.  My rigid body reeled, my eyes gaped at so much horror, tears poured down my cheeks, I fervently prayed that he would black out quickly. – Pierre Seel; I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir Of Nazi Terror

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” – Martin Niemöller

For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.” – Simon Wiesenthal

As observed in 1935, the homosexuals `lived in a dream’, hoping that the heyday of gays in Germany of the 1920s would last forever.  Their awakening was terrible.  Yet, the few survivors among them did not qualify for postwar restitution as the Jews or the politicals, because as homosexuals they were outside the law.  – Lorant, Stefan, I Was Hitler’s Prisoner

Jews, homosexuals, and Gypsies, the yellow, pink and brown triangles, were the prisoners who suffered most frequently and most severely from the tortures and the blows of the SS and the Capos. They were described as the scum of humanity, who had no right to live on German soil and should be exterminated… but the lowest of the low in this “scum” were we, the men with the pink triangle. ― Heinz Heger, The Men with the Pink Triangle: The True Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps

May they never be forgotten, these multitudes of dead, our anonymous, immortal martyrs.” ― Heinz Heger, The Men with the Pink Triangle: The True Life-and-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps

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