On one of our first annual Europe trips together, my parents and I spent a few days in southern Germany, in the Munich area and surrounding Bavarian countryside. It was full of pretzels, beer, history, and beautiful German countryside.
One morning we got up, had lovely coffee and pastries, and then hopped on the train, just like usual. But the gorgeous warm fall day was at odds with our destination—Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial.
I’m a huge history nut anyway, but World War II has been a particular area of study since I was a kid. From reading Anne Frank’s diary and other books when I was young, to plowing through the incredibly thorough “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (a personal favorite, highly recommend) more recently, the European theatre of the war and the abject misery and evidence of man’s inhumanity in Nazi Germany are subjects I can’t resist. So I was definitely looking forward to experiencing the memorial first-hand after reading so much.
Dachau (dock-ow), like many of the concentration camps, is very close to a major population center. It makes it both super easy to get to from Munich, and extra sad given how many millions of people lived nearby with all of this going on.
At the bottom of the post I’ve outlined how to visit Dachau from Munich, and other things you should know for visiting Dachau
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A little background on Dachau
I was surprised to learn that Dachau was the first of Hitler’s nearly 20,000 concentration camps, opened by Heinrich Himmler in 1933 shortly after he came to power. It was originally intended for political prisoners, but soon enlarged for Jews, forced labor, criminals, and eventually had gas chambers running as well (though not at the volume of some of the more famous death camps). The camp was built to hold 6,000 prisoners, but by the end of the war was holding 32,000.
Over 200,000 prisoners passed through the camp, over 41,000 (though estimates vary) of which were killed. The camp was liberated on May 1st, 1945. A lot of prisoners had already been forced on a death march to a different camp a week earlier, and there was a prisoners’ revolt a couple days before the liberation as well . It’s been open to the public as a memorial since the mid-1960s.
The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign on the gate is one of the most indelible images of visiting Dachau. Roughly translated as “work makes free” (or “work shall set you free”), this was Nazi propaganda meant to frame these as labor and re-education camps, when instead they used forced labor as torture. This sign will burn itself into your brain too. It is unbearably sad because the sign was truth of a kind as well—eventually death was the “freedom” in many cases.
In other (more mild) “people are the worst” news, I was doing a bit of research and discovered that the sign was stolen in 2014, three years after we visited, but found in late 2016 in Norway.
The original barracks are long gone (except one), but raised concrete shows you the outline of where they stood. It’s insane to think of how many people were crammed together in terrible living conditions. You can walk through the one remaining one, to get a feel for how inhumane the conditions were.
This is one of the watchtowers from which the guards could keep an eye on everything, and shoot anyone for a real or imagined infraction. The ditch helped with drainage and also made it harder to escape.
As most people know, sometimes a group of prisoners were selected for the reward of getting to take a shower, something that sounded absolutely heavenly…and then gassed as they stood there, naked and vulnerable, with people waiting outside to take their turn. Of all the things that horrify me about the concentration camps (and that is obviously a super long list), the cowardice and deceit of the gas chambers (pictured below) is something that comes close to topping the list, ever since I was a kid.
You can also take a walk in the woods around the camp, where a few memorials are set up. It’s very peaceful and pretty back there, particularly on a warm fall day.
There are three different religious memorials on the site, but my favorite was the Jewish Memorial, which is off to the side a bit. You walk down a tiled ramp that’s bordered by a fence that is meant to look like barbed wire, to a simple underground room. I seem to recall the names of prisoners on the walls but couldn’t tell you for certain.
Before we headed into the main building to do the learning and video portion (we actually did that last), we spent a few minutes at the International Memorial which is…well, the pictures kind of speak for themselves. It specifically depicts prisoners who, in a last act of desperation, threw themselves into the barbed wire fences, ensuring that the guards would shoot them.
The main memorial building has tons of placards, photos, videos, and personal effects from the prisoners. You’ll definitely want to spend a bit of time absorbing the info.
While it’s obviously not something you can call remotely “enjoyable”, I’m so glad that we made visiting Dachau a priority on our trip and experienced the memorials in person. I’d recommend it for any itinerary that’s going to take you through Munich, and it’s a perfect day trip from the city.
Tips for visiting Dachau
- From Munich, you can take the train or drive; we took the train, it’s very easy to navigate
- Just take the S2 train from Munich in the direction of Dachau/Petershausen until you reach the Dachau station. It’s about a 25-minute ride from Munich central station. Then take bus 726 towards “Saubachsiedlung” to the entrance of the memorial site.
- If you’re driving, directions are here
- Plan for around an hour to get there either way, just to be safe (really probably about 45 minutes)
- There are guided tours if you want them at 11a and 1p, plus an extra on weekends
- The memorial is free to enter; there is a small charge for audioguides, guided tours, and parking
- The memorial is open 9a-5p, but check the official site in case that’s changed
- You’ll want to plan 2-3 hours at the site; this is a great half-day trip from Munich
Have you visited Dachau or any of the other concentration camp memorials? I’d love to hear about your experiences and thoughts, so hit me up in the comments.