A Visit To Dachau: Germany’s First Concentration Camp

Arbeit Macht Frei | Dachau

“Arbeit Macht Frei” : Work Makes You Free

I woke up on the day I was to visit Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp with a heavy feeling in my heart.

As a child, I had been taught about the oppression and extermination of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. I had read the stories of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel, who had suffered under the hands of the Nazis. I visited museums and watched movies such as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Pianist, both of which brought me to tears.

I thought that it would be important on my first visit to Germany to visit Dachau, a place that I had heard about time and time again, and to learn about the history of the camp in person.

Dachau Map

Instead of taking the journey to the camp on my own, I decided to book my journey with Sandemans, a company I had taken many free walking tours with before in Europe.

We met our tour guide Diana at Marienplatz in Munich and traveled by train to an area near Dachau where we then boarded a bus which took us to the entrance of the camp.

Once we arrived to the camp, we stopped at the front gate, which read “Arbeit Macht Frei”, or Work Makes You Free. As we would learn later during the tour, 40,000 of the people who were held at this camp, no matter how hard they labored, would never see freedom again.

Dachau Memorial

Never Forget.

On March 2, 1933, a couple of weeks after Adolf Hitler became Reich Chancellor and founded the National Socialist (Nazi) dictatorship, Dachau was built as a camp for political prisoners and for a 12 year period from 1933 to 1945, Dachau imprisoned over 200,000 people.

While many people are under the impression that the concentration camps only held Jews, this was not the case. Anyone whom Hitler or the Nazi’s deemed ‘enemies of the state’ were sent to the prisons, including people of certain political parties, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and those who were considered to exhibit socially deviant behavior.

Labels in Dachau

Labeling system for Dachau prisoners

In order to keep track of all of the people who were imprisoned in the camp,  prisoners were given badges to identify what they were imprisoned for or what affiliations that had.

There were different colored triangles for different people (such as purple triangles for Jehovah’s Witnesses), there were different marks for people who were only being detained for a certain period of time, and then there were the infamous badges for Jews: the Magen David (Star of David).

International Monument Nandor Glid Dachau

“International Monument” designed by Nandor Glid displaying the suffering of the prisoners of the camp

After Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) in 1938, and as anti-Semitic feelings begin to arise in Germany, thousands of Jews were sent to Dachau.

As more and more Jews began to be transported to the Dachau, it turned from a labor camp into a place that would endure many horrific events under the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS). The camp quickly became the model for all of the Nazi Germany concentration camps, where officers were trained to kill.

Arrival to Dachau

Münchner Illustrierte Presse

Munich Illustrated Press (1933) printed this propagandistic photograph on the front cover of the newspaper showing “prisoners” being sent to Dachau concentration camp

‘Prisoners’ arrived to Dachau from all over Europe from countries including the Soviet Union, Spain, Italy, and Norway. As soon as they arrived the nightmares began.

“When the prisoners arrived, they were regularly sworn at, threatened, and beaten. As ‘new arrivals’, they were subjected to a brutal and degrading admittance procedure. After their personal data were registered by the political division and they were given a ‘lecture’ from a protective custody camp leader, the prisoners were brought into

[this room], the Schubraum. They had to hand over their clothing and everything else that they had taken with them. They left the room naked and were taken to the prisoner baths. No prisoner could know if he would ever leave the concentration camp again.” – Taken from sign at Dachau

Life at Dachau

Dachau Bunker

To say that life at Dachau was ‘difficult’, is an understatement. Under the leadership of men such as the infamous Theodore Eicke, many prisoners were relentlessly brutalized at the camp. At one point, the prisoners were even placed under martial law, in which they were informed that if for any reason they were insubordinate to any superior’s orders, that they would be shot immediately and without warning.

Standing Cell Dachau Bunker

A cell in the Dachau bunker

Prisoners were placed in different areas around the camp until many of them made their way out of the camp via the crematorium.

There was a bunker on one end of the camp which contained standing cells, in which prisoners were locked in rooms with no light or air and were forced to stand up in 2×6 inch squares for periods of three days at a time, and isolated cells, where people were kept away from the main barracks.

Dachau Bunker

Inside the Dachau bunker

There were also 34 barracks at Dachau, in which life was extremely harsh. Not only were they grossly overcrowded, but everything was communal; the prisoners ate together, slept together, and bathed together.  For a camp that was meant to hold only 6,000 people, over 30,000 people resided there when the camp was liberated in 1945.

Currently, none of the original barracks at Dachau are standing, but there is a reconstructed barrack for visitors to see what the living conditions were like during the time that people were imprisoned there.

Dachau barracks bunk beds

Dachau barracks bunk beds (reconstruction)

Dachau barracks bunk beds

Bunk beds at Dachau barracks

Communal sinks Dachau

Communal sinks in Dachau

Communal toilets Dachau

Communal toilets in the barracks

Dachau barracks original location

Where the barracks originally stood in Dachau under the watchful eyes of the guards

Beginning of the End: The Crematorium at Dachau

Krematorium Dachau

“Denkt daran wie wir hier starben” – Think about how we died here

As a prisoner, heading to the crematoriums at Dachau marked the beginning of the end.

The crematorium area was constructed in 1942 next to the main camp and consisted of the original crematorium and a large crematorium complex (called Barrack X) that had both crematories and gas chambers. In and around the crematorium area, prisoners were subjected to hanging and being murdered execution style.

Original Dachau Crematorium

Inside of the original Dachau crematorium with a two-chamber oven

Fumigation Cubicle Dachau

A ‘fumigation cubicle’ in Barrack X

Crematory Barrack X

A crematory in Barrack X

Lest we never forget about all of the lives of the people who suffered at the hands of the Nazis during their reign in Nazi Germany. It is especially important to understand the history of what happened, so that it is never repeated again.

Visiting Dachau brought the reality of what happened to tens of thousands of people at the camp to life. It took it out of the context of the textbooks I had read as a child, and all of the videos and pictures I had seen, and it made me understand the pain and suffering of the prisoners a little bit better.

Statue by Fritz Koelle

A statue by Fritz Koelle that reads “Den Toten zue Ehr den Lebenden sur Mahnung”, meaning ‘To honor the dead and warn the living’

Have you been to Dachau or any other concentration camp in Europe?

By |2017-07-30T01:10:03+00:00March 16th, 2015|Germany|29 Comments


  1. Stephanie Raley Mar 17, 2015 at 10:02 am - Reply

    I travelled to Dachau, I found it a lot more harrowing than Auswitcz main camp. I also went with Sandemans and the guide was amazing.

    • Chanel | Cultural Xplorer Mar 17, 2015 at 10:07 am - Reply

      I have not done Auschwitz, but I do agree that the experience at Dachau was very distressing. One thing I really appreciate about Sandemans guides is how knowledgeable they are.

  2. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer Mar 28, 2015 at 10:56 am - Reply

    The standing cells seemed horrific, I cannot even imagine the pain and suffering that they endured. I hadn’t heard of the ToH, I will have to look it up.

  3. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer May 30, 2015 at 6:27 am - Reply

    I definitely believe everyone should visit Dachau when visiting the Munich area to gain a better understanding of the atrocities that occurred.

  4. Jennifer Juro Oct 11, 2015 at 10:16 am - Reply

    What an experience. I can’t even imagine visiting a place like that, so sad to think of everything that had gone on there.

  5. Michele Oct 11, 2015 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    No, I have never been to Dachau-but a lot of my father’s family was and died there. I also have friends whose families lived through that horror and managed to make it out alive. These were not parents easy to live with. No I will never forget–nor should any of you.

    • Chanel | Cultural Xplorer Jan 2, 2016 at 10:46 pm - Reply

      I am sorry to hear about how so many members of your family lost their lives at Dachau; it definitely is not a place that people should forget.

  6. Camile Lindsay Kumi Oct 11, 2015 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing. I cannot imagine the horror that those who were imprisoned there must have felt. It reminds me of my visit to the slave castles in west Africa. It is hard to believe the cruelty that human beings are capable of. I can only hope that these atrocities never occur again.

    • Chanel | Cultural Xplorer Jan 2, 2016 at 10:47 pm - Reply

      It is very sad when people take the lives of other people Camile. I too can only hope that people will think about times in history such as this, reflect, and vow to never let it happen again.

  7. Terri Ramsey Beavers Oct 11, 2015 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    I’ve never been to a concentration camp in Europe but I can only imagine the horror everyone went through at them. I didn’t realize that Hitler had others besides Jews sent to the camps.

    • Chanel | Cultural Xplorer Jan 2, 2016 at 10:48 pm - Reply

      I too also learned about the various people that ended up in Dachau during this time period – mostly we hear about the Jews that were sent to the camps but often times we do not hear about the others.

  8. Pam W Oct 11, 2015 at 5:15 pm - Reply

    Wow, what a sobering experience that must have been for you. Seeing history face to face like this is so much more touching and heartbreaking than reading some facts in a history book.

    • Chanel | Cultural Xplorer Jan 2, 2016 at 10:49 pm - Reply

      It definitely was Pam. Whenever I travel and see things that I learned about in a book, the experience is always much different.

  9. Alex Oct 11, 2015 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    Wow, what a crazy experience! I would love to go and learn about all of this. It’s such a sad, but educational thing to see.

    • Chanel | Cultural Xplorer Jan 2, 2016 at 10:50 pm - Reply

      It definitely was sad Alex but I am glad that I took the opportunity to travel there and to learn more about the history of what happened there.

  10. Mel Oct 11, 2015 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    I could not imagine what was going on in the minds of the ‘people’ who came up with such a horrific stain on history. I am just glad that there were survivors to tell the story.

  11. Heather - Heartfully Heather Oct 11, 2015 at 11:09 pm - Reply

    I have never been to Europe. I have only heard, read or seen documentaries about these horrors. The fact that humans can act like this to one another is astounding. Even today with ISIS, I can see not much has changed. I do feel we are growing intolerant of this kind of cruelty, but more needs to be done to educate people and eradicate evil. This was pure evil.

  12. Stephanie Pass Oct 12, 2015 at 12:45 am - Reply

    Wow, what an experience. My daughter has done some extensive learning about concentration camps. I think visiting this would be a very sobering experience for both her and I. She did get to visit the Holocaust museum in DC this year.

  13. ebmommy Oct 12, 2015 at 3:52 pm - Reply

    Oh my, what a powerful journey. This is soo interesting! I’d love to go on a tour like this. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  14. Bonnie Gowen @WEMAKE7 Oct 12, 2015 at 8:59 pm - Reply

    I have never been but would like to visit to see the history behind the stories I have heard about. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Tyra Oct 13, 2015 at 11:21 am - Reply

    How somber yet powerful. I love the black and white effect. Great way to capture the sadness of the location and tell the story in a respectful way.

  16. Angie Kanellopoulos Oct 14, 2015 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    wow.. more power to you because I dont think I would have been able to manage. This subject hits me deep, always have and as much as I would love to visit and learn more I don’t think I would be able to manage. Such a powerful post.

  17. mommamellon Oct 16, 2015 at 9:32 am - Reply

    This is very interesting. I couldn’t imaging being there. Such a powerful story and history.

  18. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer Jan 2, 2016 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    I agree Robin – it was a very sad part of history.

  19. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer Jan 2, 2016 at 10:44 pm - Reply

    I agree Alli – it is important to remember these times in history to make sure that they are never repeated.

  20. Chanel | Cultural Xplorer Jan 2, 2016 at 10:45 pm - Reply

    It is very disheartening to think of the situation in the Middle East Carol and my only hope is that the situation ends quickly.

  21. J.S. MCCRARY Sep 4, 2018 at 11:09 pm - Reply

    I had just turned 11 years old when my family and I visited Dachau in 1964. Many of the original building were still standing and I recall that there were still ashes in the bottom of the ovens. I was a bright and well read child and had read extensively on the Nazis in the year we had lived in Frankfurt prior to our visit. Despite my knowledge of the atrocities committed by the Third Reich, I still recall to this day the growing sense of horror and repulsion that grew in me as we walked through the grounds. The only, or should I say main, memorial, (I found many religious metals and crosses, of all types, which had been left by individuals who had visited) was a giant ‘crown of thorns’ suspended from heavy cables in an open concrete structure. Needless to say my trip to Dachau at such a tender age made many deep and lasting impressions on me. However the most compelling question I came away with was, and is, how the people who lived only a short distance away in the village could allow this to occur? They all claimed ignorance, but anyone who has smelled burning human flesh never forgets the odor. Upon my return to the ‘states’ only a couple years later, as I watched the struggles of the civil rights movement here in our own country, and saw the atrocities committed by my country men upon people only wishing to live free, their only crime being the color of their skin, the question still remains unanswered.

    • Chanel Sep 11, 2018 at 8:56 am - Reply

      I am sure that visiting at such a young age (and still seeing the ashes) must have left a very big impression on you, Stewart. I also do not know how people in the surrounding areas of Dachau could have claimed not to know about what was going on. The one thing that I appreciate about Germany is that these sites are open to explain the history in detail of what occurred, in the States we still have yet to have anything like this for slavery.

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