Following our day in Munich we traveled to Dachau where we were met by Waltraud Burger, Head of the Education Department, and Nicole Schneider who was to be our guide. Very few structures exist from the original camp. Instead replicas of the buildings in the camp have been constructed, although many of the structures that once existed in Dachau have not been rebuilt. The memorial site exists as an educational tool, as a means for helping people to understand the horrors endured at the camp. The camp memorial site is kept immaculately clean like a park, which is ironic given that when the camp was operational prisoners were demanded to keep the camp sterile, despite filthy conditions and the lack of means to do so.
Nicole took us through the reconstructed gate which has the inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei”, or “work sets you free.” We also walked through the recreated barracks, gas chambers and crematoria, while Nicole explained the terrors faced by inmates. Given that this is the first Camp we visited as a group, this was a moving experience for all.
Additionally we learned about the history of Dachau from its inception to its liberation. The camp was liberated by Americans, an event well-documented by photographer Lee Miller. Just before walking through the gate of the camp, we stopped at the plaques of the 42nd Rainbow Division, the 45th Thunderbird Division and the 20th Armored Division of the U.S. Seventh Army that liberated the camp. We owe a great deal of respect and honor for these Americans who risked or lost their lives to liberate camp inmates.
One of the major issues, according to our guide, about having the reconstructed site of Dachau is that visiting the site changes your perception of the camp. The camp is not as it was, but when you visit it with its building replicas, you begin to think that this is what the camp was like. In reality we cannot even begin to imagine what life was like for the inmates of Dachau, nor can we imagine what it really looked like. This is countered by the fact that the memorial site is a constant reminder of the atrocities of Dachau, and its presence helps people remember history. Groups of German school children visit the memorial in order to learn about the Holocaust, although according to our guide, this is often in lieu of classroom Holocaust education.