Visiting Germany’s horrific history

The main sculpture at Dachau. An Italian group had visited that morning and lain wreaths.

After traveling 4,600 miles from Louisville to Atlanta to Munich and sitting on a plane, getting no sleep, we suffered from serious exhaustion and jet lag. But our first full day of Munich time was spent in contrasts.

We first went to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp memorial. Diving in to the hard stuff first, we wanted to get it done. We rode a train to the city of Dachau and then a bus to the memorial. We were nervous that we wouldn’t know which bus to take, but it was much easier than that. Nearly everyone who got off the train at Dachau was headed to the site, so we just followed the crowd.

Dachau is a beautiful little town on the outskirts of Munich. I couldn’t help but think about how the residents must feel about the stigma on their town since World War II. Dachau residents at the time definitely knew about the camp, but it’s impossible to know what more they knew. I don’t think anyone can imagine the horrors of a concentration camp unless they see it. Even our modern eyes and minds can’t really experience it as it truly was.

Dachau was a small concentration camp, only for men. Women and children were never imprisoned there. It wasn’t a “death camp,” per se, meaning people were not sent there specifically to be murdered. They were, however, worked and starved to death. So, murdered, nonetheless.

This was not my first visit to Dachau. I went there when I was 18 on a student tour, but my memories of the camp were very different from this visit. We entered through a different entrance, and there was not visitor’s center like there is now, with a café, bookstore and bathrooms. There are far more memorials and plaques in the camp than there were in 1989, which certainly added to the experience.

This time, we got a tour by a wonderful guide named Tobias. He was very knowledgeable and passionate, if not a little condescending. Steve asked a lot of questions, and a couple of times, Tobias gave him snide-ish answers. But once we talked to him a bit outside of the group, we realized he wasn’t really a jerk. Some of it was a difference of culture and some of it was likely his frustration of having given these tours hundreds of times to people who don’t know jack about history.

I asked Tobias if they tattooed prisoners at Dachau. He said, “No. This is only your American Hollywood.” He explained further that they did tattoo prisoners at Auschwitz, but that most places only put numbers on the prisoners’ uniforms. In all my studies about the Holocaust, this was new information for me.

The day was rough. It was cold and rainy, and my arthritic feet and knees were killing me. But I felt I had to keep going because I was in a concentration camp. The prisoners there never got to sit down because their ankles were swollen. They didn’t have coats to keep them warm in the winter or umbrellas to shield them from the rain. Every ache and pain that I felt made me feel even more sympathy for the victims. If I were captured by the Nazis, I would likely be killed early on because my body would not be strong enough to work. It’s a sobering thought. Since I’ve returned, any chance I have to feel sorry for myself ends in my mind going back to Dachau. No matter how tired I am or how frustrated I get with work, at least I’m not in a concentration camp.

If you ever visit Dachau, I highly recommend you get a tour. You can check the Web site and know when the tours are in English. There is also a video that plays several times a day in German, English, Italian and French, that shows footage from news reports of the day. It’s very hard to watch, but gives visitors a good background for what they will learn on the tour and in the museum.

Here are a few photos from our visit that day. I tried to put them in something like an order, but I can’t figure out how to do that in WordPress. The sign pics were meant to go just before what they describe.

All photos are copyright Lisa Hornung and Steven D. Smith 2016.

“Our only hope: Hitler.”
This is the stone marking where barrack 26 had been. All the former barracks have a number marking their location. Someone had placed flowers and candles on this one.
The gate entrance to the camp. The Nazis used “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or work will make you free, on the entrances to all the camps. It was, of course, a lie.
art 2
Graphic artists were able to do art in the camp, though it was forced labor.

art and flagsart

artist info
This is the info about the graphic art made by prisoners.


baraks latebarrak room sign


barraks pic
This is a photo from an early barracks. In the early days, prisoners had dividers between the beds and a little shelf overhead for what few belongings they had. Later, there was no division among beds.
Later beds. No dividers.

big sign

Catholic chapel.
This is a chess set that a prisoner carved in the camp.
closeu of xian shrine
Shrine inside the Catholic chapel.
The crematorium.
closeup of crematorium
A closer look at the ovens.
dachau entrance
The entrance to the camp.

disinfecting clothes

The Nazi security system. A ditch, barbed wire and a watchtower. Despite this, there were escapes. Most were recaptured, but one who made it to freedom was Hans Beimler in 1933.
early barraks
Inside the early barracks.
entrancce sign
A map at the entrance. I think that kid is a bit young for the subject matter, but I guess you can’t just leave him in the hotel room.
A flag presumably placed by the Italian contingent that were there just before we arrived.

floor quote

french sign
If anyone can translate, please do.

gas chamber sign

gas chamber
The gas chamber. Yes, it’s chilling to stand inside it. The only consolation is that no mass murders were done in the gas chamber at Dachau. It was used sparingly and only for one or two prisoners at a time.

gas hole

A peek inside a prison cell.

homosexual sign

jewish gate
The gate to the Jewish memorial

jewish memorial plaque

jewish plaque 2
“The National Socialist tyranny (or violent domination) to which over 6 million Jews fell victim to.” This is obviously a rough translation.
jewish plaque
Google translation: Memorial commemorating the Jewish martyrs of National Socialism in the years 1933-1945 scare domination perished. Their death is a reminder to our commitment (I think).

jewish wreathes


Lockers in the barracks.
prisoner labels
Sorry for the bad lighting. Our tour guide (who didn’t want to be posted on social media) showed us the labels prisoners had to wear. Some were political prisoners, some were Jews, some were criminals, some were Roma, etc.
prisoner pics
Photos of prisoners before they were captured.
Nazi propaganda
Rainbow divission
A plaque to the American military regiment that liberated Dachau.
rauchen verboten
“Rauchen verboten” means smoking is forbidden. Our tour guide pointed out that prisoners would be stripped naked and would have had their head shaved, with all their possessions taken from them. They stood naked in this room. The no smoking sign was a sick Nazi joke.
Someone had lain a rose on one of the beds.

shower sign

The entrance to the gas chamber. Brausebad means “showers.”


The entrance to the Jewish memorial.
The toilets
The central walkway was lined with trees. The trees were put there so that when the International Red Cross inspected the camp, it would look nice, giving them the impression of an ethical prisoner camp.
The wash basin. 2000 men had 12 minutes to clean up, if they failed they hung from their wrists for an hour.


4 thoughts on “Visiting Germany’s horrific history

  1. Lisa, well-written as always. Thank you for sharing your experience. I cannot imagine how sobering it must have been. Additionally, it was interesting to read about the “employment” of graphic artists. For some reason I had only given thought to Nazi propaganda being created by Nazis themselves. The added degradation of forcing artists to create such pieces is heartbreaking, to say the very least. I would be interested in learning if/how artists would attempt to send silent messages through their pieces.

  2. Yeah, if you think about it, they were lucky to have better working conditions. They were able to make art instead of moving piles of sand from one place to another and back again. But they had the special hell of making art for a cause that would imprison, starve and murder them.

    I doubt they put hidden messages in their art just because the consequences of being caught would be too great. But it’s definitely something that should be looked at.

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