Anyone who has ever seen the old newsreel films of the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp in the Spring of 1945, just before the end of World War II, will be shocked to see how the place has changed. All traces of Nazi brutality are gone, replaced by beautiful monuments and memorials featuring modern art. The former horror camp is now in pristine condition and the overall impression is one of cleanliness and order. There are no gruesome exhibits of hair or deteriorating shoes, as at the former camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek. In the Dachau camp today, there are no Nazi symbols or slogans, except for the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign on the gate which has been reconstructed. Gone too are the flower beds, the greenhouse and the rabbit hutches that were there when this was the most famous Nazi camp in Germany. A casual observer would never guess that this place was ever a concentration camp where thousands of people suffered and died.This is not a Living History Museum, but rather a present-day Memorial Site in honor of the victims of the former Dachau Concentration Camp. It is like a theme park now, although there is a feeling of wind-swept desolation and an eerie silence prevails.
Many visitors who think of the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish tragedy will be stunned to see that there are two modernistic Christian Memorial Chapels in very prominent locations on the grounds of the former camp in honor of the Christian victims of the Nazis, and a Catholic Carmelite convent, which was built in 1964 just outside the camp fence with an entrance through one of the former guard towers.
The Jewish Memorial prayer house, built in 1965, was the last of the three religious buildings to be erected at the north end of the former Dachau camp. It is on the east side of the camp, right next to the convent, although a few yards in front of it, and a tiny gold Christian cross on top of the convent is plainly visible from the entrance to the temple. In front of the Memorial are the concrete outlines which denote the locations of the former barracks buildings. Near the Jewish Memorial is the former location of the original disinfection hut for clothing when the camp was in operation, and behind it is where the rabbit hutches used to be. To the left of the Memorial can be seen the top of the white building that is the Carmelite convent behind the camp wall. To the right is the reconstructed wall which surrounds the entire camp.
The entrance to the Jewish Memorial is reached by walking down a short tiled ramp to the small underground room, which is completely bare of any furnishings. This symbolic Memorial features a wrought iron fence on either side of the entrance ramp, evocative of the barbed wire fence around the camp. At the end of the entrance ramp is a wrought iron gate which goes all the way across the entrance and is the only thing covering the opening to the small room, which is exposed to the elements. This gate is reminiscent of the Jourhaus gate to the camp, except the iron bars are jumbled and chaotic and the gate features a Star of David rather than the "Arbeit Macht Frei" slogan. Inside, the floor is covered with the same tile that is used on the ramp and the walls are granite blocks. There was a flag of Israel displayed there when I visited the Memorial in May 1997. (Section 4 of the Nuremberg laws of 1935 forbade the Jews to fly the German flag, but allowed them to display their Zionist flag.)
A hole in the roof allows a shaft of light to enter the room and one can look up through this hole and see the gold Menorah on top of the building.
When the Dachau camp was liberated, there were 2,539 Jewish survivors, including 225 women, according to the American Army census. According to a survivor, Nerin E. Gun, most of these Jews had been brought to the Dachau camp from Poland in the final days of the war and some of them had been in the camp for only a few days when the American Army liberated the camp. Sam Goldsmith, a Lithuanian Jew who entered the Dachau camp on liberation day as a British war correspondent, confirmed that there were 2,539 Jewish survivors, "all of them Lithuanian Jews, the remnants of the ghetto Slododka."
According to the book "Deliverance Day" by Michael Selzer, at 10 p.m. on April 26, 1945 there were 1,759 Jews put on a train bound for another concentration camp and 6,887 others, half of whom were Jews and half of whom were Russians, were marched south toward the mountains, on the orders of Heinrich Himmler. Himmler might have been planning to use these prisoners as hostages in negotiations with the Allies at the end of the war. The previous day, Himmler had ordered the evacuation of the 137 VIP prisoners held in Dachau.
In his book entitled "Inside the Vicious Heart," Robert H. Abzug wrote that there was a total of approximately 60,000 Jewish survivors in all the liberated concentration camps in Germany, and that 20,000 of them died within a week of liberation, because they were in such weakened condition after being transferred to Germany from the camps in Poland during the last months of the war. Martin Gilbert wrote in "The Holocaust," that as many as 27,000 Jewish survivors died immediately after the war.
A tiny Memorial Chapel, easily identified as Russian by its distinctive onion dome, is located on a side path through the trees in the area outside the camp, where the gas chamber building is located. It was erected in honor of the Russian Prisoners of War who died in the Dachau camp.
The Commissar's Order of June 6, 1941, just before the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German army on June 22, 1941, authorized the shooting of any captured Russian soldiers who were thought to be Communist Commissars or political functionaries. Under this order, there were mass shootings of Russian POWs at the SS soldiers' rifle range at Herbertshausen near the Dachau Concentration Camp between October 1941 and April 1942, according to the Museum Guidebook. After that, the Russian POWs were incorporated into the slave labor system at the camp. There were 4,258 Russians, including 9 women, in the camp when it was liberated, according to American Army figures. According to Michael Selzer in his book "Deliverance Day," the Russians were sent back to the Soviet Union. Selzer wrote: "It is known that large numbers of them were transferred posthaste to Stalin's version of Dachau. Very many of them died cruel deaths in those concentration camps."
A Protestant Memorial Chapel was built in 1965 near the northwest corner of the camp in remembrance of the Christian victims at Dachau, including some Protestant ministers who were arrested as political opponents and sent to the Dachau Concentration Camp. According to official figures from the American Army there were 28,893 non-Jewish prisoners, out of a total of 31,432 prisoners, in the camp when it was liberated.
Behind the Chapel is the spot where the greenhouse and the Lagergartnerei (camp market garden) were originally located. To the left of the Protestant Chapel is a footbridge across the canal behind the camp wall and a wooden gate which opens into the crematoria area where Barrack X, which houses the gas chamber, is located.
The Protestant Chapel is built on two levels and behind it are some of the few trees inside the grounds of the former Concentration Camp. These trees were planted when the former camp was converted into a Memorial site. The evergreen trees just behind the Chapel building are the original trees in front of Barrack X, the crematorium and gas chamber building, added in 1942 outside the camp walls. This whole area was originally a pine and fir forest which was cleared to build the World War I munitions factory where the former Dachau Concentration camp is now located.
One of the most famous inmates of the Dachau camp was Pastor Martin Niemöller, a Protestant minister who opposed Hitler and the Nazis. According to William Shirer, who was a newspaper correspondent in Berlin during the Nazi era, the Reverend Niemöller had served as a submarine commander in World War I. After the war, he joined the Free Corps, a militia group which fought the Communist revolutionaries in the streets of Germany, but later he became a minister. He was an early supporter of Hitler and the National Socialists (Nazi) political party which evolved from the Free Corps. Shirer wrote in his autobiography that Niemöller "warmly welcomed Hitler's coming to power in 1933," but two years later he formed a new Protestant denomination called the Confessional Church (Bekennende Kirche) which he declared to be "the legitimate Protestant Church of Germany," according to Shirer. This was in defiance of Hitler who had united the 28 different Protestant Churches into one unified "National Reich Church," which he controlled. In the past, the German Kaiser had traditionally been the nominal head of the Protestant church, according to Shirer.
As the pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ in Dahlem, an affluent suburb of Berlin, Niemöller openly preached against the principles of Hitler's National Socialism until he was arrested on July 1, 1937 and after 8 months in prison, tried on charges of crimes against the state. He was convicted and sentenced to time served. After his release he was sent to a concentration camp, like many convicted criminals, because he was considered a danger to the state. He was one of the VIPs in Dachau when it was liberated. Niemöller is famous for the following quotation: "First they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did not object. Then they came for the Catholics, but I was not a Catholic so I did not object. Then they came for the trade-unionists, but I was not a trade-unionist, so I did not object. Then they came after me, and there was no one left to object." There are several variations on this quotation; another version is that it was the Communists that they came for first, then the Jews, etc. Niemöller died in 1984 at the age of 92. After the war, he continued to preach about the crimes of the Nazi regime and the collective guilt of the German people.
In 1933 two-thirds of the citizens of Germany were Protestant, although Hitler himself was a non-practicing Catholic. The real goal of the Nazis was to go back to the original pagan religion of the German people, as practiced before the year 800 AD when the Christian religion replaced it. Less than one percent of the German population was Jewish when Hitler came to power, and by 1938 there were only 200,000 Jews left in Germany.
According to Shirer in his book "20th Century Journey Volume II: The Nightmare Years 1930 - 1940," there were 807 other Protestant ministers of the Confessional Church who were arrested in 1937 and thrown into concentration camps for opposing Hitler's concept of "One People, One Reich, One Faith."
The tall circular building which stands at the north end of the main camp road is the Catholic Memorial Chapel, topped by a modern sculpture made out of twisted metal. The Catholic Memorial was the first to be built in 1960 and it occupies the most prominent spot in the center of the camp in front of the north wall. It was built in honor of the Catholic priests, mostly from Poland, who were brought to this camp as political prisoners because they were resistance fighters against the Nazi occupation. Block number 26 was the barrack for Catholic priests. At the other end of the main camp road, facing the Catholic Chapel, is the International Monument in front of the administration building, which is now a museum.
The Catholic Chapel is called Todesangst Christi Kapelle or "Christ's Mortal Fear" and has a modern sculpture on the top of it instead of the usual Christian cross. A cobblestone path leads from the end of the main camp road up to the entrance, which is through a wrought iron gate; the inside has a bare altar and is exposed to the elements just like the Jewish Memorial. Beside the Chapel is a large church bell encased in a tall open tower with a Christian cross on the top.
According to Michael Selzer who wrote a book entitled "Deliverance Day" about the Dachau camp, all the memorials at the Dachau Memorial Site were built with private funds, and there are no monuments built in the camp by the German Federal or Bavarian State governments.