The famous gate with its cynical slogan, "Arbeit Macht Frei," which means "Work makes one free" in English, was removed by the Americans after the liberation of the camp. A reconstructed gate has been put up to replace the original, but it is not the entrance used by visitors today. When the Dachau camp was in operation, a gatehouse called the Jourhaus, guarded the only prisoner's entrance into the camp. It is a small building with a red-tiled roof on the west side of the camp. The opening was wide enough to allow vehicles to drive into the camp. Before getting to the Jourhaus, prisoners were brought through another gate into the SS camp, above which there was a Nazi emblem which featured an eagle with spreading wings and a swastika clutched in its talons. The emblem was taken down when the SS camp was converted into an army base for American soldiers, and the building has long since been torn down. On either side of the archway of the Jourhaus, there were rooms for the German SS guards. The offices of the camp administration were located on the level above, called the first floor . On the walls inside the archway there are now plaques to commemorate the American troops who liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. The road to this gate is through a wooded area that was once the location of factories where the Dachau concentration camp prisoners worked.
A line of poplar trees hid the prison camp from the adjacent SS camp. The grounds of the camp were originally a pine and fir forest which was cleared in order to build a munitions factory in World War I, which later became the site of the Concentration Camp and a huge SS garrison. The Roll Call Square in front of the gate house was covered with gravel to prevent mud in the camp, according to Michael Selzer who wrote "Deliverance Day" about the liberation of the camp. The prisoners would march across the Roll Call Square (Appellplatz) and out through the gate to work, often singing or marching to the accompaniment of music being played by the camp orchestra.
According to the Museum Guidebook, every morning at roll call, the men of each barrack room paraded together as a platoon on the Appellplatz. The men of each barrack block formed a company with a prisoner "sergeant" responsible for discipline. Prisoners who were common criminals were generally the ones who were put in charge. In the Summer time, roll call was at 5:15 a.m. after the prisoners were awakened at 4 a.m. In the Winter months, the prisoners were awakened at 5 a.m. Following roll call and breakfast, the prisoners would be marched off to begin their 12-hour workday in a camp workshop or in a factory outside the grounds, according to the Guidebook.
The best-known commandant of the Dachau Concentration Camp was Theodor Eicke, who held this position for two years. Under his command, the camp would become the model camp (Musterlager) for all future SS run concentration camps, earning him the name of "Father of the Concentration Camp System." The SS camp at Dachau had a training school for officers who would later become commanders of the new concentration camps. The infamous commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, trained under Eicke at Dachau, as did Adolph Eichmann.
Originally, the concentration camp was administered by the SA (Sturmabteilungen) known to Americans as the "Storm Troopers." By 1934, the camp were administered by Hitler's private army, the SS (Schutzstaffeln). A branch of the SS called the Death's Head Units (Totenkopfverbände) staffed the camps as guards. On their uniform caps they wore the insignia of their unit, a skull which was the "death's head" symbol. Another unit of the SS, called the Waffen-SS, fought on the battlefields of World War II.
People were not sent to Dachau as a punishment for a crime after being convicted by a court of law, but rather as a preventive measure because they were suspected of being a danger to the state. Such a person was called a Schutzhäftling and the order for preventive custody was a Schutzhaftbefehl. Prisoners who were arrested and taken to Dachau were told: "Based on Article One of the Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State of 28 February 1933, you are taken into protective custody (Schutzhaft) in the interest of public security and order. Reason: suspicion of activities inimical to the State." This was an emergency decree enacted after the fire which destroyed the Reichstag building where the German Congress met. The first prisoners to be sent to Dachau were not selected on the basis of their race or religion; they were sent to Dachau because of their political beliefs which were in opposition to National Socialism.
At first, the job of arresting suspected "enemies of the state" was given to local police chiefs and the first prisoners arrested after the Reichstag fire were taken to the Landsberg prison near Munich, where Heinrich Himmler was the police chief. In 1936 after Himmler became the chief of the SS and the Gestapo, the authority to place people in concentration camps became the exclusive province of the Gestapo, which was the Secret State Police established by Hermann Göring. Gestapo was short for Geheime Staatspolizei. Prisoners in Dachau were not told how long their sentence would be, but in the early years of the camp, before World War II started, many of the prisoners, including Jews, were released after serving time, according to the Museum Guidebook.
On November 24, 1933 a new law on "dangerous habitual prisoners" was passed, which introduced the concept of preventive arrest (Sicherheitverwahrung). Under this law, prisoners who had completed their second term in prison were then sent to a concentration camp in an effort to eliminate the professional criminals (Berufsverbrecher) from society, sort of a forerunner of the three strikes law in America, although in Nazi Germany, criminals were given only two strikes.
In keeping with their desire for a Utopian society, the next group to be rounded by the Nazis were the so-called asocials (Asoziale). These were the people who were considered to be a burden on society: bums, vagrants, habitual drunkards, prostitutes, the mentally ill and assorted trouble-makers and street brawlers. By 1935, the next group to be targeted was members of the International Bible Students Association, whose followers refused to serve in the army and opposed the Nazi party.
The purpose of the camp, according to the Nazis, was the rehabilitation or education of these undesirables through work, thus the sign over the gate which proclaimed "Arbeit Macht Frei." After more concentration camps were added to the system, Dachau was considered to be a camp where prisoners who were capable of being rehabilitated were sent.
After the start of World War II, most of the inmates at Dachau were people brought to Germany from conquered countries as slave laborers, particularly from Poland. Russian Prisoners of War were also brought to the camp. It was only at the very end of the war, when the Nazis were forced to evacuate the camps in Poland, that a small number of Jews were transferred to Dachau, where most of them were assigned to sub-camps. The transfer of prisoners from Poland resulted in a disaster when the typhus epidemic in the camps in Poland spread to Dachau and other camps in Germany.
In 1942 a new brick building called Baracke X (Barrack X in English) was erected outside the walls of the northwest corner of the camp at Dachau. The building contains a crematoria with four ovens, several small gas chambers used for the delousing of clothing as a hygienic measure to prevent typhus epidemics, a mortuary room to hold the dead bodies and a gas chamber which was built for killing the Jews. However, tour guides at the camp now tell visitors that, although a gas chamber, disguised as a shower room, was built for the purpose of gassing human beings with the same Zyklon B used for delousing, it was never used. Many books about the Dachau camp say that the gas chamber there was used several times for experimental gassings but was never put into production.
Beginning in January 1942 , the same year that Baracke X was built, there were 3,166 prisoners selected at Dachau for "Invalid Transports" to Hartheim Castle near Linz, Austria (Hitler's boyhood home town) where they were gassed, according to the Museum Guidebook. In 1898 Hartheim Castle had been converted to an asylum for the "poor feeble-minded and imbeciles, idiots and cretins." On display at the Memorial Site Museum is the paperwork that had to be filled out for these prisoners, along with a memo admonishing the person who filled out the form not to write "Yes" in the blank for Terminal Illness, but to enter the name of the illness. (At that time, euthanasia or the killing of the terminally ill was legal in Germany, as in many other countries.)
A U.S. Army photograph, taken in the Dachau Concentration Camp after American soldiers liberated the camp, was captioned "Gas chambers, conveniently located to the crematory, are examined by a soldier of the U.S. Seventh Army. These chambers were used by Nazi guards for killing prisoners of the infamous Dachau concentration camp." Note that Jews are not mentioned specifically. American soldiers had been told during the war that Europe had to be liberated from the Nazis because the German "Master Race" had plans to kill and enslave all other ethnic groups. The U.S. Army photograph very clearly shows the door of a gas chamber, but it does not appear to be the same door as the one which opens into the gas chamber shown to tourists, since the hinges are on the opposite side. (The gas chamber disguised as a shower room has two doors, one of which opens into a mortuary room.) The words just below the skull and crossbones translate into "Caution! Gas! Mortal Danger! Do not open!" Just above the soldier's head is the German word for Gas Time and the words for From and To with a space to write in the times when the gas was released into the room and when it will be safe to open the door again. On the wall to the left is another chalkboard with blanks to write in the time of gassing when it is unsafe to open this door.
Another U.S. Army photo shows members of the U.S. Congress inspecting the gas chamber at Dachau after the camp was liberated in 1945. Left to right, they are Senator Wherry from Nebraska, Senator Brooks from Illinois, Representative Vorhys from Ohio and Representative Richards from South Carolina. They are standing in the room which has the word "Brausebad," which means Shower Bath in English, over the entrance. The walls of the room are tiled like a shower stall, but the ceiling is made of concrete and painted white. The shower heads, which resemble the nozzle of a garden watering can, are stuck into the ceiling with no visible water pipes and are low enough for these men to reach up and touch them. The vents near the ceiling are for airing out the room after gassing. Not shown are the openings near the floor where the gas was introduced into the room from chutes on the outside wall.
Tourists enter the gas chamber through an unfurnished anteroom, probably intended to be an undressing room for the gas chamber, which has a window that looks out over the statue of the Unknown Prisoner. The gas chamber is windowless and has another door on the opposite wall which leads directly into the crematoria section of the building. The gas chamber room has a 7.6 foot ceiling; the other rooms in the Baracke X building all have 10-foot, or higher, ceilings.
There was no standard design for the Nazi gas chambers. Some of the gas chambers were disguised as shower rooms, but some weren't. There are no peep holes in the doors to the gas chamber at Dachau, as there are in the doors to the gas chambers in the Majdanek camp. One of the gas chambers at the Majdanek camp has a window on one of the outside walls, and the gas chamber in the main Auschwitz camp has a window in the upper half of one of the doors. Most of the gas chambers were in the same building with the crematory ovens, but three of the gas chambers at Majdanek were in a separate building, while one was located in the crematoria. Many of the gas chambers were destroyed by the Nazis, but others were left as evidence, along with thousands of eye-witnesses who were allowed to survive. The crematoria which also housed the gas chambers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek camps in Poland were destroyed by the Nazis when they abandoned the camps to the advancing Red Army, but at Dachau, the incriminating evidence of the allegedly unused gas chamber was left intact for three years after it was built.
A U.S. Army photograph of Baracke X taken after the liberation of the camp shows the outside wall of the gas chamber room hidden behind a wooden screen and one of the exterior doors removed from the hinges and leaning against it. The gravel road leading to the building has a light dusting of snow and the building is partially hidden by evergreen trees. From this spot today, Baracke X is hidden by trees and shrubbery. This area looks so peaceful and attractive today that it is hard to imagine the horror that greeted the American soldiers who discovered the Nazi killing center with a pile of clothed corpses in a room right next to the disinfection chambers.
Although the infamous Leuchter Report has been thoroughly discredited, and Dachau survivors confirm that the gas chamber was indeed used, an excerpt from the controversial Report is reprinted here only because it gives a physical description of the gas chamber room at Dachau. An excellent book which refutes the Leuchter Report is entitled Truth Prevails: Demolishing Holocaust Denial: The End of the Leuchter Report by Shelly Shapiro. For more information which debunks the Leuchter Report, see the Nizkor Project web site at http://www.nizkor.org/faqs/leuchter/
Excerpt from the Leuchter Report:
A small half-timbered building which looks like a Bavarian garden cottage in a peaceful wooded setting was the original Krematoria built in 1940, to house one double oven in which the bodies of dead prisoners were cremated. The oven has two doors and it is long enough to hold two bodies placed end to end. According to historian John Toland, the cremation of the dead was ordered by Heinrich Himmler in an effort to stop epidemics in all the camps. When the mortality rate increased as the camp population grew, another larger crematorium building had to be built in 1942, using the prison labor of the Catholic priests in the camp. It was called Baracke X or Barrack X in English.
The ovens in Baracke X were last used to cremate the bodies of the Nazi war criminals who were executed after they were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trial in 1946. The body of Hermann Goering, who committed suicide before his death sentence could be carried out, was cremated here. The bodies of the SS soldiers who were killed in the liberation of Dachau were also cremated in here. Unaware of this, tourists leave flowers and candles at the ovens.
There are four brick cremation ovens in Baracke X. The metal stretchers that can be seen sticking out of the ovens were used to load the bodies and put them inside. These ovens used coal for fuel. At the end of the war, when supply lines were cut by Allied bombing, there was no fuel for cremation and the bodies were stacked outside on the ground. Michael Selzer wrote, regarding the crematorium at Dachau, "working at full speed, it could dispose of, at the most, 350 bodies a day." There have been many stories that concentration camp prisoners were put into the ovens alive, especially tiny babies. Selzer also wrote in his book "Deliverance Day," "And there is irrefutable evidence that others were thrown alive and conscious into the ovens...."
Admission to the Memorial Site and the Museum at the former Dachau Concentration Camp is free. Tourists are allowed to enter the grounds without any preliminary orientation speech and may wander around without a guide. The tourist entrance to the grounds of the former camp is through a wide gap in the fence at the southeast corner of the camp. The original entrance to the camp was through a gate house on the west side of the camp. The first building that tourists see as they enter the camp is the east wing of the former operations building, which now houses the camp Museum. The operations building, which formerly housed the kitchen, laundry, showers and storage rooms for the prisoners' belongings, was restored in 1962. Directly in front of you as you enter the camp is a long gray building which is one of the two reconstructed barrack buildings, open to visitors. All of the original wooden barracks were torn down in the early 1960ies. For about 10 years after the camp was liberated, the former prison barracks were used as living quarters for Displaced Persons who were ethnic Germans that were expelled from German territory that was given to Poland after the war. According to Marcus J. Smith in his book entitled "Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell," there were also 13.5 million Displaced Persons in Germany after the war.
When the camp was in operation, a ten-foot high barbed wire fence surrounded the camp, topped with lights on each of the fence pillars which were lit up at night so the SS soldiers in the seven guard towers could spot anyone trying to escape. An 8-foot high wall, known in German as the Lagermauer, went around the three sides of the camp a few feet away from the barbed wire fence. There are three guard towers along the east wall. These guard towers were small white stucco-covered buildings where, day and night, an SS guard would have a machine gun trained on the prisoners in the camp. As the Americans approached to liberate the camp, the German guards flew white flags of surrender from all the guard towers, according to survivor Nerin E. Gun.
The barbed wire fence was charged with live electricity which would instantly kill a prisoner who touched it. Sometimes prisoners would "go to the fence" and commit suicide. According to the book "The Day of the Americans" by Nerin E. Gun, one of the survivors was killed when he touched the fence on liberation day. After that, the electricity to the fence was cut off. In front of the barbed wire fence, there is a ditch, called the Graben in German, which was kept filled with water, like a moat. In front of the moat, there is a strip of grass that the prisoners were not allowed to walk on. The strip of grass along the fence was 27 feet from the wall surrounding the camp.
According to the Museum Guidebook, there were originally 32 barrack buildings like the two reconstructed buildings shown to tourists, including two that were used as an infirmary. (Some tourist guidebooks say there was a total of 34 barrack buildings, but two of the buildings were used as a camp canteen and a library.) Called a Wohnbaracke in German, the original barrack buildings were divided into four Stuben or living-room and dormitory units. Two of these Stuben had to share one wash-room and lavatory. The showers were in the large operations building across the Roll Call Square from the barracks. Each barrack building was 90 meters long by 10 meters wide. Each Stube was built to accommodate 52 prisoners, or 208 prisoners per barrack.
Inside the two reconstructed barrack buildings are rooms with two rows of three-tiered bunk beds, along a center aisle, as they looked in 1938, and also the more crowded bunk beds as they looked after the barracks population got progressively larger. As the war progressed, large numbers of prisoners were brought to Dachau from the newly occupied European countries. The camp became so overcrowded that up to 1,600 prisoners had to live in one barrack designed for only 208 people. The living-room portion of the barrack was later eliminated and each block was converted into eight rooms instead of four. The prisoners had to sleep with several people crowded into one bunk bed. According to Marcus J. Smith in his book "The Harrowing of Hell," the bunks in the barracks, in the later years, were 32 inches wide and 7 feet long and there were no mattresses.
Unlike the infamous Birkenau camp in Poland which had barrack buildings with dirt floors, the barracks at Dachau were set on concrete foundations. The floors in the reconstructed buildings are bare, unstained and unvarnished wood, and look as if they have just been scrubbed clean, the smell of disinfectant still lingering. A sign in the barracks explains that the prisoners had to keep their quarters clean, even being required to remove their wooden shoes before entering the building. The beds had to be made up with the blue and white checkered bed sheets in precise alignment to form perfect parallels with the sides and ends, according to survivors.
The individual barrack buildings were known as blocks and each had a block number. Markers now designate the former location of each of the 32 barrack buildings. According to survivor Nerin E. Gun, Block 11 was a brothel where prostitutes who were not political prisoners were available for 2 marks a trick, a week's wages for the prison workers. He wrote that the brothel was not used by the SS soldiers who had a separate facility, but was accessible to all the prisoners except the Jews.
The prisoners at Dachau, throughout the 12-year history of
the camp, were predominantly men although Marcus J. Smith wrote
in his book "The Harrowing of Hell" that there were
376 women in the camp when it was liberated.
Although Dachau was the main camp for Catholic Priests imprisoned by the Nazis, there were no Catholic nuns incarcerated in the Dachau Concentration Camp, which was a labor camp mainly for male inmates. There has been some controversy regarding the convent because a small gold cross on top of the convent church is within sight of the Jewish Memorial which was built later. One of the most famous victims of the Holocaust was Edith Stein who was born a Jew in the section of Germany which became a part of Poland after World War I. Although she had converted to Catholicism and had become a Carmelite nun, taking the name of Sister Benedicta, Edith Stein was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau because she was Jewish. She died there in the gas chamber and, as a martyr, was canonized a saint in the Catholic Church in late 1998.