In December 2015, I took an emotional tour of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. The camp is located 10 miles outside of Munich, Germany and was the first internment and forced labor camp constructed by the Nazi regime.
In this article, I will share my experiences with the wheelchair accessibility of the memorial site through photographs and descriptions. I will also offer a bit of information on the history of the camp. This was only my second such visit to a Nazi-era camp located within Germany. The other was Sachsenhausen, in the city of Oranienburg, a suburb of Berlin.
Although the official Nazi death and extermination camps were set-up outside of Germany, Dachau was still a place of immense death. Between 1933 and 1945, nearly 32,000 people are confirmed to have lost their lives within its walls. The primary causes of death were exhaustion, starvation, sickness and disease. Numerous sources suggest that more than 200,000 prisoners passed through the camp during World War II. At the time of its liberation in 1945, 30,000 prisoners remained, while another 10,000 had been led away on a “Death March” only days before.
Visitors to the camp should first stop at the visitors’ center to pick up an audio guide. These guides are offered in 13 languages, including English, German and Hebrew. Maps are also available to help direct your tour of the expansive grounds. Be advised that, to gain a complete experience, you should allow a half-day to tour the galleries, displays, monuments and buildings spread across the camp. Bring some tissues, as much of what you take in will have the power to elicit an emotional response.
After leaving the visitors’ center, you’ll walk or roll a path to the camp’s main gate. The pathway is paved, but will be a bit bumpy. On the day I visited, it was cold (just above freezing) and a hazy fog hovered over the camp at low altitude. The weather conditions set the tone for the day, and allowed me to recognize how truly inhospitable life in a concentration camp could be.
Pictured above is the main gate of the Dachau Concentration Camp. Embedded in the iron gate are the words Arbeit Macht Frei, which translate to “work sets you free.” That very work, in the form of intense, demanding labor, claimed the lives of many prisoners.
After passing through the main gate, visitors should turn to the right to gain access to the former maintenance building. This is the largest structure remaining from the original camp, and it now contains the permanent exhibition. Access is available by a ramp, which leads to a set of double doors. These doors can be opened automatically using a nearby push button. Most, but not all doors of the camp can be opened this way.
The permanent exhibition offers a detailed look at the history of the camp, and the realities for those held there. Pictured above is a series of displays which offer insight into the living conditions at Dachau. Also included is an examination of the prisoners’ daily routine, from morning roll call to the end of the day.
While the Holocaust was directed primarily at Jews, people of all faith backgrounds were interned at Dachau, including Christians, Muslims and atheists. Academics, political dissidents and foreign operatives were also imprisoned there. Pictured above is a display which included items used by Roman Catholics at the camp – a crucifix and monstrance. Many prisoners continued to practice their religion while at Dachau, in spite of the repressive atmosphere. Religious leaders, including Jewish Rabbis and Catholic Priests who had spoken out against Nazism, were held at the camp.
Book of Remembrance
Every person who passed through the gates of Dachau became a victim, regardless of whether they survived the experience. The permanent exhibition concludes in the Room of Remembrance, which memorializes the life that were lost or forever altered in the camp. Pictured above is the Book of Remembrance, which includes the names of those who perished in the camp.
Flipping through the pages of this book was an emotional experience for me, as it helped me to recognize and quantify the true cost of terror and violence in Nazi Germany. Keep in mind that this book covers only one camp – a camp that was not designed or purposed for the extermination of lives. The book is thick. Spend a few moments here to reflect and, if you are religious, pray for the souls whose names fill the pages.
These words appear in five languages on a memorial just in front of the former maintenance building, in the area where roll call was conducted each day. Following World War II, the international community came together, committing to never allow such horrors and abuses to occur again.
As your tour continues, visitors will face a number of stone and gravel paths. Pictured above are the tracks of my power wheelchair, which began sinking into the stones. Choose your path wisely, and search for areas where the ground may be more firm. If you are a power wheelchair user, don’t “let off the gas” if you encounter an area such as this!
Pictured above is the wheelchair ramp that can be used to access the reconstructed barracks building. The building was recreated and designed to show what the prisoners’ living conditions were like.
As you enter the barracks, you’ll see the bunks where prisoners slept at night. They are arranged three high, and indicate just how cramped the spaces were.
Stones have been laid to outline of where the former barracks buildings were located on the camp grounds. In total, there are 32 of these foundational markings, split by the Camp Road, which now leads to five religious structures (constructed after the war), as well as the crematorium.
The five religious structures are: the Jewish Memorial, Carmelite Convent, Catholic Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel, Protestant Church of Reconciliation, and the Russian Orthodox Chapel. Services are held at these places of worship and remembrance weekly.
Pictured above is the Dachau Crematorium, which is only a short walk/roll from the religious buildings at the end of the camp. It was set apart from the main camp area, across the surrounding moat and circled by trees. The building is wheelchair accessible via the ramp pictured above. I apologize for the darkness in the photo – I spent a great deal of time at Dachau, and this was my very last stop on the tour.
As I mentioned earlier, 32,000 confirmed deaths occurred inside the camp over its 12-year history. The remains of the dead were disposed of in the crematorium, using the ovens pictured above.
Pictured above is the door to a room that, on first glance, appears to be a gas chamber. A bit of a historical puzzle surrounds the space.
While at university, I studied the Second World War and the Nazi Germany homefront in great detail. My professors, backed up by my own research, held that gas chambers had not existed inside the pre-war borders of Germany, except for cases of design and testing.
After U.S. forces liberated Dachau in 1945, the Army and American media reported that this room was a gas chamber, where mass executions were carried out. Later study has suggested that this was not the case, and that this “gas chamber” was constructed after the camp’s liberation, potentially by the liberators themselves. No evidence has been found to prove that a functioning gas chamber ever existed at the camp. If this topic interests you, you may perform a web search to learn more about this room.
Above the doorway is the word Brausebad, which translates to “shower.” In the major extermination camps such as Auschwitz, Chelmno, Treblinka and others, prisoners were led into gas chambers that were disguised as showers. For those visiting the Dachau camp, it is best to consider this “gas chamber” as a representation of what one might have looked like at the camps specifically designed for the annihilation of prisoners.
Wheelchair accessible bathrooms are located in the visitors center’ and in the building housing the permanent exhibition. These bathrooms are locked, so you’ll need to request a key from a staff member. I advise that you plan to use the accessible restroom in the visitors’ center, pictured above, as I was unable to find a staff member in the permanent exhibition. The bathroom facility was large enough to accommodate my standard wheelchair, had fold-up grab bars next to the toilet, and a sink that I could roll under in my wheelchair.
The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the exception of Christmas Eve, December 24th. Admission to the memorial site is free of charge to everyone. Guided tours, lasting 2.5 hours and in English, are available for €3,00 per person. Alternatively, visitors may rent an audio guide for €3,50. The only other charge is for parking private vehicles at the camp, at a rate of €3,00 per car.
Public transportation to the memorial site is available from Munich, via the S2 train to Dachau station. The train is wheelchair accessible via a ramp (flag the driver) and the ride takes roughly 25 minutes from Munich Hauptbahnhof. At Dachau station, take bus 726 directly to the camp. Buses are also wheelchair accessible, via a fold-out ramp at the center door, pictured here.
For more information, visit the Dachau Concentration Camp’s official website.