Although Dachau had a gas chamber, which was shown in a film at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, the preferred method of killing the prisoners in the Dachau camp was by working them to death. When tourists take a guided tour of Dachau today, the tour typically starts at the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate into the prison enclosure where the tour guide tells visitors that the sign on the gate, which means “Work makes (one) free,” was intended to taunt the prisoners because no amount of work would lead to their freedom since the policy of the camp was to work the prisoners to death.
Dachau was opened in 1933, the year that I was born. Back then, it was common for people to die from over work. Almost no one in America exercised in those days; people felt that they got enough exercise by doing hard work. I recall that people were frequently admonished not to “work yourself to death.” The German people are famous for being hard workers. So it is not surprising that the prisoners at Dachau were “worked to death” as a means of extermination.
But is there any proof that prisoners at Dachau were “worked to death”? Yes. Just look at the photo below.
After Dachau was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945, a select group of prisoners were questioned by the Americans for two days. Information gathered from these prisoners was written in a book entitled Dachau Liberated, the Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army.
According to what the prisoners told the American liberators, the Labor Allocation Office (Arbeitseinsatz) was the most important office in the Dachau camp administration. This office allocated the laborers for the work commandos (Arbeitskommandos) and also determined which prisoners would be transported to other concentration camps or to the Dachau sub-camps to work.
According to information gathered by the Americans during the two days of interviews with the Dachau survivors, the Labor Allocation Office “was run entirely by prisoners.” So it was the prisoners themselves who decided who would live and who would be worked to death!
The following quote is from The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army, which was released only days after Dachau was liberated:
The staff (of the Labor Allocation Office) consisted of a chief, several assistants and a group of clerks. The office maintained files which contained all personal data pertinent to the allocation of individuals for work of various kinds. The three main sources of employment at Dachau were (a) work inside the camp, (b) work at the SS camp, (c) work in farms and in factories in the area. The lists of people to be shipped off on transports was usually compiled from those prisoners who were not part of a regular “Working Commando.”
The Work Allocation Leader at Dachau was SS-Oberscharführer Wilhelm Welter, who had been on the Dachau staff since 1935. Welter was singled out in The Official Report which stated that “[Welter] was very brutal and was accused of killing many prisoners and prisoners of war.”
Welter was among the 40 staff members who were put on trial by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau in November 1945. Dr. Franz Blaha, a Communist prisoner at Dachau, testified at the trial that Wilhelm Welter was responsible for the deaths of prisoners at Dachau, but he also stated that the only deaths that he could remember had occurred in 1944, which was a year after Welter had left the Dachau main camp to work for six months in the Friedrichshafen sub-camp of Dachau. Welter was found guilty by the American Military Tribunal and was executed by hanging on May 29, 1946.
The following quote is from book entitled The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army:
Nevertheless, the positions in the Labor Office and the subsidiary command over the “work commandos” afforded sufficient power to serve as an incentive for individuals and groups to seize these positions and defend them against outsiders. Historically, these groups were Germans simply because Germans were the oldest inhabitants of the camp.
As far as we could trace the developments back, some kind of a group or clique seems to have first formed in 1937 under an Austrian Socialist by the name of Brenner. The “Brenner Group” in the Labor Office included both German and Austrian Socialists. After the release of Brenner, it was superseded by a combination of German Socialists and Communists under a certain Kuno Rieke (Socialist) and a certain Julius Schaetzle (Communist). This combination and their staff were in control of the Labor Office until June 1944, when Schaetzle was suspected of conspiratorial activities and shipped off in a transport. A temporary regime succeeded the Rieke-Schaetzle group until September 1944, when a new regime gradually took over, eliminating all Germans from positions of influence in the Labor Office. This last group, composed of Alsatians, Lorrainers, French, Luxembourgers, Belgians and Poles, is still in charge of the Labor Office today.
Most of the prisoners at Dachau worked in factories, or on the nearby herb farm, which was called the Plantage. In addition to a factory where rifles were made, there was a factory at Dachau for making uniforms for the German Army, a porcelain factory, a paper factory, and a screw factory.
Other prisoners worked in the town of Dachau at a meat packing plant. A few of the women and the younger inmates were employed by residents of Dachau in their homes.
The photo above shows Himmler inspecting some herbs on the Plantage.
Marcus J. Smith, a US military doctor who was assigned to Dachau after it was liberated, wrote that there was an “experimental farm, the Plantage” just outside the Dachau concentration camp. Smith wrote in his book The Harrowing of Hell that “When the Reichsfuehrer SS (Himmler) inspected, he seemed particularly interested in the Plantage, discoursing enthusiastically on the medicinal value of herbs.”
Smith wrote that the farm was the “brainchild of the Reichsfuehrer SS, that it was operated by the Institute for the Study of Medicinal and Alimentary Plants, an SS research organization, that German scientists, particularly physicians, botanists, and chemists, supervised the research, that political prisoners who had been scientists in the past were permitted to contribute their talents to the program in return for the privilege of staying alive.”
Smith was told by the former inmates of Dachau that “many ambitious projects were undertaken, such as the production of artificial pepper, the evaluation of seasoning mixtures, the extraction of Vitamin C from gladioli and other flowers, the potentiation of plant growth by hormone-enriched manure, and of most importance to Germany, the development of synthetic fertilizer. As a profitable sideline, garlic, malva, and other medicinal plants, and vegetable seeds, were cultivated by the prisoners and then sold; the profits went to the SS.”
The following quote is from page 48 of the book entitled Dachau Liberated, The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army:
It is estimated that approximately 3,000 Jews died on the Plantages. When the camp officials felt that these internees were too ill and too weak to work, they would march them into a lake (since drained) regardless of the time of year. They were forced to stay in the water until dead. Those who remained conscious were placed in wheelbarrows, brought back to camp, where they died a few hours later.
The Kiesgrube detail was considered the worst work detail the internees could be put on. They would have to load wagons with crushed rock at a speed which caused the internees to collapse and die on the spot.
The Kiesgrube, mentioned above, was the gravel yard, located in the spot where the Carmelite convent now stands. The gravel was used in the construction of new buildings at Dachau.
In 1938, two Dachau prisoners, Jura Soyfer and Herbert Zipper, wrote a song called Dachaulied.
The words of the song, in German and then in English, are given below:
Stacheldraht, mit Tod geladen,
ist um unsere Welt gespannt.
Drauf ein Himmel ohne Gnaden
sendet Frost und Sonnenbrand.
Fern von uns sind alle Freuden,
fern die Heimat, fern die Frauen,
wenn wir stumm zur Arbeit schreiten,
Tausende im Morgengraun.
Doch wir haben die Lösung von Dachau gelernt
und wurden stahlhart dabei:
Sei ein Mann, Kamerad,
bleib ein Mensch, Kamerad,
mach ganze Arbeit, pack an, Kamerad,
denn Arbeit, Arbeit macht frei!
Barbed wire, loaded with death
is drawn around our world.
Above a sky without mercy
sends frost and sunburn.
Far from us are all joys,
far away our homeland, far away our women,
when we march to work in silence
thousands of us at the break of day.
But we have learned the solution of Dachau
and became as hard as steel:
Be a man, comrade,
stay a human being, comrade,
do a good job, get to it, comrade,
for work, work makes you free!
Note the words in last line of the song: “Arbeit macht frei!” The tour guides are right. The workers at Dachau were taunted by the promise that work would make them free. Or could the words of the song be interpreted as “work makes you free in the spiritual sense,” not literally?