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April 19, 2010

It’s time to bring back the sign in the Dachau “gas chamber”

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 8:35 am

The first time that I visited the Dachau memorial site in 1997, there was a sign in the corner of the gas chamber. The sign said in five languages that the gas chamber at Dachau “had never been used” or “war nicht in Betrieb.”  Since then, I’ve been back to Dachau several times; the sign has been removed and the Museum has been expanded considerably.  Visitors are now told by some of the tour guides that the Dachau gas chamber was, in fact, used to kill Jews.

Sign says in five languages that Dachau gas chamber was never used

Yesterday, I read this on a blog with the title Facing History and Ourselves:

Today we went to Dachau just outside Munich. Going into it, I didn’t really know what to expect. However, when I got off the bus and looked through the gates that said “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or work makes you free, I was hesitant to go in. As we walked into the camp heading towards the barracks, my heart sank and while stepping on the pebbles I thought about the hundreds of thousands of people who walked the same paths. But unlike me they were all skin and bones, malnourished, tortured, and treated like animals.

[…]

Being here at this site of such brutality makes it seem more real. I get angry when I think of all the times we’ve been taught about this topic in school and students will talk about other things or not pay attention.

The gas chambers made a very strong impression on me. On the path to the building the hedges and grass were well manicured. It seems as though this was another step for the Nazis to fool the prisoners. If they felt they were actually going to take a shower and not be subjected to the gas chambers they wouldn’t put up a fight. When I stepped into the gas chambers I felt fear that, while intense, must have been nothing compared to what the Jews felt. I found myself wondering what the a Jewish prisoner thought when those doors closed. I wondered if their thoughts turned to prayer or their families and instantly became thankful that I didn’t have to experience that. I was also curious about the thoughts of the SS officers assigned to the job of killing these people. Did any of them feel bad and want to walk away but didn’t because they feared for their life? I honestly can’t say what I would have done in that situation.

The level of trickery in the camp was remarkable. From the sign at the entrance to the camp to how it was so believable that a prisoner was going to a take a shower, the hoops the Nazis jumped through to keep the Jews in the dark was astounding. I would have believed them despite the rumors that were rampant in the camp. It was very difficult for me to be in a place where so many people died. I was standing next to the furnaces that burned the dead bodies and couldn’t bring myself to take pictures because it just wouldn’t feel right. It’s one thing to read about it, and it’s another to be there where it happened. The absolute worst part of the experience was being in a place where such horrible events took place and not being able to change it. I’m sure many of the people who were prisoners here felt a similar way. It makes me want to do everything I can to stop injustice today.

What would this student have written if the sign in the gas chamber had not been removed sometime around 2003?  I remember my reaction when I visited Dachau in 1997; up until then, I had believed that there was a gas chamber at Dachau and that it had been used to kill people. I was stunned to learn that the gas chamber at Dachau had never been used.

Why go to the trouble of building a gas chamber if you aren’t going to use it?  And why leave a gas chamber for the American liberators to find?  When you are losing a war, and your enemy has already announced that there are going to be war crimes tribunals after the war, why leave evidence of your crimes?

The Dachau gas chamber was disguised as a shower room

I recall hearing about the gas chambers being used to kill the Jews while I was in grade school.  In June 1942, the British BBC broadcast the news around the world that the Germans were killing Jews in gas chambers.  My teacher told us about it when I was about 10 years old.  I lived in Missouri where condemned prisoners were executed in a gas chamber, and I envisioned that the Jews were being killed one at a time in a small gas chamber.

In May 1945, everyone in America knew about the Dachau gas chamber. A picture of a disinfection chamber door, taken on April 30, 1945, was shown around the world.  The German word for a disinfection chamber was Gaskammer which means gas chamber in English.

Photo taken at Dachau by T/4 Sidney Blau April 30, 1945

The U.S. Seventh Army’s caption on the photo above reads as follows:

“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 the caption mentions “gas chambers” (plural). The caption says that “prisoners” were being killed, not Jews.

People actually believed that the Germans put the word Gaszeit (gas time) and a skull and crossbones on the door into a gas chamber that was used for killing people. Why let the prisoners know that they were entering a gas chamber? Wouldn’t that have caused panic and pandemonium? In fact, wouldn’t it have been easier just to shoot them?

When I saw this photo in 1945, I believed that it showed a homicidal gas chamber.  After all, I had heard about the Nazis killing Jews in gas chambers from my teacher who was a Catholic nun.

Here is a quote from “The Official Report” by the US Army about Dachau:

“When the American troops arrived on 29 April 1945, there were approximately 32,500 estimated internees of all nationalities, the Poles predominating. During this period, the camp was notorious for its cruelty, but within the last six or eight months, some ‘token’ improvement was noted in the treatment of the internees. However, the new crematorium was completed in May 1944, and the gas chambers, a total of five, were used for the executions and the disposals of the bodies.”

Note that the official report mentions five gas chambers.  Besides the gas chamber disguised as a shower room, there were four other gas chambers which were used to disinfect the clothing of the prisoners. Actually, the gas chambers had been completed in May, 1943 at a time when there were no Jews at Dachau; since February 1942, the Nazis had been sending Jews to camps in the East.

One of the four gas chambers used for delousing clothing

The Report of the Atrocities Committed at Dachau Concentration Camp, signed by Col. David Chavez, Jr., JAGD, 7 May 1945 is quoted below:

“The new building had a gas chamber for executions… the gas chamber was labeled “shower room” over the entrance and was a large room with airtight doors and double glassed lights, sealed and gas proof. The ceiling was studded with dummy shower heads. A small observation peephole, double glassed and hermetically sealed was used to observe the conditions of the victims. There were grates in the floor. Hydrogen cyanide was mixed in the room below, and rose into the gas chamber and out the top vents.”

Dachau Gas chamber disguised as a shower room

The “top vents” that are mentioned in the Chavez Report, quoted above the photo, are the small light fixture boxes that are near the ceiling. The “grates in the floor” are the floor drains; one of the drains is shown in the photo above. The “small observation peephole” is the top box on the left.  The box below it has a water pipe; a hose could be hooked up to this water pipe and used to clean the floor of the morgue room next door which has no source of water.  Notice that the bricks around the peephole reflect the light from the flash of my camera differently. Why is the peephole so large?  On the other side of the wall, the peephole is a small round hole.  Was it too difficult to bore a small hole in the bricks for the peephole? When I visited Dachau in 1997, I was told that the gas chamber building was built by Polish priests who were prisoners in the camp.  The first thought that came to my mind was “I wonder if the Polish priests were executed for doing such a sloppy job of building the gas chamber.”

Note that the student who wrote about Dachau on the Facing History blog, mentioned gas chambers (plural).  Some of the tour guides at Dachau tell visitors that the four disinfection chambers were used to kill people.

When I visited Dachau in 1997, I was handed a pamphlet in which was the following quote:

“Upon orders of the SS-Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt (SS-Economic-Administrative Main Office) in Berlin a gas chamber was installed. This gas chamber, camouflaged as a shower room, was not used. The prisoners selected for ‘gassing’ were transported from Dachau to the Hartheim Castle, near Linz (Austria) or to other camps. In Hartheim alone 3166 prisoners were gassed between January 1942 and November 1944.”

Apparently visitors to Dachau are no longer told that the gassing of prisoners in the Dachau camp was actually done at Hartheim Castle. That would make the story of the Dachau gas chambers sound even more stupid.  First, the Germans built a gas chamber that they never used, then they went to the additional expense of transporting prisoners to some old castle in Austria to kill them.

Visitors walk through Hartheim Castle gas chamber on a ramp

Note that the transports to Hartheim Castle stopped in November 1944.  That’s when the typhus epidemic was just getting started and the prisoners would soon be dying like flies from typhus, so it was not necessary to gas them any more. Half of all the deaths at Dachau occurred during the typhus epidemic between December 1944 and June 1945.

I have never, ever, read about the typhus epidemic at Dachau on a blog written by a recent visitor.  Apparently the tour guides never mention it. Imagine how disappointed students would be after studying the Holocaust for years and going to visit the Dachau memorial site, only to find out that half the prisoners, who died there, died of typhus.

12 Comments

  1. Any way you look at it, if we don’t learn from the past, we’re going to see a repeat! I don’t care about the numbers. If it was one or six million, it was wrong! The camps weren’t built for nice treatment. Many an American saw for themselves as the war ended, that there were buildings equipped as gas chambers. Many survivors have lost family in those gas chambers. It doesn’t even matter which building was used for what. The fact is, there were gas chambers, they were used, people were murdered! It’s worth remembering just as it’s worth remembering how Hitler tricked the youth of that day into believing they were going to help him, help Germany become strong again and a good place to live and grow a family. He caused many people to believe he would change their lives for the better and at the beginning, that’s what he did, or seemingly so. Germany was suffering and he appeared as someone who could help. People looked up to him and that gave him an open door to commit all sorts of crimes right under their noses.
    We MUST remember what a leader can do when we follow blindly, greedily. When a country is in need, they’ll look to anyone who seems to want to help, regardless of where it will truly lead. We have to be careful, pay attention and make sure not to ever allow what Hitler did, to happen again. Ah, but human as we are, I sometimes wonder if all those who know better are no longer with us?1
    All I can say is, God help us all!

    Comment by Sheri — December 7, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

    • You wrote: “The fact is, there were gas chambers, they were used, people were murdered!” Define “fact.” To me, a “fact” is something that has been proved through evidence. The gas chamber at Dachau has never been proved. In fact, no one was ever charged specifically with the crime of murdering people in a gas chamber at Dachau. The reason that no one was charged is because the names of the people who were allegedly murdered in the gas chamber at Dachau are unknown. The gas chamber was never tested to see if it was actually workable. There is no forensic evidence that it was ever used.

      Comment by furtherglory — December 7, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    • You wrote: “Many an American saw for themselves as the war ended, that there were buildings equipped as gas chambers.” Were any of the 19-year-old American soldiers, who saw these buildings, gas chamber experts? America was using gas chambers for executions, particularly in California and Missouri. Were any of the American liberators gas chamber engineers who knew how a gas chamber should be “equipped”? No, they were told by the former Communist and Jewish prisoners that the shower room was a gas chamber and they believed it. The Dachau gas chamber was not mentioned in the judgment handed down by the Nuremberg IMT because this had not been proved.

      Comment by furtherglory — December 8, 2010 @ 7:41 am

  2. Malanga, to be honest I find your claim that you carefully researched the camp before taking the students there difficult to credit, or alternatively your students are more than averagely stupid. Although to be honest, taking a bunch of teenagers to Europe and dragging them around a bunch of Holocaust sites does seem cruel and unusual punishment. It would be like going to the USA and insisting on visiting only slaving museums.

    Reading what your students wrote on Dachau they seem focused solely on the Jewish experience of Dachau, which was only a minor facet of Dachau’s existence. At the beginning of the Nazi period and at the end. For a large portion of its history it was Judenrein.

    You were also visiting Auschwitz which is heavily slanted towards Jewish memory. Wouldnt a trip to Dachau be the right place to focus on the other victims of Nazism?

    Incidently, if you would be interested I could send you a PDF of a book of an Auschwitz and Buchenwald survivor, Miklos Grüner that you could share with your class.

    He says he knew Elie Wiesel in Buchenwald!

    Comment by littlegreyrabbit — April 24, 2010 @ 6:30 am

  3. As the guide of the students who completed the blog you referenced, I take offense to your post. Unlike you and other completely irresponsible people whose musings are read by many, I actually do research before I give a tour. I informed them that there is evidence the gas chambers were used, however there is still debate today as to whether it was used on humans and to what extent. You on the other hand seem completely convinced that it was never used on people simply because a sign told you so. You can’t simply ignore the dozens of reports from survivors who claim to have removed dead bodies from the chambers because there was a sign that says they’re lying. You have to present both sides, which is what I did, and let the audience take from it what they will and do their own research to decide for themselves. You and the other bigots on here like sceptic need to do a little more research before you create these ridiculous posts.

    Comment by Malanga — April 23, 2010 @ 11:03 am

    • You say that you have done research and that you informed the students that there is “evidence” the gas chambers (plural) were used. The four gas chambers at the south end of the building were used to disinfect clothing. There has never been a sign saying that these four chambers were never used. There is plenty of evidence that these chambers were used to delouse clothing.

      What is the “evidence” that you found regarding the gas chamber that is disguised as a shower room? Evidence means something tangible such as an autopsy report or a forensic report. Have you found this kind of evidence? If so, could you give us some information about the evidence?

      You mentioned “dozens of reports from survivors who claim to have removed dead bodies from the chambers”(plural). Could you tell us the names of the survivors who made these “reports” and also tell us when and how these reports were made and for what purpose? No individual person was ever prosecuted for the crime of using a gas chamber at Dachau to kill people, so the reports could not have been made as affidavits or testimony for a trial. The reason that no one was ever tried for this crime is that all the autopsy reports failed to show that anyone died at Dachau from poison gas. The names and nationality of prisoners who were allegedly gassed were completely unknown, so it was not possible for the Allies to charge anyone with gassing prisoners.

      You say that you presented both sides to your students. What did you tell the students with regard to the reasons that some people think the gas chambers were not used to kill people?

      I have been to Dachau four times. On two of those trips, I visited the camp twice and on another trip, I visited the camp four times. I have spent a lot of time inside the Dachau gas chamber, photographing it three times. I have examined every inch of the room.

      I have read every non-fiction book that I can find about Dachau. I have communicated via e-mail with people who were there as soldiers and people who were there as prisoners. I don’t know what more research I could do.

      I based my blog post on my impression of what one of your students wrote. I do not think that this student was well informed about the Dachau gas chamber.

      Comment by furtherglory — April 23, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

  4. I have seen claim and also seen photos showing that the “disguised shower” disguise, even went to the extent of including lots of pipes and spigots above the shower room.

    Which would seem odd, of course, today there is no sign of any boiler room that these spigots connected up to.

    Incidentally, in Franz Blaha’s very first interview in May 1945, he stated that the crematorium was located behind the SS barracks. Does anyone know where that is?

    Comment by littlegreyrabbit — April 19, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

  5. AFAIK, the museum has revised its opinion on the operations of the gas chamber in the recent years. A newer work came out, sanctioned by the museum, which while not definatively proving gassings, said that such homicidal gassings are likely to have occurred. I forget the work off the top of my head, but have scans of the relevant chapter.

    The museum stands by those statements, or they did when I inquired.

    Comment by Wahrheit — April 19, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    • Yes, I know that the Dachau Museum has completely changed since 1997 and the books that they now sell at the memorial site are not the ones that I purchased in 1997. The history of Dachau, as told at the Museum, is no longer objective. I think that this is based on popular demand. Visitors who pay for a tour want to get their money’s worth. They don’t want to hear that the gas chambers were never used.

      Comment by furtherglory — April 19, 2010 @ 9:51 am

      • I think you should do a blog on who are the people who really run these Memorial sites that we still call “camps” even though they are nothing like the real camps were in the ’30s and ’40s. They are fake sites, for the most part … tourist sites, as you so correctly implied.

        A kind of reverse Disneyland.

        Comment by sceptic — April 19, 2010 @ 9:57 am

        • The memorial sites, such as Dachau and Buchenwald, are run by organizations that were originally set up by the Communist prisoners in the camps shortly before the camps were liberated. Immediately after the camps were liberated, the Communist committees ran the camps until the prisoners could be moved to Displaced Persons camps. These Committees, which consist mostly of non-Germans now tell the Museums what they can and cannot say about the camps. The German people have no control over their own history.

          Comment by furtherglory — April 19, 2010 @ 10:19 am

      • Popular demand indeed. My entire class was put in a bus and made visit the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp in 1986, when we were 12. We were disappointed to learn that there had been no gas chamber at Ravensbrück.

        By now, a gas chamber at Ravensbrück could be located — a tiny wooden hut disguised as “Alte Wäscherei” (old laundry room).

        I didn’t know about the typhus epidemic, and I actually did believe the stuff about soap, lampshades, paper weights, shrunken heads etc. up until a few months ago — and I did study history at Humboldt University in Berlin!

        How can you tell the war is not over yet?

        By the propaganda that never stopped.

        Comment by Rachel — April 29, 2010 @ 8:09 am


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