If you’ve seen our “Highlights from Germany and Austria” video, you know we had a fun time in Bavaria. Beer halls, mountains, castles, alpine luges, pretzels, rolling fields, fast highways, schnitzel, and lederhosen make Germany a very fun place to visit. On top of that, right next door is Poland where you get cheaper beer, perogi, and quaint little villages.
However, there is also the obvious darker history of the area that can’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored.
Some of the most moving tourist sights in Germany and Poland are the concentration camps that have been restored and preserved and memorials honoring those killed in the Holocaust. The museums that document and bring to life this horrific event can’t be missed. These places do their best to tell the tales of millions of people whose lives were destroyed.
While not the most uplifting places to visit, we made it a priority to go to several during our time in Europe. It is impossible to avoid seeing the effect that WWII had on that part of the world.
Dachau – Germany
Main Entrance - Dachau Concentration Camp 1945
Built on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory 16 km north of Munich, Dachau was the first regular concentration camp opened by the Nazi party. It was the prototype for all other camps built afterward. The camp was in use from 1933 to 1945 as an internment center of the Third Reich.
The purpose of the first camps was simply to concentrate a group of people who are in some way undesirable (i.e. Jews, gypsies, prisoners of war) in one place, where they can be watched by those who incarcerated them. The forced labor, beatings, murders, and mass extermination soon followed.
It is hard to know the exact number of people who spent time in the camp. The general estimate is 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries. About two-thirds were political prisoners and nearly one-third were Jews. Many died in the camps due to malnutrition and disease as well as suicide.
The historic site is free to the public and pretty crowded (especially with large school groups). It is also very spruced up. It was used after the war until 1960 as an interment camp and the site of the Dachau trials, so much of the original construction is not in tact. The audio tour is very reasonably priced (only a few Euro) or you can hire a guide. The site consists of a central building (now housing a museum), reconstructed barracks, the camp crematorium, and a gas chamber that, thankfully, was never used. (Although, it is still quite chilling to stand in the “shower” room and see the holes in the ceiling where Zyklon B was planned to be dropped in.) There are several memorials and works of art on the grounds as well.
It is a sobering place, however, some of the “feel” is lost because of the remodeling. All of the statues, memorials, and new construction detract from the “realness”. It is hard to put yourself in the place of people who actually walked there during the war. But, it is worth a visit if you are in Munich.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – Berlin
This controversial memorial in Berlin was created by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. The expansive grounds are filled with 2,711 concrete slabs of varying heights. The slabs gradually get taller and taller as you enter the memorial. According to the creators, the site is “designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” I enjoyed the memorial quite a bit, especially the underground museum (also free of charge). Some of the exhibits there are quite moving.
However, I think the symbolism is lost on many of the people passing through. Kids are running and playing hide and seek while squealing, guards are constantly reprimanding people from climbing on the columns (including us), and the whole place has more of a playground feel when large groups of students come barreling through. As a piece of art, though, it is beautiful and quite an appropriate memorial.
Jewish Museum – Berlin
The original Jewish History Museum in Berlin was founded in 1933 and shut down by the Nazi party in 1938. It was revived in 1978 and the new modern section was completed in 1999. The new section is the creation of architect Daniel Libeskind and was one of the first buildings designed after the reunification. The museum is massive and filled with not only Holocaust information and memorials, but a history of the Jewish people, culture, and lives.
The new building can only be accessed through an underground tunnel. The entrance and architecture are all very symbolic. The zig-zag of the tunnel symbolizes a broken Star of David. The Holocaust Tower is an empty silo 79 feet tall. The room isn’t heated or cooled and contains only one tiny window at the top of the tower. A guide essentially locks small groups of people in the room for a short amount of time. You stand in silence, taking in the empty, cold space.
The rest of the museum is much more conventional and chronologically follows the story of the Jewish people. We didn’t realize how massive the museum was, so we didn’t get to spend as much time there as we would have liked. You can easily take 3 hours. There is a lot of great information as well as some fun interactive exhibits.
Auschwitz – Poland
The pinnacle for “sight-seeing” during our time in Poland was Auschwitz. Unlike Dachau, this place has been preserved to almost exactly the way it was during the war. The site consists of two camps: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The first camp consists of 16 buildings and was used for administrative purposes and a prison camp. The first prisoners were brought there in 1940. It housed not only Jews, but also Jewish supporters, prisoners of war, and any other group of people the Nazis found to be a menace to society. As you walk through the camp there are signs describing daily life and operations of the camp as well as some sites were specific atrocities took place.
Birkenau is reached by a free shuttle bus that leaves every half hour. This was the extermination camp. Much of this camp has been destroyed, but the main railroad entrance, several barracks, guard towers, and furnaces are still there. This was probably the most moving place we visited on the trip.
Small groups of tourists listened to their guides describe the process of herding huge groups directly from the trains and into the furnaces. We came across many people standing alone to the side and crying. Some were holding photos of family members. It was here where the reality of the Holocaust really hits home.
There are a ton of great artists and writers that attempt to realistically depict the hardship and genocide, but standing on the actual spot made it infinitelymore real than any film, book, or photo can.
We made it a priority to do this kind of sight-seeing on our journey. A backpacking trip shouldn’t be all boozing at hostel bars (just a little…). As backpackers, we try to gain some knowledge and history (no matter how dark) of the world we are traveling through.
These places are some of the most memorable on our trip and we’re very glad we chose to see these sights.
Have you had a similar experience? Leave a comment below and tell us!