Photographing Dachau, the model for all the Nazi concentration camps

Dachau was the model for all of the concentration camps used by Hitler’s Nazis to murder more than 6 million Jews and others from 1933 to 1945.

My uncle, Joe Guthmann, was a Nazi war crimes trial prosecutor in Nuremberg after World War II. The United States Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) published a report on the atrocities found at the camp after it was liberated in April 1945. It was passed on to me. I have wanted — no, needed — to see Dachau for myself after reading it.

The Dachau Report from the CIC.


I took a train from Prague, Czech Republic, to Munich, then boarded the S2 train to Dachau. The 726 bus took me to the memorial. The bus was full. People of all ages from all over the world came to see this horror.

German high school students must take a class on 20th Century German History. While visits to concentration camps are not required, many classes do tour a nearby camp.

Dachau Memorial

I planned to spend the first hours photographing Dachau and return the next morning to see it in an earlier light. Then, I would have time to tour the museum in the main building. I see the world through my camera, which I carry most places. When I got off the bus, I saw this slab announcing the stop as the Dachau Concentration Memorial Site. My photography of this place of horror began.

This sign announces the Dachau Concentration Memorial Site to bus riders
The sign at the entry to the camp

I walked past the welcome center on my left onto an unpaved gravel path that prisoners walked leading them into what was likely the place they would die.

I wondered what I would see and remember in photographs. Other than my uncle, I have no personal connection to the camp. Yet I have been compelled to visit and photograph it.

The path is lined with trees and green foliage. Through the weeds and trees, there was a fence, and behind it, the white buildings of the camp were barely visible.

Buildings behind trees and greenery on the pathway into the camp.

“Work Makes You Free”

Prisoners were herded into Dachau through the Jourhaus.

The Jourhaus was where prisoners entered Dachau
The Jourhaus.

Dachau was the model for all of the Nazi concentration camps. Every gate on every camp had the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free).

“Work Makes You Free.” The gate into Dachau.

Inside Dachau

Once I passed through the gate, I was on the parade grounds. Roll call of prisoners was taken many times every day. I was there in May. The weather was pleasant. I can only imagine the cold of winter there.

The parade grounds were bordered by green grass and trees. In front of the trees are the only barracks that have been left standing.

The remaining barrack buildings in front of a line of trees in the camp
The remaining barrack buildings are in front of a line of trees in the camp.

Guard towers

Concentration camp inmates were surrounded by fencing and guard towers. The towers are a stark reminder of the impossibility of escape.

A fence and guard tower on the side of the parade grounds in Dachau
A barbed wire fence and a guard tower.

The prison buildings

Originally, Dachau was built to hold political prisoners. During World War II important prisoners were kept separate from the camp’s population.

The prison building at Dachau.
Dachau’s prison.
A cell door inside Dachau's prison.
A prisoner cell door.

Only foundations remain

A guard tower overlooking the foundations of the barracks.
A guard tower overlooks the foundations of some of the barracks. One of the remaining buildings is on the far right.

Today, Dachau only has two prisoner barracks remaining. They are open for visitors to walk through. The rest have been torn down. Their foundations stand as silent markers to the many who died during the camp’s existence from 1933 until it was liberated in 1945.

Photographer Lee Miller was with the 42nd and 45th U.S. Army Infantry when it liberated 32,000 prisoners still in the camp.

The experience of my visit is still profound. Although Dachau is (and was) surrounded by green trees and lawns, I feel that black and white best tells the story of the place.

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