Ellen Ginsberg Simon

Holocaust Education: Quality Matters, Too

View from inside the Jewish Memorial at Dachau Concentration Camp outside of Munich, Germany. Photo taken by Ellen G. Simon
View from inside the Jewish Memorial at Dachau Concentration Camp. Photo taken by Ellen G. Simon.

On a recent work trip to Munich, I made a point of visiting Dachau over the weekend. If I ever find myself near a concentration camp, I feel morally compelled to visit as a tribute to its victims and to pay my respects to the dead. Several of my non-Jewish colleagues also wished to experience Dachau, and we booked a tour through a recognized company in the city.

The experience turned out to be educational in a completely unintended manner. I learned for the first time, undoubtedly naively, that concentration camp tour guides are capable of gross mischaracterization and miseducation that does a huge disservice to the cause for which they are employed.

I understood in advance that Dachau is different from the other camps. I had been to Dachau twenty years earlier, and I had studied Holocaust history extensively. I understood that its origins as the first real concentration camp of the Third Reich, a center for political prisoners and other “undesirables,” made it a more diverse camp in terms of population and purpose.

None of these differences from the mass murder-focused Polish camps excuses the gross miseducation to which my tour group was exposed.

Our tour guide began the morning by describing himself as “more of a historian than a tour guide” and trying to fan-girl our group by describing the many survivors, liberators, and perpetrators with whom he had met over the years. He then declared that, because of his wide exposure to all of these different people, “he was not there to provide an opinion, but just the facts.”

It was out of my mouth before I could stop myself: Is there an opinion to be had?!

His history degree must have been from the Trump Tour Guide School where “there are fine people on both sides.”

This was not a strong start, and the day only depreciated from that point. Here are a few highlights from the day’s ahistorical lessons:

Jewish families were kept together. 

When my kindly colleague innocently asked with respect to the barracks whether families were kept together, the tour guide said that Jewish and “Gypsy” (his word, not mine) families were kept together. He then explained that the Nazis had experimented with separating families, and the children had become hysterical. Out of ease, they kept families together to keep people calm.

Again, out of my mouth before I could exert muscle control were the words, “UNTIL THEY GOT HERE.”

I cannot stress enough how wide my eyes popped upon hearing the tour guide tell my well-intentioned colleague this insane inaccuracy. It’s a miracle a fly didn’t take up residence on my eyeball. One of the greatest tragedies of the Holocaust was the separation of families, the difficulty and often impossibility of finding each other after the war. We still read stories in the news about cousins and siblings who are finding each other again in their 80’s and 90’s. Most people who survived were the only family member to do so. They were forced to search for loved ones, only to learn they had been gassed or shot or died of disease or starvation or death marches or in any number of horrific ways.


Jews were not a major part of the camp.

Admittedly, the camp began as a place for political prisoners, a site to lock up and torture enemies of the Nazi regime. It is hard, though to ignore the fact that 11,000 Jews were sent to Dachau after Kristallnacht. Our guide managed to ignore it, though.

It was like pulling teeth for him to say the word Jew. From many of his statements, it became clear to me that he viewed the world through a Marxist lens, so I understand that he was likely more focused on the many communists who were murdered in Dachau. That was an equally heinous crime.

But any concentration camp guide who tries to minimize the centrality of Jews to the Holocaust and the Final Solution is doing a massive disservice to every individual who cycles through his or her tours.

Roughly 20 percent of Dachau’s victims were Jews. This is not an inconsequential number. Sure, some of them probably were political opponents of the state or communists, but let us be unequivocally clear:

They were there because they were Jews. Period.

There were Jewish women, Jewish children, even Jewish babies there. Those babies were not imprisoned for being enemies of the state or communist party members.

And by the end of the war, many of the inmates were survivors of death marches from eastern camps, driven ahead of the advancing Soviet army to internal, German camps. In short, Jews.

I imagine our tour guide wanted to convey the fact that Dachau was different from an Auschwitz, a Majdonek, or a Treblinka – not designed as a death factory based on race but a place where a multiplicity of people suffered and died. This aspect of his effort is commendable. But he seemed to physically struggle with saying the word “Jew” and including Jews in the narrative.

Minimizing the Jewish centrality of the Holocaust to people who very clearly knew next to nothing about it based on their questions (“Is this the only concentration camp?” or “Were families kept together?”) and may never learn anything else about the Holocaust again is an enormous missed educational opportunity and exceptionally misleading.

The SS Changed Tactics and Tried to Keep People Alive After 1941

I know it sounds like a sick joke, but I swear our tour guide argued this point. His expressed thesis to our group ran as follows: after the German invasion of Russia and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the SS realized that their days were numbered. With the German army mired in snow and the US now a party to the war, they knew defeat was inevitable. They therefore changed tactics and decided to try to keep as many inmates alive as possible to support the war effort. They wanted prisoners to live so they could be put to work in munitions factories as slave labor.

The front gate to Dachau Concentration Camp, which mockingly read “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Makes you Free.” Photo by Ellen G. Simon.

His reasoning? The camps were economically and not ideologically driven. Those who wanted to profit from the prisoners won out as leaders in the SS over the racially motivated murderers, according to Mr. Historian. As I mentioned, he had a rather Marxist perspective.

If my jaw hit the gravel, I would not be surprised. But but but…what about the Wannsee Conference in January of 1942?  The one where the SS hammered out the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question? What about the mass killings in the course of Operation Barbarossa as the Nazi Einsatzgruppen swept into Russia, rounding up and slaughtering Jews? The tens of thousands of Russian POWs murdered in Dachau after 1941? The fact that the Zyklon B gas was first experimented with in Dachau and from 1942 on honed into a perfect killing mechanism for millions? What about the millions upon millions systematically exterminated after 1941 when the killing machine revved up and was let loose, full throttle?

“Oh, that was in the death camps, not the concentration camps,” explained Mr. Historian. “People weren’t put to work in those camps.” Apparently, Dachau operated under an entirely different ideology than the rest of the Third Reich.

But there were factory complexes at Auschwitz-Birkenau, too, I pointed out. Prisoners were worked to death in those places, too. Does not all of this count toward the Final Solution?

“That was an exception. That was different.”

I cannot stress enough the level of irresponsible miseducation this particular discussion conveyed to our tour group. People left Dachau that day believing that killing during the Holocaust diminished after 1941. They did not know the difference between one camp or another. Again, for members of my tour group, this was their only experience with a camp, and likely their only first-hand experience with the Holocaust. They may never see another camp again. The disservice done to the victims whose ashes lie scattered on those cursed grounds makes my chest clench. The tour guide eviscerated the purpose of the day.


Unsurprisingly, the tour guide left early with most of the group and abandoned my little cohort to find our own way back to town. I spent much of that return journey attempting to disabuse my colleagues of the many falsehoods and inaccuracies to which they were exposed that day. One of my colleagues commented that, in the end, the guide gave a sanctimonious speech about how to avoid repeating the mistakes of history through the inclusion of certain social and political structures. He noted how the guide promised not to give his opinion at the beginning of the tour, but ended it with an entire speech conveying his opinion.

I agreed, but I felt compelled to add that he had been sprinkling his opinion into nearly everything he said all day long. The only way one would know that was if one already had a background in Holocaust history. His editorializing and fact-distortion, cascaded throughout, were unconscionable.

Concentration camp tour guides have a tremendous responsibility. It is they who must keep the knowledge of the Holocaust alive once we lose the last of the survivors. They will be the teachers. Most of the visitors I saw at Dachau that day were not Jewish. They likely did not grow up learning about the Holocaust, meeting survivors, reading first-hand accounts, and immersed in a post-WWII Jewish culture wracked with the trauma of these events.

This may be their only encounter with the history of the Holocaust. If so, it must be a profoundly impactful one. At the very least, it must be an accurate one.

About the Author
Ellen Ginsberg Simon is an attorney and compliance professional. She has an M.Phil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University and is also a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School.
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