Dachau—A Gruesome Symbol of Inhumanity
Wars can sometimes bring out the best in people—neighbors helping neighbors comes to mind. During World War II, there were many brave souls who risked their livelihoods and their lives to save individuals and families from certain and absolute harm. Those people provided pockets of sanity in an insane world. Many of us are familiar with Oskar Schindler’s story, Raoul Wallenberg’s, Miep Gies’s, and Corrie ten Boom’s. But there were thousands and thousands of others who dug deep, sometimes literally, offering hiding places and food and forged documents to those in desperate need while the war raged on. Even German businessman Albert Göring, younger brother of Nazi Hermann Göring, helped Jews and dissidents survive in Germany during the war.
But sadly, wars can also bring out the worst in people, and we certainly saw evidence of that during the Second World War and the years leading up to it. On the opposite end of the humanity spectrum described above was Dachau, the first concentration camp built by Nazi Germany. It opened on March 22, 1933, less than two months after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, and was in operation longer than any other in the vast system of Nazi concentration camps. Over the twelve years of its existence, more than ninety subcamps were established in the Dachau complex in Germany and Austria.
(When I learned about these subcamps, I couldn’t help but think about Camp Algona and its branch camps in Iowa, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota. Coincidently, one of Dachau’s subcamps was located in Ulm, Germany; one of Camp Algona’s branch camps was in New Ulm, Minnesota. Except for the barbed wire and armed guards, the similarities end there.)
Dachau concentration camp was located near the town of Dachau in the southern German state of Bavaria, just ten miles northwest of Munich (München) where Hitler’s Nazi Party had established its official headquarters. Originally, the prisoner population consisted of German nationals who were detained for political reasons. After Kristallnacht in November 1938 (the Night of Broken Glass—violent anti-Jewish demonstrations in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia), more than 10,000 male Jews were sent to Dachau. Eventually, the camp housed prisoners from every nation occupied by the Third Reich.
Deaths of prisoners began almost immediately. Officials from the Bavarian Justice Ministry were summoned to investigate and uncovered clear evidence of murder. Charges were brought against the camp’s SS (Schutzstaffel—Protective Echelon) commandant and two others, but the Bavarian State Prosecutor was reluctant to submit indictments to his superiors who were increasingly under SS influence. The evidence and indictments were locked away in a desk where they remained until they were discovered by the U.S. Army at the end of the war.
Originally, the prisoners at Dachau were forced to work at a nearby munitions factory, and they were also involved in construction work to expand the camp. (German POWs who were interned in camps in the United States during the war were not allowed to work in munitions factories because U.S. officials were concerned about the possibility of sabotage.) Also, since it was the Nazi’s first camp, Dachau was used as a training center for personnel assigned to other concentration camps.
Originally designed as a camp for male prisoners only, a women’s camp opened inside Dachau in August 1944. By then, conditions at the camp had deteriorated significantly. As Allied forces moved closer to Germany in the final months of the war, prisoners at camps near the eastern and western fronts were moved to more centrally located camps. Trains from the evacuated camps arrived at Dachau day and night, and already weakened prisoners faced typhus epidemics, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of food and water. The camp was continuously overcrowded, and more than 15,000 people (50% of the prison population) died there during the first four months of 1945.
In April 1945, as U. S. troops marched deeper and deeper into Bavaria, Dachau’s commandant suggested to Heinrich Himmler, who was responsible for the entire camp system, that the camp be turned over to the Allies. Himmler’s response: “No prisoners shall be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy alive.” (Himmler, who directed the killing of six million European Jews and other victims, committed suicide on May 23, 1945 while in British custody. There would be no war crimes trial for him.)
Fully aware of Germany’s imminent defeat, the remaining SS officers at Dachau concentration camp began destroying incriminating evidence, and by mid-April, they were evacuating as many prisoners as possible on foot, in trains, or in trucks. Over 10,000 were forced to leave the camp and many did not survive. Those too weak to be moved were left behind.
On April 28th, an International Red Cross representative negotiated an agreement with German officials to surrender the camp to U.S. troops. The next day, Lieutenant Colonel Felix Sparks of the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division led his battalion into the camp. At almost the same time, Brigadier General Henning Linden and members of his 222nd Infantry Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division entered the camp at a different location. General Linden accepted the formal surrender of the camp from German Lieutenant Heinrich Wicker. To this day, there is disagreement about which Division—the 42nd or the 45th—was the first to liberate Dachau. Nonetheless, more than 30,000 Jews and political prisoners were freed on April 29, 1945. Just after the liberation, American troops forced local citizens to enter the camp so they could witness the horrendous conditions and bury the dead. Many of those people were shocked and stunned, claiming no knowledge of the activities at the camp.
It is estimated that over 41,000 people died at Dachau between 1933 and 1945.
(There are five pages above.)
Thanks to the “References” listing near the end of the “Dachau concentration camp” Wikipedia page, I found this investigative report that was compiled by three sections of the Seventh U.S. Army in May 1945. The OSS Section (Office of Strategic Services) reported on the history, composition, and organization of the camp as well as the groupings of prisoners. The PWB Section (I believe it should be PWS for Performance Work Statement—I’m unable to find the meaning of PWB) described what they discovered in the camp and what they learned from their interviews with several townspeople in Dachau. The CIC (Counterintelligence Corps) Detachment Section reported on the April 29th liberation, life at the camp, experiments on prisoners, and executions. Also included in this section are excerpts of a diary kept by Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, a survivor who risked his life to document what he saw and heard and experienced from 1942 to 1945.
The detail in this seventy-two-page report is exceptional. There are photos, and some are disturbing. If you’d like to read the entire report, here’s the link:
In 2000, a new edition of this report, edited and expanded by Michael Wiley Perry, was published under the title Dachau Liberated: The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army. It contains the original report (including photographs and illustrations) plus additional edits and commentary by Perry and sketches created by U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Ted Mackechnie while he was at Dachau on April 30, 1945.
In early June 1991, Joe and I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. We had arrived in Munich by car the day before after spending a few days in Vienna and Salzburg. Not everyone who travels in that part of Germany chooses to visit Dachau, and I can understand why. It is a sobering experience to say the least. But I’m glad we made the effort.
After a twenty-minute train ride from the Munich Hauptbahnhof to the town of Dachau, we caught bus 722 and were dropped off at an unmarked entrance to the memorial. (As you would expect, there is no admission charge.) We followed several people in and were soon wandering the grounds where thousands and thousands walked and stumbled and fell and starved and suffered and died. Most of the original buildings were destroyed after the war, but we did get inside one (recreated) barracks building and the (original) crematorium which was located just outside the compound. The camp museum is in the main administration building (in the photo above, behind the sculpture by Yugoslav Nandor Glid). We had to hurry to get through it before it closed.
(To Honor the Dead, To Remind the Living)
In the 1960s, four religious memorials and a convent were built on the camp grounds: the Catholic Chapel, the Jewish Temple, the Protestant Church, the International Memorial, and the Carmelite Convent. Today, guided tours of the camp are available. I don’t remember seeing those during our visit in 1991.
We took only one photo (slide film back then) while we were there. Taking a lot of pictures just seemed wrong, somehow, in that quiet, peaceful space. We chose contemplation and prayers instead.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her (as yet unpublished) debut novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.