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NEVER FORGET
VISIONS OF THE NAZI CAMPS


Dachau

   
           

Concentration Camp Dachau

Below you can see photographs of some of the Dachau concentration camp.

Photographs courtesy of the USHMM.

 

Dachau concentration
camp was the first Nazi concentration camp opened in Germany, located on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory near the medieval town of Dachau, about sixteen kilometers northwest of Munich in the state of Bavaria which is
in southern Germany.

Survivors congregate on a road of the Dachau concentration camp flanked by barracks on either side, cir Apr 1945.

Survivors congregate on a road of the Dachau concentration
camp flanked by barracks on either side, cir Apr 1945.
 

Opened in March 1933, Dachau served as a prototype and model for the other Nazi concentration camps that followed.
 

     
A watch tower in the Dachau concentration camp, Apr-May 1945.

A watch tower in the Dachau concentration camp,
Apr-May 1945.

A section of the Dachau concentration camp, May-Jun 1945.

A section of the Dachau concentration camp,
May-Jun 1945.

 

View of the crematorium building at the Dachau concentration camp. This photograph was taken after the liberation of the camp. After Apr 29, 1945.

View of the crematorium building at the Dachau concentration camp. This photograph was taken after the liberation of the camp. After Apr 29, 1945.

     

In total, over 200,000 prisoners from more than thirty countries were housed in Dachau of whom two-thirds were political prisoners and nearly one-third were Jews.

25,613 prisoners are believed to have died in the camp and almost another 10,000 in its subcamps, primarily from disease, malnutrition and suicide.

Survivors stand behind the barbed wire fence in Dachau, Apr-May 1945. Courtesy of the USHMM and NARA II.

Survivors stand behind the barbed wire fence in Dachau,
Apr-May 1945. Courtesy of the USHMM and NARA II.
 

 

In early 1945, there was a
typhus epidemic in the camp followed by an evacuation,
in which large numbers of
the weaker prisoners died.

 

 

 

"Death on the March"

From "Defy the Darkness: A Tale of Courage in the Shadow of Mengele"
by Joe Rosenblum with David Kohn, Praeger Publishers, 2001.


Dachau was an impressive sight, with a six-foot fence of wood and concertina wire around it. I had been through a lot of camps by now, but I never expected Dachau to be the last one. It was almost as notorious as Birkenau.

"The war is closing in on the Germans. We're going to be gassed. They'll want their revenge," I whispered to Hana as we marched toward the mouth of the camp.

The weather was chilly, about thirty-five degrees, and that seemed fitting. The other prisoners murmured among themselves the thoughts I had just expressed.

"The war's coming to an end. They want to get rid of us. They just need a crematorium and a big space to bury us," one of the men in front of me said. "They just want to do it in their usual way: neat and orderly."

When we marched into Dachau, we were all shocked. Instead of being the usual model of Aryan organization, the entire camp was in disarray. Thousands of other prisoners had been taken in before us. They were wandering around aimlessly, or sitting in small ragged clusters.

We arrived late in the afternoon. Like everyone else, we didn't know where to go or what to do. Thousands of prisoners came marching in even after our group arrived. Dachau's satellite camps were being emptied, and people were running around trying to figure out what to do. The first order of business was finding a place to sleep. When we pounded on the barracks doors, nobody let us in. The prisoners who had arrived in time to grab a bunk weren't about to surrender theirs.

Prisoners coming in after we did had the same problems. They had been marching for several days with no food or water, then just let loose. It was like never-ending herds of cattle being led into the slaughterhouse holding pens.

There was one improvement in our situation. The Germans had cleaned out the clothing warehouses and dumped all the garments near the mouth of the camp. Through the years that Dachau had been open, tens of thousands of prisoners had gone through and left behind mountains of clothing.

The bundles were neatly packed and reinforced with wire or rope, a typical German method. The piles were stacked in several ten-foot-high lumpy mounds. We welcomed a chance to change into anything else. The clothing we'd been wearing had rotted away from the rain, the beatings, our sweat, and the abrasions of the cement bags. What remained was simply cloth strips held together by threads, with thin ribbons of our flesh showing through.
The piles kept dwindling as people stole clothing from them after dark. After night cloaked our own efforts, Frank, I, and many others dove toward the piles and pulled out jackets, sweaters, long-sleeved shirts, whatever we could find. There was so much clothing, we almost looked like little kids playing in the grownups' closet. After grabbing new clothing, Frank and I and several other prisoners slept on the ground in the center of camp, bundling together so our body heat kept us warm.

Prisoners were still dying. The Germans continued to stack corpses neatly right outside the barracks. Most of the bodies were gaunt-faced and even a little bloated, typical signs of starvation. Nobody was committing suicide, however.

"Maybe a miracle will happen. Maybe the Germans will give up before we die. Maybe we can survive," I preached at people.

What gave us the most hope was feeling the bombing tremors at night, and, deliciously, sometimes even during the day. Hearing those bombs explode was almost like listening to a lullaby.

Conditions were wretched. Those prisoners who had previously been in the camp had their routine and their bunks. Those of us not so fortunate slept outside. It was April, but the cold had yet to leave this part of Germany and the rain hit like ice pellets.

The disarray worsened. We were running wild. We didn't know where to go, what to do, or how to eat. We had to scrounge all over the camp, but very few of us punched each other over scraps. Most of us were old-timers and knew better than to waste precious energy fighting.

All of us looked around, and we were unsettled.

"What are they going to do with us, Joe?" Frank asked, a despairing look I hadn't seen before settling on his face. "There are so many of us, it would take them weeks just to gas us."

I just shook my head. I had no idea.

The Germans seemed as confused as we were. Every couple of hours the air raid sirens would shriek, and the Germans would run for cover. We saw them jump into cars and trucks. In a chorus of tire squeals and dust clouds, they'd head for somewhere else, only to return when the all-clear signal sounded. We were too weak to escape. This kind of disarray was proof that their discipline had broken down.

To me, this was just another camp. We were strangers here. If they had wanted to keep us working, they would have kept us in the small camps. Even though I had been there only a few days, the place was stuffed with so many people, I didn't think they could squeeze in a pin, let alone another human body.
 
We were all down to skeleton and flesh. Every part of my ribs showed through my skin. I saw in a pane of glass that my eyes had dulled. I was worried. I knew I had to get food and shelter or I would die.

Things began to change quickly on our last days in Dachau. The public address system, long silent, suddenly crackled. Human breath exploded into the microphone, as someone blew into it to make sure it worked.

"We're going to hand our cans of meat," the tinny, anonymous voice said in German. "Line up just inside the gate."
Suddenly the thousands of listless bodies erupted into action and swarmed to the designated area. Fearful the Germans would run our of food, prisoners pushed and shoved to get a place in line, but only a little. Nobody had the strength to do more.

Frank and I were almost the first to get our tins, because we deliberately stayed close to the gate. In my experience, that was where the Germans handed things out. After we got our meat, Frank and I walked a distance away. I leaned over and whispered in his ear.

I've got an idea. Everything's a mess. Let's change clothes so they won't recognize us and get another can of meat apiece. We'll go separately."

Frank nodded, and I handed my can to him. Letting someone else hold your food was the ultimate sign of trust in these circumstances. I took off my sweater and Frank wrapped the cans in it. I went through the line. The cans were in big boxes next to the guardhouse. The Germans never looked us in the face, so when one of the guards noted my presence, he just handed me another can, and waved me on. I walked back toward Frank.

"It's your turn," I whispered.

Frank handed me the cans and went back in line to be handed his second portion. It took a few hours, but he got it. Then he returned, and we ran into a shadowed corner behind some German vehicles. We peeled back the top on one of the cans, and the smell almost made our stomachs cramp, it was so good.

We ate the horsemeat immediately. We used our whole hands and stuffed it into our faces. Our faces were smeared with fat after we were through, but we were too hungry to care. Besides, having the meat was dangerous because somebody might grab it from us. At least it now was safe in our stomachs.

After tearing through the first can, we slept on top of the other three tins so they wouldn't be stolen. Before dark the next day, we went off in a corner again and ate a second can. Again, we slept on top of the remainder.

The next day I turned to Frank and said, "We have to eat the rest of this meat. If we don't, somebody will steal it from us. This way, we'll make sure we've used it ourselves."

We did.

We didn't know what was going to happen, and I was pretty sure the Germans didn't know, either. The day after we finished our last two cans, the public address system again burst out an order: "Line up. Line up," and that was it. Nothing else. Not even a good-bye.

We started marching in midmorning in a single column several miles long.

The first couple of days we made good time, though we had no idea where we were going.

I looked around. We were marching briskly, considering our malnourished condition. I almost laughed at the guards. They were all in their fifties. Though they all wore uniforms, they clearly were not the pick of German manhood. The gray hair, pot bellies, and slouching almost made me wish for Birkenau. At least there the Germans had trim and toned bodies, and they commanded respect. If my own situation hadn't been so desperate, I would have pitied the guards.

However, they still had rifles. They also had backpacks with a spare shirt and pants in them. Two days after the march began, seven wagons materialized, confiscated from nearby families. The wagons were supposed to be drawn by horses, but I knew from my time in the Leichenkommandos what would happen. The Germans grabbed a dozen prisoners and thrust them toward the wagons. "Let's go. Let's move," the guards ordered, then threw their backpacks into the wagons.

There was a rope in the middle of the space where the horses usually were, and the men were positioned in equal numbers on each side of the rope. A couple more were lined up across the back of the wagon to push. Those prisoners peeked into the wagons; that is how we came to know that each of the seven held the guards' personal belongings, such as shoes, underwear, razor blades, a shaving kit.

"Pull," one of the guards commanded those prisoners in front of the wagon, and they did.
 
We kept marching, with no food, no water, for several more days. Men were dropping by the hundreds near the side of the road in pitiful lumps, there to be shot whenever a German guard took the time to bother.

Those prisoners who pulled the wagons were exhausted quickly, and that condition could be deadly. I figured out that if we got up while the others were still asleep and moved away from the wagons, the Germans wouldn't pick us for wagon duty.

Several days later, we began to understand where we were headed. We could see distant mountains, and we knew we were aiming for the Swiss border. We couldn't figure out why they were taking us there. As we marched higher and higher, the air was thinning. The highway was a skinny fifteen to twenty feet wide. I looked over the edge and saw a long drop down. As we marched farther up the mountains, we started seeing snow patches, then more and more snow, with snow banks two feet high.

We were so weak we didn't know the difference between being sick and not being sick. We had to sleep in the snow with no blankets. More people were dying, either falling over in their tracks or not getting up the next day. Those who couldn't keep marching were hit in the back by a German rifle butt and ordered to keep moving. If that didn't work, they were left by the side of the road to be shot.

The war was right on top of us. All night long, while we were sprawled out on the snow, we could hear the heavy artillery's BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, and the rattle of rifle fire. I figured the Germans were retreating to Switzerland, but I couldn't imagine why they were taking us with them. Throughout our sleepless night, we could hear wagons and horses retreating, and bullets started whistling past our heads.

We were numb. We didn't know what to think or feel. We just couldn't figure out what they were going to do with us.

If they're going to kill us, let them do it now, I screamed in my mind.

The guards were tired. They were angry that they had to push us to keep moving and that we were so weak. They clubbed us constantly with their rifle butts.

The road we were on ran between two mountains. Germans were trying to retreat down the mountainside next to the eastern side of the road. The Americans and British were trying to advance along the mountain flanking the western side. Anyone on the highway itself was sandwiched between the two warring armies.

Sometimes at night a hot piece of shrapnel came slicing through, shearing off a head or an arm. The only sign would be a muffled scream. In the morning, the bodies of the dead were left where they fell. The injured were left to bleed to death.

We didn't know what would happen to us from one moment to the next, and we had no time or energy for pity or compassion. We were cold, wet, miserable, and tired. Hunger bored into our souls.

Almost all the shooting and bombing were at night. When we got up in the mornings, the guards instantly started smashing rifle butts into us, screaming, "Let's move," in German. The ones who couldn't move were left behind.

"I wish we had electric wires, so we could just throw ourselves on them," Frank muttered one day. I didn't argue. In fact, I felt so defeated, I was thinking the same thing.

We passed through farm villages every couple of miles. We saw chickens and pigs running around the yard making noises. Our stomachs made noises, too, as we dreamed of what kind of cooked dishes each of those animals could become.

We had to figure out how to feed ourselves in spite of the guards, or we would perish. I watched the guards and their movements. I also peered at the farmyards' chickens, and pigs, as well as the garbage left for them to eat.
That night, I told Frank I had a plan.

"Listen, if we're fast on our feet, we can feed ourselves while those German bastards aren't looking. All we need are a little coordination and some hand signals."

"Damn, Joe, nothing's been that easy since we ended up in these goddamned camps. As for food, the Germans would just as soon see us starve," Frank said.

Then, while darkness hid us, I told him my plan. 1'd noticed the guards marched backward for two to three minutes to keep an eye on prisoners behind them. Then they'd march face forward, eying prisoners in front of them.

"As soon as the guards have their backs turned toward us," I told Frank, "you or I can run off the road and into one of the barnyards. We'll scoop into our pockets whatever garbage has been left for the pigs or chickens."

Frank looked at me with wonder.

"But Joe. How do we know when to get back?"

"You got to figure the guards will go through a cycle of facing our group again before they turn the other way. Whichever of us is still marching will hold up his hand and pump it up and down twice when the guards have their backs turned again. Whoever is in the barnyard will run back into line. Then we'll share the food with our friends. Whoever was still marching that time will dive into the barnyard next time, using the same system."

The reason we could bring off this plan was that the marching slowed whenever we reached a village. That day, we marched through many villages, and we succeeded in grabbing food almost every time.
 
It took a certain timing. We only did it when we were marching, because the Germans would shoot us in a second if they saw us. We also looked closely to make sure nobody was standing outside the farmhouse. Frank and I were fast. We also shared the booty with the other marchers, who were too weak to do it themselves.

I also had a second plan for stealing food, this time from the German soldiers.

We were going to die anyway, so why not?

Trucks carried in the guards' food every day, dropping off sacks in the morning after breakfast. The food sacks were put into the back of every wagon holding the guards' possessions. Of course the Jews were pulling each wagon, and some were pushing from the back. The Germans now were marching us even during part of the night.
I stole a spoon and sharpened it on various rocks during the next few days.

During the day, we still foraged for food at the farmhouses. We were near the end of our strength. While we were marching, I filled Frank in on the rest of my plan.

"Frank, when it's dark, you and I will push one of the wagons. We'll slit the food sack with the spoon edge, eat the food, then throw the sack into a ditch so they won't be able to trace where it went. They won't be able to see what we're doing."

Frank smiled the biggest smile I had seen from him in months. It worked.

The first night we positioned ourselves so that we pushed one of the wagons at night. We knew which bag had the food because we could smell the salami. Frank slit the food bag, and we started eating as we pushed. We kept eating and eating. We slipped the rest of the food into our shirts and pants, then threw the bag away.

Later, after we'd stopped pushing and were lying down for the night, we shared our food with our friends.

"Where did you get this food?" they would ask, with a gasp.

"Don't ask questions. Just eat, eat, eat," we'd tell them. They grabbed the food and stuffed it into their faces.
The next night we felt bolder after having pulled off our little trick, so we slit open two food bags in a wagon. The line crookedly stretched out for eight or ten miles, so nobody was watching the wagons very closely.

As I tossed each bag into the ditch, I thought: Let the German bastards feel what it's like to go hungry. Let them feel their bodies get colder and colder because they can't fight off the chill. Let them feel wet and cold, just as we do and have for several years.

In the morning, when the guards went to get their food just before dawn, the sounds we heard were so funny we could barely keep our lips closed. Our stomachs ached from working so hard to contain our belly laughs. The guards ran from one wagon to another, looking for their food supplies. Of course we'd already eaten them. They screamed at each other: "Dumbkopf. Dumbkopf. You've forgotten which wagon you put the food in? Now we're not going to get anything to eat." The other guards shrugged and threw up their hands. We giggled, quietly.

Frank and I did this trick three times. We didn't want to overdo it. Meanwhile, the bombing was getting worse. At night we could hear "Kerwump, kerwump, kerwump," as the bombs landed and exploded. Every morning when I got up, I noticed the rapidly thinning ranks of the guards. They were deserting in droves.

We didn't have that luxury. We were getting rail-thin and so weak our marching line became increasingly strung out. Every morning, more people had died. With gusty winds, pellet-hard rain, and a thin coating of snow covering everything, we were miserable.

"They still don't know where they're taking us, so they just might shoot us all," I whispered to Frank.

Sometimes we slept by the side of the road, sometimes in the forest. It was too cold and wet to actually sleep, so we just shivered. When we got up in the morning, there were always hundreds of corpses sprawled there, mouths open. The Germans didn't have to shoot us. Hunger and exhaustion did the job for them.

We had started with about 120,000 people, and we were down to about 80,000. The line was stretching out even farther because people were slowing down, they were running out of strength. The weather was getting worse, with lots of rain mixed with snow. The remaining guards wielded their rifle butts mercilessly.

When I looked down at the rest of the marchers, some of them were so far behind they resembled pinpricks on the landscape. Many of us were still living. That isn't what the Germans wanted. I spoke what the others were thinking:
"Look, just because we have survived so far doesn't mean the Germans will keep us alive. The closer we get to Switzerland, the likelier it is they'll gun us all down as revenge for losing the war, then run across the border."
Everyone who heard me nodded his head. It was inconceivable that the Germans would let us live.

We had been on this march for nearly ten days. As bad as the days were, the nights were more fearful when we heard the Americans and French bombing and shooting. I knew who was bombing because I could hear the guards talking.

"We're surrounded. We don't know where we're going or what we're doing.
 
We don't know what the hell we're going to do with all these Jews. We just have to keep going toward the border," the guards said, never saying why.

The piercing whistle of heavy artillery over our heads now was close to nonstop at night.
 
"Let's press ourselves as close to the ground as possible in the ditches," I whispered to our group. "If you have to scoop out some snow so you can lie even flatter, then do it. It might save your life for another night."

After about the twelfth day, the killing got even worse. The Germans marched us to a place where a mountain stood next to a highway. The mountain was covered with snow, and the snow was piling up in thick, fluffy mounds, making passage almost impossible, so the retreating German army congregated where we were.

They had wagons drawn by huge Belgian horses and they were stopping there for the night. They had food, of course. We didn't see their wagons coming then, because this was evening. When the guards stopped us that night, they barked: "Lie low. Lie low. We're going to stay here." They didn't tell us why we were stopping and they didn't hold a meeting to ask our opinions.
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