Dachau – Wordless Experiences
by Rosemary Bell
“Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedom -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way” - Viktor Frankl, Mans Search for Meaning, Concentration camp survivor and Dachau prisoner.
Wednesday the first concentration camp with a capacity to hold 5,000 persons
is to be erected in the vicinity of Dachau.”
(Völkischer Beobachter, Tuesday, March 21, 1933)
I had my first exposure to the Holocaust during my undergraduate years at York College. Needing an additional history course, I choose Introduction to the Holocaust. Nothing more upbeat people asked? My answer was simple, I needed another history course and Wednesday night fit my schedule. So, every Wednesday night at the Jewish Center located on Union Turnpike I sat mesmerized by Jeffrey Gurock, who taught Introduction to the Holocaust. Mr. Gurock was working on his doctorate and was an adjunct faculty member. It turns out he was a great storyteller and the story he told was chilling. I was captivated. I even dragged my cousin Molly to class. Today, Dr. Gurock is Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University. He is the author or editor of thirteen books. I couldn’t understand then what was so enticing to me about this particular moment in history; I still can’t. Yet, when I became a history professor some twenty years later, one of the first courses I wanted to teach was the Holocaust. Today, I teach History 101, the Holocaust to students in the Honor’s Program at Skyline College, San Bruno, CA. Teaching this course encouraged me to request a sabbatical in the spring of 2006 so I could travel to Europe and visit concentration camps and other Holocaust sites.
On Monday, February 13th I left Paris for my nine-hour train ride to Munich. My sole purpose for traveling to Munich in the dead of winter was to visit Dachau. First, Munich in February is no picnic. It was very cold, dreary and icy. On the other hand, Munich is delightful and absolutely beautiful at any time of year. I arrived in the evening, had dinner and got ready for the next day. I was hoping to take the “Hitler Tour” and the following day visit Dachau. Don’t laugh; there is a “Hitler Tour”, which according to the visitor center is very popular particularly during the summer. Unfortunately, they didn’t operate during the winter months. Munich was the birthplace of the National Socialist Party and, not much different from other German cities after WWI, a hotbed of anti-Semitism. The infamous Beer Hall Putsch of November 8th, 1923 also helped put Munich on the map. The tour takes you to all of the important Nazi landmarks in Munich.
With the Hitler Tour being cancelled, I decided to visit Dachau on my own. You go to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in Munich, get a ticket on the S-Bahn, in the direction towards Petershausen which is about a twenty-minute train ride. From there you take the Bus # 726 to the Memorial Site. It cost about five euros and the ticket was good for a roundtrip. This day there were about fifteen others going to the memorial. I asked the driver, “Does this bus go to the camps?” “Ja,” he replied. I am sure he is tired, as are most of the people of Dachau, of that question. He was polite, didn’t roll his eyes, and within a few minutes dropped us off at the entrance.
The Germans called them Konzentrationslager; KL or KZ. The term concentration camp refers to a place where people are confined or detained under harsh conditions. They can be arrested without reason; they can be held without regard of legal rights. It was very cold and dreary. There was about one foot of snow on the ground. The weather offered a degree of discomfort that one would not feel if the sun was shining. Why? Well, in my mind everything looks better in the sunshine and I didn’t want my visit to be influenced by a lovely sunny day. I was relatively warmly dressed in a down coat, scarf, hat and Gore-Tex boots. The wind cut like a knife. It was hard for me to imagine how those at the camp felt dressed in their lightweight stripped clothes, with little on their feet except a pair of boots (not Gore-Tex I imagine) as the winds blew viciously across the grounds. I pride myself on my vivid imagination; however, I had a very hard time imagining what it must have been like living at Dachau.
It is really unfortunate that Dachau is synonymous with the concentration camp. According to the pamphlet handed out at the Memorial Site Museum, Dachau’s history dates back to the 9th century. It was, and still is, a charming little town. In the early days it was a market town where local farmers came to the cattle market. In the mid 1840’s, Dachau became an artists’ colony. By the mid 1870s, Dachau was the most famous artists’ colony in Germany and it is easy to see why. The surroundings are an artists’ dream. Dachau is located in Bavaria, a region in the southern part of Germany. The Bavarian Alps cut across the landscape, creating a mystical aura. More majestic than the Sierra Nevada’s or the American Rockies, the best comparison I came up with was the Canadian Rockies.
During the First World War, a huge munitions factory was built on the northeastern edge of Dachau. Thousands flocked to the town looking for work however, with the German loss at the end of the war, Dachau’s munitions factories were shut down. In fact, the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in 1919, prohibited the German’s from manufacturing war materials at all. A large number who came to work found themselves on the welfare lines even before the Great Depression hit in 1929. The people were hungry and looking for something to deliver them from their misery. The empty factory complex would prove to be the town’s redemption but the price would be gut wrenching. It was here in 1933, that Heinrich Himmler, the 33-year-old Munich Chief of Police and a member of the Nazi Party, choose the abandoned factories to be the site of the first concentration camp. It was to house political prisoners. The townsfolk were apprehensive, however, the camp was a godsend. The locals would provide the goods and services needed to support a prison system which was growing everyday. The camp opened its door on March 22, 1933 with approximately 200 prisoners. (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauScrapbook/overview.html)
Initially, the prisoners were members of the Communist and Social Democrat political parties. Some prisoners had sat in the Reichstag; they had been accused of plotting to overthrow Adolph Hitler who had just taken office as the German Chancellor on January 30th, 1933. The consensus of most historians is that the townsfolk knew what was going on behind the walls. Initially, I imagine that the locals considered themselves fortunate to have a government- sponsored institution in town. This would mean government jobs, financial support to keep the camp running efficiently, and a market for the local farmers and artisans. Yes, things were looking up for Dachau.
The Jourhous is the entrance and exit to the Camp. I understand this was not the original entrance to the Camp. The original entrance was large enough for trucks to pass through and had a rather large Nazi crest which featured an eagle with spreading wings and a swastika clutched in its talons. The iron gate which is what separates one from the outside world states, “Arbeit Macht Frei”- ‘Work will set you free” or “Work Brings Freedom”. I was puzzled by this; I asked myself “free from what”? Naturally, I needed to find out what the purpose was behind this statement as other concentration camps also had some variation of this inscription, Sachensenhausen, Gross-Rosen, Theresienstadt, and the most infamous camp of all, Auschwitz. It was quite common in Germany to post inscriptions on the walls of institutions or large estates did during this time. The quote sounds a little like a quote out of John 8:32 in the Bible, “the truth shall set you free.” Perhaps “Arbeit Macht Frei” is a variation on this verse; this is only speculation on my part. It is a slogan, just like “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” or “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” These are political slogans that can convey policy or inspire a populace. First used by the Weimer Republic in 1928, Arbeit Macht Frei was to inspire the major public works programs initiated to undercut the effects of the mass unemployment in Germany at the time. The Nazi’s adopted it in 1933. I’m sure that anyone interned in these camps wondered what this meant for them; was it a sick joke or a sign of contempt for all those who entered the camps through those gates.
Two men who let their feelings known were Jura Soyfer and Herbert Zipper, both prisoners at Dachau. Soyfer, the son of a Jewish industrialist, devoted Marxist and writer of inflammatory articles against fascism suffered a case of mistaken identity in 1937. Picked up by the Nazi’s who thought he was the leader of the Austrian Community Party, he was transported to Dachau. There, he joined with Herbert Zipper and in 1938, after marching in and out of the gates for weeks for forced labor; they considered the irony of the slogan. Soyfer and Zipper composed The Dachaulied,
Barbed wire, loaded
with death is drawn around our world.
Above a sky without mercy sends frost and sunburn.
Far from us are all joys, far away our home, far away our wives,
When we march to work in silence thousands of us at the break of day.
But we have learned the motto of Dachau and it made us as hard as steel:
Be a man, mate, stay a man, mate, do a good job,
Get to it, mate, for work, work makes you free! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jura_Soyfer).
In February 1938, Sofyer was freed as part of an amnesty program for political prisoners. Like so many before him, he attempted to flee to Switzerland and was rearrested. Sent back to Dachau, in the autumn of 1938, he was transferred to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, near Weimer in Germany. His release was granted on February 16th, 1939. Ironically, he died a day after of tuberculosis.
Once you are through the gates, you come face to face with the roll-call area (Appellplatz). What struck me was the vastness of the place. This area was bleak; nothing gravel and dirt. Gravel was put down to keep the mud at bay. It appears the roll-call area was the pulse of the camp. Here is where prisoners were counted each morning and given their work details for the day. Here was where punishments were metered and carried out in public to humiliate and terrify the others. Here is where the prisoners could see the inscription on the roof that read, "There is one way to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, zeal, honesty, order, cleanliness, temperance, truth, sense of sacrifice and love for the Fatherland." As the number of prisoners grew, the roll-call procedure became more excruciating and time-consuming. In addition, dead prisoners had to be hauled out to the roll call area and included in the count. Those prisoners who assisted the prison guards were called “sergeants.” They were usually criminals and there is evidence that they could be brutal and unforgiving. The majority of the prisoners were terrified of them. In the summer roll-call began at 5:15 am. The prisoners were awake by 4 am, dressed and finished their breakfast of a watery soup and some bread. In the winter the prisoner’s day began with wake up at 5 am. They worked for twelve hours in factories outside of the camp compound.
SCHUBRAUM – SHUNT ROOM
This was the processing room for new prisoners. Basically, this is where you became a non-entity. Gone were your individual rights and autonomy. On one side of the room were the prisoners who were stripped naked, on the other side were the SS guards who worked there collecting all personal possessions, clothes, jewelry, and reading material. The last step in the processing procedure was the baths. With shaved heads, the prisoners were disinfected, washed down and issued their prison garb that consisted of stripped lightweight pajamas, a hat and shoes. For many a bath was welcomed after the weeks of transport. However, the price of a bath could be high; the arbitrary harassment and brutality by the guards, the hanging pole and whipping trestle was also set up here. In the beginning, prisoners bathed at least once per week, but as the years and the war dragged on, bathing became less and less frequent. In addition, the bath was the last station for those deemed “invalids” by the camp doctors; they were transported to the gas chambers at Hartheim castle, which was part of the vast Dachau complex.
What was life in the barracks like? According to prisoner accounts, everything, and I mean everything had to be spotless else there would be hell to pay. The wooden floors had to shine; the walls of the lockers had to be white and if there was a mark on them it usually meant an hour of pole hanging. It was at inspection that the guards could arbitrarily administer punishment and many of them relished the idea. I reflected that today, after a day’s work the majority of us retreat to our homes or our rooms, which can be as messy as we want. For the prisoners there was no retreat except into the caverns of their minds. Hearing the words "Sonderbehandlung" ("Special Treatment," a Nazi euphemism which signified "killing") was dreaded. A prisoner had to not only worry about the guards and “sergeants”, but the majority of them were so malnourished their immune systems could not fight off the typhus or tuberculosis epidemics that pervaded the camps.
WHO WERE THEY?
Once you were stripped of your personal identify, prisoners were issued badges. These badges, made primarily of inverted triangles were used to identify the reason the prisoner was there. Made of fabric, the badges were sewed on the jackets and shirts of the prisoners. Wearing the badge was mandatory. A thorough explanation of the badge system can be found at the following website. (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/Dachauscrapbook/badge.html).
"I want everyone to know that there were no nameless heroes, that they were people, who had their own names, faces, longings and hopes, and that therefore the pain also of the last of them was no smaller than that of the first, whose name has been preserved." (Julius Fucik, born 1903, executed by the Nazis in 1943)
As mentioned before, the first prisoners were those who opposed the policies of the Nazi regime, trade unionists, and communists. It didn’t matter if you were Christian or Jew; if you opposed Hitler and his policies you were considered an enemy of the state. Prisoners who were arrested and taken to Dachau were told: "Based on Article One of the Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State of 28 February 1933, you are taken into protective custody (Schutzhaft) in the interest of public security and order. Reason: suspicion of activities inimical to the State." (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/Text02.html). I was not aware that early on prisoners were released from Dachau after serving their time. (Museum Guidebook). This practice stopped when WWII began.
The next to be rounded up were the asocials (Asoziale). These were the people considered burdens to German society: vagrants, drunks, prostitutes, street brawlers, and the mentally ill. By 1935, members of the International Bible Students Association, the Jehovah Witnesses were targeted for their unwillingness to serve in the army or to salute Adolph Hitler, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other religious leaders who opposed the Nazis were interned in the camp. On November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass, over 10,000 Jews were herded up and sent to Dachau. (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauScrapbook/overview.html) These Jews were pressured to turn over their property and then leave the country. A majority of them did agree to leave the country within six months. Many wound up in Shanghai, the only place that didn’t require a visa. A majority of other countries including the United States refused to take them in. In 1938, Germany annexed Austria, and before long Austrians opposed to the Nazi began to show up in Dachau. That same year, Germany annexed the Sudetenland in the western part of Czechoslovakia. Down the road came the Czechs. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and World War II in Europe had begun. From that time on, as the Nazis rolled over countries in Europe, Nazi resisters from Poland, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France joined the others. The largest national group was the Poles, followed by prisoners from Soviet Russia. (Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site)
In June of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Non-Aggression Pact that Hitler signed with Stalin at the end of August 1939 unraveled. Hitler and his staff had already drawn up the “rules of engagement” for Soviet prisoners; they were not to be accorded the protection of the 1914 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of War Prisoners. Instead, it was the “Commissar’s Order for Operation Barbarossa”, issued on June 6, 1941, that would govern how Soviet prisoners were to be treated. This one page statement came right to the point. Any Soviet prisoner-of-war found to be a commissar, political or military official was to be dealt with swiftly and without trial. The Order went on to say, “…therefore, when they are picked up in battle or resistance, they are, as a matter of principle, to be finished immediately with a weapon.” (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/commissar.html).
The first few months of Operation Barbarossa saw the Germans quite successful. Hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were captured. Placed into “transit” camps, they were left to the elements, without medical care or provisions, where thousands died. Those who did not perish were executed by the Einsatzgruppen, the SS or the police. Each group interpreted the Commissar’s Order. They would decide who would be executed. As one can imagine, very few of these soldiers had any involvement in Soviet politics. By the fall of 1941, separate camps for prisoners-of-war were constructed within the German concentration camps. The physical condition of those Soviet prisoners who arrived at the camps including Dachau was awful. The majority of them were half-dead already from exhaustion or starvation. Thus, Mueller, the Chief of the Gestapo, wrote in a letter dated November 9, 1941:
"The commanders of the camps are complaining that from 5'% to 10'% of the Russians to be executed arrive in the camps dead or half dead. Thus the impression is created that this is, in fact, how the prisoner-of-war camps get rid of such prisoners. In particular, it has been determined that in marching, for example, from the train station to the camp, a not insignificant number of war prisoners collapse on the way, dead or half-dead from exhaustion. They have to be picked up by a vehicle following behind. One cannot prevent the German inhabitants from taking notice of these events . . "(http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/GuidebookText.html)
At Hebertshausen, not far from Dachau the Nazis built a shooting range for the SS. It is estimated that 4,000 Soviet prisoners were executed there between 1941 and 1945. (footnote). The estimation is just that; prisoners brought to Dachau for execution were never recorded in the camp files. Overall, existing sources estimate that 5.7 million Soviet military personnel became prisoners of the Nazis during WWII. As of January 1945, the German army reported that only about 930,000 Soviet POWs remained in German custody. A majority of the rest, approximately 3.3 million were dead by the end of the war. Second only to the Jews, Soviet prisoners of war were the largest group of victims of Nazi racial policy. (http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/)
THE CREMATORIUM-BARRACK X
I then drove the van back to the castle _and parked it there. Here it would be cleaned _of the excretions of the people _that had died in it. _Gas-van driver Walter Burmeister (http://weber.ucsd.edu/~lzamosc/chelm04.htm).
This was a tough one. When we arrived at the Crematorium the majority of the young students in the crowd were silent. Prior to that they were chatting on their cell phones and horsing around. While I do not understand German very well, it was clear that the custodian of the camp had to remind them to be reverent and behave in an adult manner. During my visit, a MediVac helicopter had to land on the large marching field to evacuate a young women who had collapsed going through the museum. There is something incredibly eerie about walking through a building where you know people were burned beyond recognition and their ashes intermingled with the others who had preceded them. There is something incredibly eerie about looking into the caverns of these tunnels; when one says the word oven, what you usually associate with that word is the baking of bread, not body burning. I was told that the old crematoria were too small and inefficient when the camp began to become overcrowded. By early 1943, a new crematoria including five gas chambers was constructed next to the old ovens. Four of the chambers were for fumigation; the lice problem at Dachau was epidemic. The other one was for homicidal purposes. From my research I have found no credible evidence that the gas chamber was used for murder. However, it was in the gas chamber room that prisoners who were too weak to work or ill were chosen and sent to Hartheim to be exterminated.
Harry W. Mazal, OBE, has written extensively on the crematoriums at Dachau. He points out that the ovens at Dachau were not crematoriums, which are designed to cremate one body at a time. He estimates it takes two hours to cremate one body and collect the ashes. Instead, he calls the ovens “incinerators”, that is the new corpses are continually fed into the ovens as the old ones are consumed. It is much more cost effective to incinerate seven or eight bodies at a time. As the number of the dead increased after 1943, the ovens ran continuously. Families could request an urn with the ashes; however, this was rarely done, as the family would first have to pay any expense. Towards the end of the war, the Nazis did not bother to fill the urns; the anonymous ashes were just buried in the ground near the crematorium.
Today, a Jewish monument and a Catholic cross mark the place were the graves of unknown victims are located. There is also a box of ashes of unknown victims in front of a wall marked with the inscription "Never Again.” At the end of the war, when supply lines were cut by Allied bombing, there was no fuel for cremation and the bodies were stacked outside on the ground. Michael Selzer wrote, regarding the crematorium at Dachau, "working at full speed, it could dispose of, at the most, 350 bodies a day." There have been many stories that concentration camp prisoners were put into the ovens alive, especially tiny babies. Selzer also wrote in his book "Deliverance Day," "And there is irrefutable evidence that others were thrown alive and conscious into the ovens...." (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/Text02.html).
There is tremendous controversy over whether the gas chamber created in the new building at Dachau was ever used for extermination. Holocaust deniers will say that people were not murdered at Dachau, in fact, they will claim that people were not gassed at Auschwitz or Majdanek which is located in Austria. This argument is beyond the scope of this narrative, however, if anyone is interested in this topic you will find a detailed analysis in http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/Text02.html.
You may wonder why I have gone into such detail on this particular issue. As mentioned earlier, one is not prepared to see a crematorium up close and personal, this is usually something you view on the TV or in a photograph. I wasn’t prepared. I think what affected me so was how robotical it all must have been for the soldiers performing the task. How did they do their jobs everyday knowing what they were doing was morally reprehensible? Perhaps this is just my opinion that what they were doing is morally reprehensible. Maybe they did not feel that way. To them, a job was a job.
The other issue that I had (have) difficulty with is how impersonal it all was; both for the prisoners and their guardians. The struggle the prisoners had to hold onto anything that would give them comfort, to not let them forget their families, friends, and values that made them who they were. Their writings were quite poignant; an example is below.
“In the camp I made a meaningful discovery: No power exists in the world that is capable of destroying humans as spiritual beings. Never had life provided so many reasons to write…the thoughts, the reflections, the impressions cried out to be written down…a scribbled note could mean a death sentence…I didn’t want to write about experiences in the camp…it was more important to express the thoughts and impressions that moved me…” (Unknown prisoner, Dachau Museum Memorial Site)
What impressed me the most about the writings on display in the museum from some of the prisoners was how intimate they were. There were letters to family members that were never sent. There were journal entries, again not about what happened in the camp that day, but more about how the events of the day affected them. And most of all, some of the writings conveyed a sense of intimacy with their fellow prisoners. I’m not talking sexual intimacy. The intimacy I’m speaking of is one of an intense connection, heart and soul to another prisoner. We tend to hear that men do not feel these kinds of feelings; these writings prove otherwise. Perhaps it was the dire situation they were all in, but something moved these ordinary men to bear their souls without shame.Those inmates who unable to work or sick were considered invalids and transported to Hartheim Castle near Linz. Early on the Castle served as an asylum for the insane. Initially, the inmates were told that those who fit this category were being transported to another camp where the work was less rigorous and that later they would be released. “Invalid transports” began leaving Dachau during the winter of ’41 and ’42. These late night transports aroused the suspicion of the inmates left behind when the transports returned with articles of clothing or other recognizable personal belongings from their friends. This conclusive evidence prompted them to desperately protect their fellow inmates who were ill from further “Invalid Transports.” They hid them when they could, or in some cases they took a real risk and tampered with the names on the transport list, replacing the names of the living with those who had already died. But the prisoners were powerless to stop the transports: 3,016 inmates of Dachau were sent in 1942 to their death at Hartheim castle. (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/GuidebookText.html).
"Rheinhardt has died tonight. I wanted to see him again, greet him one last time, and so I went looking for him, as he lay on the road in front of the death chamber - amongst the other one hundred and fifty dead of last night. He was barely recognizable; his face was swollen and contorted in desperation. His death is not only for us, his friends, a very hard blow and painful loss, [...] And perhaps the worst thing in the face of this death, the death of all our friends, is: we do not even have the time … to mourn them"(Nico Rost: Goethe in Dachau, p.234)
As mentioned above, I also wondered about the guards at Dachau. Did they feel any remorse? Any compassion? This is what I learned.
Theodor Eicke became commandant of Dachau in June, 1933. He had a spotty career as a law enforcement officer; however, he was known to the authorities for making bombs and participating in violent anti-Weimer demonstrations. When one reads his biography you get the impression that he was the Nazi’s dream come true. Eicke has been called a fanatical Nazi. He was a darling of Heinrich Himmler and was known as the “Father of the Concentration Camp System.” Eicke was described by others as brutal, evil, cruel and distrustful, and that was by other Nazis! A passionate national socialist, he had little use for anyone who did not blindly embrace Nazi ideology.
In training the
SS guards at Dachau, Eicke “demanded they put aside any sentimental notions
or sympathy for prisoners. The guards underwent rigorous military training.
Eicke instilled in the SS men a genuine hatred of all prisoners. They were expected
to witness and participate in acts of cruelty against the prisoners. Eicke convinced
them to treat all inmates as dangerous enemies of the state, telling them:
"There behind the barbed wire lurks the enemy and he watches everything you do. He will try to help himself by using all your weaknesses. Don't leave yourself open in any way. Show these enemies of the state your teeth. Anyone who shows even the smallest sign of compassion for the enemies of the state must disappear from our ranks. I can only use hard men who are determined to do anything. We have no use for weaklings." SS guards were beaten for the smallest infraction. Rudolf Höss, the kommandant of Auschwitz who was trained by Eicke, later commented that Eicke had "no human understanding for the prisoners as a whole" and that Eicke's SS guards developed "a hate, an antipathy against prisoners which is inconceivable to those outside." (http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/dach-early.htm)
Since Dachau was the training camp for the SS guards, it appears this type of indoctrination and blind obedience could be seen through the entire concentration camp system. Ever the optimist I’d like to think there were random acts of kindness.
As in all other Nazi camps, Dachau saw it share of medical experiments performed on prisoners. The museum had numerous examples of the type of experiments performed from infectious disease experiments to the testing of new medications or surgeries without the benefit of anesthesia.
In 1942, Heinrich Himmler requested that a malaria experimental station be opened at Dachau. He asked Dr. Claus Schilling, a well-known researcher in tropical medicine to infect prisoners with malaria in an attempt to discover new immunizations against the disease. The attacks of yellow fever were treated with experimental drugs and the progress of the illness was meticulously detailed.
Initially criminals were used as experimental subjects, but later Russians, Italians, and especially Polish clergyman were used. How many prisoners died from these malaria experiments isn’t known. Often, the prisoners returned to the barracks, however, many were physically weakened and thus fell victim to other diseases.
Dr. Siegmund Rascher, an SS Lieutenant played a key role in the "decompression or high altitude" experiments which were conducted at Dachau. The purpose of the experiments “was to examine the effect of sudden loss of pressure or lack of oxygen experienced by pilots when their planes were destroyed and they had to make parachute jumps at great heights. In a letter of May 15, 1942, to Himmler, the question was raised for the first time by Dr. Rascher as to whether professional criminals could be made available for such experimentation, since, in view of the danger of these experiments, no one would willingly make himself available.” (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/GuidebookText.html).
From mid-March to mid-May 1942 about 200 inmates, including political prisoners and Polish clergymen, were misused for these experiments. ((http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/GuidebookText.html. According to the testimony of Walter Neff, the prisoner nurse who was an eyewitness, out of 200 subjects a minimum of 70 to 80 died. (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/GuidebookText.html)
"Freezing" experiments were also carried out in late 1942. The object of these experiments was to determine how pilots who were shot down at sea and suffering from hypothermia, could be helped quickly and effectively. Dr. Holzlbhner, in conjunction with Dr. Rascher and Dr. Finke conducted the experiments. Inmates wearing pilot uniforms were placed for hours in basins filled with ice water; various methods of reheating were then tried. According to the testimony of witnesses, from a total of 360 to 400 subjects, 80 to 90 died. (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/GuidebookText.html).
The experiments proved inconclusive. Dr. Rascher said that more thorough and accurate experiments could be conducted at Auschwitz which was larger and where it was colder. Dr. Rascher wrote Himmler in February 1943 that the subjects scream out loud when they are freezing in Dachau, therefore, more thorough and accurate experiments could be conducted at Auschwitz which was larger and where it was colder.
In August 1944 a women's camp opened inside Dachau. The first shipment of women came from Auschwitz-Birkenau. There was an estimated 19 female SS guards at Dachau. By this time, the Nazi’s were moving prisoners from camp to camp as the Allied armies advanced. Some women were used as camp prostitutes for the prisoners who would have to pay two Deutschemarks which was the equivalent to one weeks wages. Prostitutes were off limits to Jews. The SS guards had their own brothel off the complex. Depending on which version of the liberation you read or believe, the numbers vary about how many women were actually imprisoned in Dachau. When the Dachau camp was liberated, there were 225 Jewish women there. That does not mean that other nationalities were not present. (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauScrapbook/DachauFAQ)
Possibly one of the most famous inmates at Dachau was the Protestant clergyman Reverend Martin Niemoller, one of the founders of the Protestant Confessional Church. Before his change of conscience, Niemoller was a very vocal anti-semite. Known for the famous “First they came for the Communists…” words of wisdom, Niemoller never made a secret of his anti-Jewish feelings. He was on record for preaching that the Jews had done great harm to Germany. He had a bitter distaste for the baptized Christians of Jewish origins. In 1935, he went out of his way to preach hatred against the Jews:
"What is the reason for [their] obvious punishment, which has lasted for thousands of years? Dear brethren, the reason is easily given: the Jews brought the Christ of God to the cross!" (The text of this sermon, in English, is found in Martin Niemöller, First Commandment, London, 1937, pp. 243-250. .... On the attitude of the Bekennende Kirche to the Jews see also the revealing essay by Uriel Tal, 'On Modern Lutheranism and the Jews,' in LBI Yearbook XXX (1985), pp. 203-213) .
Did Niemoller have a change of conscience? When the Nazi’s began to meddle in church affairs in 1935, Niemoller became an outspoken critic of the Hitler regime. He was accused of crimes against the state, not because he objected to the Nazi’s Jewish policies. By late 1935, Niemoller was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, then later to Dachau. He was released from Dachau on April 24th, a few days before the camp was liberated on April 29, 1945. Again, the question is whether Niemoller had a change of conscience over the atrocities against the Jews? The answer is mixed. In 1959, he wrote a letter to Alfred Wiener, a Jewish researcher who was looking into racism and war crimes committed by the Nazi regime. In this letter, Niemoller stated that he had never concealed his anti-Semitic past, however, he added that after eight years of imprisonment, he had a change of conscience and had become a completely different person.
Another prominent inmate was Bruno Bettlehiem, the child psychologist. Bettleheim was an Austrian Jew, who in the early 1930s traveled to Nazi state hospitals in Germany to begin his research of mental patients. Was he an accomplice in the infamous T-4 euthanasia programs which took place in Germany during the early 1930s? There does not seem to be reliable evidence that he was, however, there is a credibility issue with Bettleheim’s entire life and career as a psychologist. Bettleheim was interned in Buchenwald and Dachau from 1938 to 1939. Records show he was hired as the camp doctor to oversee the prisoner’s mental health. However, he did claim that he was imprisoned because he was a member of the anti-Nazi Resistance in Austria. The evidence here is against spotty, if non-existent according to Richard Pollak who has just completed a biography of Bettleheim. He purchased his freedom which was possible to do before the war began and arrived in the United States in 1939. Years later, Bettleheim became an ardent anti-Semite blaming the Jews themselves for their misfortune. (See Pollak’s book The Creation of Dr. B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim).
Two other prominent inmates were Chancellor of Austria, Kurt von Schuschnigg, and the former Jewish premier of France, Leon Blum.
In 1934, after the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss, Kurt von Schuschnigg became Austria’s federal chancellor. Austrian Nazi’s had assassinated Dollfuss for his ban of the Austrian Nazi Party. It was becoming clear that Adolph Hitler had Austria in his sights; and in February 1938, Hitler forced Schuschnigg to take the Austrian Nazi leader Arthur Seyss-Inquart into his cabinet. Hitler warned von Schuschnigg that Germany would protect the Germans living within Austria. On February 24th, 1938, Schuschnigg responded stating that Austria had reached the end of its patience, “we must call a halt and say: This far and no further.” The situation began spinning out of control and on March 13, 1938, the German Army invaded Austria forcing Schuschnigg to resign. He was imprisoned at Dachau and freed in 1945 by American troops.
Leon Blum had a double claim to fame. He was the first Jew and the first socialist to become Prime Minister of France from 1936 through 1938. He denounced the Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazi’s, and found himself on trial in 1942 for his anti-Nazi rhetoric. He was convicted of treason and wound up in Buchenwald until April 1945 when the Allies were approaching. He was then transferred to Dachau. During the last few weeks of the war he was ordered to be executed, however, local authorities disobeyed the order. His brother Rene was not so fortunate. He was murdered by the Germans at Auschwitz. Princess Sophie von Hohenberg, the only daughter of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophia and her two brothers were arrested in 1938 after the Anschluss. They were interned at Dachau for seven years. (http://www.answers.com/topic/dachau-concentration-camp).
"The day is over, this April 29 1945. I will celebrate it for the rest of my life as my second birthday, as the day that gifted me life anew."
(Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, Dachauer Tagebücher, S.499)
One of the first things you see when you enter the camp is a dedication plague to the 42 Airborne Division who were amongst the first to arrive at the camp. I wanted to delve more into what the experience must have been like. Again, recollections on what happened on April 29, 1945 are blurred. In 1986, the massacre of the Waffen-SS soldiers stationed at an army garrison akin to Dachau came to light. Colonel Howard A. Buechner, a medical officer with the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Division wrote a book entitled “”The Hour of the Avenger.” In it he reveals the deliberate murder of 520 Prisoners of War by American soldiers. The execution of the SS-Totenkopf guards who had surrendered to the Americans was also made public. Prior to this time, the documents concerning the Dachau massacre were marked as “secret.” According to Buechner, this was in violation of the Geneva Convention. He states that the SS garrison had been formally surrendered to the American liberators under a white flag of truce. "The Avenger" in the title of Buecher’s book was Jack Bushyhead a “full-blooded Cherokee” and a 1st Lt., who was the Executive Officer of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment. According to Buecher’s account, Bushyhead ordered the execution of the SS officers after he saw the camp and wanted to avenge the wrongs done to the prisoners. “However, Col. Buechner wrote that the massacre took place before 3 p.m. and other accounts of the events that day say that the 45th Division soldiers did not arrive at the gate into the prison enclosure until after 3 p.m.” (http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauScrapbook/DachauLiberation/LiberationDay4.html)
The major debate revolves around the execution of POWs on that fateful April day. In response to Buecher’s accounts, Lt. Col. Felix Sparks who was twenty-seven years old at the time wrote his own account of what happened that day. He said, there are“wild claims in various publications that most or all of the German prisoners captured at Dachau were executed. Nothing could be further from the truth, The total number of German guards killed at Dachau during that day most certainly did not exceed fifty, with thirty probably being a more accurate figure”.
You may ask why should we care as to whether or not Prisoners of War were executed that day. Here is a quote from Flint Whitlock, who wrote The Rock of Anzio, From Sicily to Dachau: A history of the U.S. 45th Infantry Division,
"The killing of unarmed POWs did not trouble many of the men in I company that day for to them the SS guards did not deserve the same protected status as enemy soldiers who have been captured after a valiant fight. To many of the men in I company, the SS were nothing more than wild, vicious animals whose role in this war was to starve, brutalize, torment, torture and murder helpless civilians."
A Red Cross Hospital was adjacent to the camp. Wounded Wehrmacht soldiers and some Waffen-SS were patients there. The Waffen-SS was an elite-fighting machine they had nothing to do with the Dachau concentration camp. However, eyewitnesses testified that the hospital was emptied and the patients lined up and shot. Guards who were in Tower B had hung white flags from the tower surrendering their weapons. They too were led from the tower and executed. Indeed, should this bother us? It probably depends on which side of the fence you sit on. I’ve never been in combat, I have not experienced the adrenaline rush, nor the “I better kill them before they kill me” mentality. Whom am I to say that after seeing trainloads of corpses sitting outside the Dachau camp, or the prisoners sitting in their squalor that I would not have done the same thing. Does killing people in cold blood make me a murderer, or a soldier just doing my duty? I pondered all this and more on my ride back to Munich.
I choose the title “Wordless Experiences” for my article. Simply put, no words can describe the experience of walking the paths of Dachau. One needs to see for themselves the hallowed ground. There was so much misery, yet so much hope, so much death, yet so much life within these walls. I questioned myself as to whether I would have had the fortitude of those men and women. Would I have been smart enough to figure out how to stay alive? Would I have taken a chance and helped another inmate or would I have succumbed to the “everyman for himself” mantra? Would I have risked my life to sneak an extra piece of bread to a fellow prisoner who was starving? Would I have been able to keep my mouth shut when I saw the injustices around me? I hope and pray that I will never have to find out.
For books and other resources on Dachau go to http://www.scrapbookpages.com/DachauMemorial/Books.html.
Dachau: Wordless Experiences, Copyright, October, 2006 by Rosemary Bell.