April 20, 1985
You have asked me to set down in writing some of the things I remember about Dachau. It’s difficult. It was just about 40 years ago today that I was there and as a consequence of the time interval I can’t be absolutely certain as to the accuracy of that which I believe I saw and did.
Our division (the 42nd Infantry – about 15,000 men) was heading for the city of Munich, and as I recall we were going across a wide expanse of level land and over to the left I saw what appeared to be a large factory which was enclosed by a wall — to the best of my recollection this was my first view of Dachau although I didn’t know it at the time and we did not stop.
While crossing this level land we were overtaken by (what seemed to me like) hundreds of American tanks. I read somewhere later that this was the 20th Tank Corps and that they had been ordered to overtake us and enter Munich first. The dust, noise, and confusion was one thing I recall – for some reason or another I have a recollection of Munich being exactly 17 kilometers from Dachau. Whether this is the correct distance – or why I remember it as such is beyond my comprehension.
I don’t recall where I spent the night but I do remember being in Munich early the next day – strange – I found a book there about the 1936 Olympics and remember looking at Jesse Owens Picture. For some unknown reason me and several other guys in our company were loaded into the back of a truck and driven out of the city. We were taken to Dachau.
I don’t know how long we stayed there or what we were supposed to do there – but I do recall that we went back to Munich later that same night.
Now for Dachau – we saw nothing unusual from a distance – some smoke coming out of smokestacks – you couldn’t see inside the walls or whatever the enclosure was. We got out of the truck and walked toward a gate (wide enough for a vehicle).
Before we got to the gate we found a railroad siding with a bunch of box cars on it. Some of the doors to the box cars were open and as we got closer to them I saw that they were piled up with emaciated bodies – it seemed to me that they were laying on top of each other and piled up to a depth of 4 or 5 feet. As I walked toward the end of the train toward the gate I saw a dead German soldier and beside him a rifle that was broken in half. I recall supposing that someone had hit him so hard with the rifle that it had killed him and broken the rifle.
We went in the gate and there was some people inside – as the day went on more and more people came. I didn’t know who they were at the time but found out later that some of them were war correspondents – as you probably know from your journalism studies many of them traveled with front line troops.
Just inside the gate and to the right was a high wire enclosure – it was filled with big mean looking dogs who were barking like hell – this went on all the time I was there. I recall hoping that nobody turned them loose – this was before I saw all the other unthinkable things. I never ever saw any mention of those dogs in anything I ever read.
Immediately in front of me after entering the gate – and about 20 yards away was a moat with water in it about 4 or 5 feet wide – a dead soldier was laying face down in it. Just beyond the moat was a high fence – I’d guess it to be 8 or 10 feet high – I understood it was electrified. On the other side of the fence was a valley which was about 20 feet wide and 8 or 10 feet deep – on the other side of the valley were barracks and those locked up.
We did not talk to the prisoners and they did not talk to us – between usthere was a moat, an electrified fence and a steep up and down valley. We stared at them and they stared at us. It was as if they didn’t know what to do and neither did we.
On our side of the fence and to the right of where the dogs were – were the gas chambers and ovens where people were killed and then burned. There were stacks of bodies (all looked like skeletons) apparently prepared for burning.
There was a long walk (cement) and roadway (black-top) to the right of the ovens which ran along side the moat and fence that I mentioned before – it ran the entire length of the compound and I would guess it to be between 1/4 and 1/2 mile in length. Down toward the end of this I saw a big cart – the kind you used to see around railroad depots. It was filled with bread and was being taken in to the prisoners.
Why I should remember this I don’t know – but near this wagon of bread was a woman and a man who were dressed in civilian clothes rather than the striped uniforms that other prisoners wore. They seemed to be in much better health than all the others. Somebody told me that this couple was Kurt Von Schussnig and his wife – and that prior to becoming a prisoner he was the Chancellor of Austria. Whether this is true or not I would have no way of knowing – but this is what comes out of my not so good memory.
In retrospect I suppose we should have done someting immediately to ease the prisoners pain or to free them from their confinement – but on the other hand perhaps we were all too shocked by the gruesome discovery to be anything other than immobilized. The only people at that time who were not immobilized were a few prisoners who threw themselves into the fences I told you about earlier. I understand that shortly after I was there guards were established to prevent them from doing this – but neither myself, nor others with me did anything.
I’ve already told you about picking up the orange colored thermos bottle at Dachau – and discarding it a few days later – I wasn’t the only one who did this. I think all of us who were sent out to Dachau that day wanted to get it out of sight – and out of mind as quickly as we could. I don’t think any of us were successful despite the fact that to the best of my knowledge not a single person who was there with me ever discussed it with me – nor I with them. I even went so far as to not even mention it in my letters to your mother.
As I sit here and write this I am reminded of a monumental inconsistency. During the war as we traveled through German occupied territory it was common for us to encounter slave laborers in both cities and the countryside. We did the natural thing and released them – there was joy and celebration on both sides. I guess as I said before – Dachau was too much – all we were capable of doing was staring and being immobilized.
The Jewish people and all the rest of us should continue to try to encourage all of us to remember places like Dachau – despite my own constant push to repress that which is so horrible, I too would like to forget but I can’t quite cut it. Perhaps I should be more upbeat like Mr. Reagan.
Your asking me to do this has been helpful – it makes me feel more thankful for what is as opposed to what used to be and what was.
Warmest regards to you, and Frank, and the kids.
Love,Mom & Dad
P.S. You suggested taking a half-hour for this. It took about 4…
Holocaust revisionists and deniers claim that the “Survivors Recollections Are Unreliable.“
This statement used often by those who would deny proven historical facts, overlooks the Testimony of thousands of Soldiers: Americans, British, Russians, and others who Liberated hundreds of the gruesome Nazi concentration camps, all over Europe. Some of these Liberators literally fought and died while freeing thousands upon thousands of victims from the grasp of the Nazis. A “Liberator” by definition; is a military person who entered a Nazi concentration camp, within the first 24 hours of it’s seizure from Nazi control. In some cases SS guards resisted, and fought the Liberators. In most cases the cowardly SS had fled, knowing they faced an enemy committed to freeing the victims of Nazi terrorism.
Most Liberators feel uncomfortable discussing their role gaining entrance into the miserable prisons, where they usually discovered macabre conditions; many corpses scattered around the grounds, cadaverous inmates, terrified on the one hand, yet overjoyed to be free at last, on the other. Liberators find it difficult to describe the horrors they saw, as they entered these hells on earth. Many men who entered the Nazi camps, and freed the helpless inmates refuse to discuss the subject at all.
Forty years passed in the life of one such man. A Liberator named Glenn Edward Belcher, who wrote his daughter the following letter a few years before his death. Typically, Mr. Belcher had not told his wife about the letter to his daughter, but she wanted to know.