Memories of the Holocaust
Last month, NBC's televised four-part program, Holocaust, occasioned much comment and stirred up many memories. It was a bit unsettling to some of us, who had experienced, at first and second hand, some of the hardships of those disruptive war years in Europe to hear comments about exaggeration, media propaganda, and even disbelief about some of the events pictured.
On April 30, 1945, our old regiment, the 45th Division's 157th Infantry, captured the city of Munich and set up its command headquarters in the famous Hofbrauhaus, site of the "Beer Hall Putsch" where Hitler made his first bid for power in 1923. Only one day before, on the outskirts of Munich, the regiment had liberated 8,000 civilian prisoners from a concentration camp at Moosach, and then moved on to the notorious camp at Dachau. The regiment was under orders to disturb nothing in the camp so that the "international commissions" could investigate conditions there.
Although Heinrich Himmler and the German high command had ordered that all evidence of the Dachau activities be destroyed before abandoning the camp, the speed of the American advance was such that the SS camp officials had fled without completing their work. There were 32,000 starving internees in Dachau on the day of liberation; they represented 41 different national origins, including 1200 Germans, 600 Dutch, 1,000 Belgians, 700 Hungarians, 300 Austrians, 200 Spanish, 200 Greeks, 4,000 French, 2,000 Italians, 3,000 Slovenes, 1,600 Czechs, 9,000 Poles, 4,000 Russians, and 2,500 Jews. In addition, on the rail tracks leading into the camp were 40 open boxcars filled with dead bodies, abandoned by the camp keepers before they could be gotten to the crematoria or into the lime pits for burial. The fields alongside the tracks were also littered with dead, where some of the starved, using their last bit of strength, had climbed out of the cars, tottered a few steps, and collapsed. The scenes within the camp, the fetid, overcrowded barracks, the hospital where "patients" had been undergoing "experiments", the gas chambers, the anterooms of the furnace ovens where emaciated bodies were piled like stacked lumber to heights of 8 to 10 feet, were even more horrifying.
Many of the records kept at Dachau had been destroyed in the weeks before the camp was liberated, but enough of the meticulous card index system remained to give an indication of the extent of the operation. In the last four months (January to April, 1945), 14,700 "natural" deaths had been recorded. In five months between June and November 1944, 30,000 Jews had been brought in from other concentration camps for execution and disposal. In three months, January to March 1945, 5,000 "non-aliens" (Germans from foreign countries) had been executed. The sights and smells of Dachau were something that men of the 157th would never forget.
During the winter of 1945, while the 157th was fighting its way through Alsace, Worms, Darmstadt, Aschaffenberg, and Nuremberg to Munich, we had been moved out of the prison camp at Szubin in northern Poland on the long, forced, winter march to Stettin that eventually ended in Luckenwalde, south of Berlin. At the time the regiment was liberating Dachau, we had been hospitalized, first in a prison camp hospital near Luckenwalde, then in a German civilian hospital in Brandenburg, which, at war's end, was in the Russian zone of occupation.
From the time of our capture on the Anzio beachhead in February, 1944, we had experienced many long days of boxcar travel up through Italy and the Brenner Pass to a camp north of Munich at Moosburg; then again by boxcar, through Pilsen, Breslau, and Posen to Bromberg (Bydgoszcz); later to Sagan in Silesia and back, and finally by open coal car from Stettin to Berlin and Luckenwalde. On many occasions, in the rail yards or on sidings, we saw similar trainloads of human cattle, most packed far more densely than our own cars, some headed in our direction, some in the opposite. We were aware that there were concentration camps for civilian internees and, even before capture, we had freed one such camp during the combat in southern Italy. We knew a little of the conditions in such camps, and we had heard stories about some of the atrocities, but, as prisoners, we were much too preoccupied with our own miseries to think long about them. It was only on the march out of our camp in Poland that we became conscious of the chaos and complete disruption of a starved population wandering aimlessly, like us, in sub zero weather along the snow covered roads, some fleeing the Russians, some the Germans. A few of our fellow prisoners, left in the camp at Szubin, were freed by the Russians and trekked eastward into the rubble of Warsaw; some saw another notorious extermination camp, Treblinka, on the outskirts there, where the scenes at Dachau had been duplicated. It was the same elsewhere, Buchenwalde, Theresienstadt, Belsen, Mauthausen, and Auschwitz a civilization gone berserk.
Many of the men of the 157th Infantry whom we had first met in the spring of 1942, trained with in 1943, and fought with through Anzio and the Italian campaign in 1944, went on with the regiment into southern France and through Germany to the bitter end; many died along the way. Most of us who survived those years are now grandparents, and our memories of the war are still vivid. The NBC program, Holocaust, may have seemed overly brutal and exaggerated to generations, which have followed, but it should serve as a grisly reminder that it could (and possibly will) all happen again.
(c) "The Doctor's Lounge", The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, June 1978