In late April 1945, two weeks before the Nazi Army surrendered unconditionally, officially ending the European phase of World War II, American soldiers of two Divisions of the 7th Army liberated the Concentration Camp at Dachau, just 10 miles from Munich.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces visited the camp within days of its liberation. What he saw sickened him. Although the city officials and citizens claimed that they had no knowledge of what went on at the camp, Eisenhower demanded that the Bergermeister, other city officials, and leading citizens of Dachau should visit the camp and see for themselves the atrocities that had been done to the prisoners by their Nazi captors. (After his visit to the Camp the Dachau Bergermeister went home and shot himself.) At the same time General Eisenhower set up a process enabling GIs in the area to tour the Camp. Said Ike, "I want people to see what has happened here because it is a certainty that some day someone is going to claim that this never happened and I want as many witnesses as possible to know just what went on here!" Sure enough, today we have groups denying that Dachau and other evidences of the Holocaust ever happened.
McCook's Lyle Wilcox, of Gen. Patton's 3rd Army, was not a part of the unit that liberated the camp. Yet, only days after the liberation Lyle visited the camp, and his memories of that visit, coupled with the stories that were told to him by a fellow soldier who had liberated the camp, have produced an indelible picture of the atrocities in his mind that are as vivid to him today as they were those 65 years ago.
Dachau was the first of the notorious Nazi concentration camps. It was begun in 1934 by converting an old munitions factory to a prison to hold German citizens who had offended Hitler's new regime. In those early days of the 3rd Reich it did not take much to offend the Nazis. Even mild protestors to the Hitler regime were imprisoned, and the existing German prisons were quickly filled up, necessitating more prisons. Hitler had the idea that he and his Nazis could make the German people into a "Master Race." German citizens who were handicapped, either physically or mentally, were rounded up and put into prisons, and most never saw freedom again -- lest they contaminate the "Pure Aryan Gene Pool". It was not until later that Dachau and other prisons took on their role as Concentration Camps, geared mainly to "solve" the Jewish problem for Hitler, leading to the "Final Solution" -- the Nazi term for the genocide of the Jews -- Holocaust.
When the Dachau Prison Camp first opened in 1933 there were some 1,200 prisoners, German dissidents, Communists, homosexuals, clergy from many denominations, Jewish lawyers and doctors. By the time Dachau was liberated in 1945 more than 250,000 prisoners had been registered. Killing of prisoners started from the first, and it will never be known just how many people were put to death at Dachau. When Eisenhower issued his announcement of the liberation of Dachau he reported that 32,000 prisoners had been freed. 300 Nazi guards had been "neutralized".
Some of the liberating soldiers were so incensed by what they saw that they turned their rifles on the SS guards, or turned their backs when the prisoners attacked their former captors, resulting in what was called the "Dachau Massacre." There were official investigations about the "Massacre," but in the end no one was arrested.
The conditions at the camp were deplorable. 32,000 prisoners crowded into a prison designed to house 1,200. 1,600 persons in each of 20 barracks -- each designed to hold 200. Double deck bunks, with four persons to each bunk. Many of the prisoners were sick and weak from starvation and disease by the time they arrived at Dachau and they died in large numbers each day, keeping six crematoriums busy. Other dissidents were lined up against the concrete walls and shot. A shallow ditch in front of the wall was designed to soak up the blood from the executions.
One of the sights that early visitors to the liberated camp saw was a mound of shoes, 10' in height, which had been taken from deceased victims. There were literally buckets of gold fillings forcibly extracted from the prisoners' teeth. Lyle describes a lamp shade, made from the tattooed skin of one of the prisoners, which was used by one of the SS officers as a reading light in his bedroom.
Medical tests were carried out at Dachau, using the prisoners as guinea pigs -- experiments of high-altitude, and freezing, malaria and tuberculosis. At Dachau there were tests to see if sea water could be drinkable. Many inmates who were forced into these experiments died horrible deaths. Later, the Nuremberg Military Tribunal determined that the medical experiments served only as ideological objectives for the Nazi regime. None of the experiments served any scientific value at all.
Today there is a first class museum at Dachau, where scholars can do research on Hitler's rise to power, the war in Europe, and the Nazi drive to eliminate the Jews from Europe. Visitors can follow the Nazi/Jewish story through a series of life-sized black and white photographs. One problem that the Museum directors have is that Jewish visitors, who had family members at Dachau, tend to scratch out Hitler's face in the photographs, which must be replaced frequently.
Fortunately, there are still men who saw the results of Hitler's directives at Dachau first hand and are doing their part to keep that bit of history in tact. Also, in keeping with Gen. Eisenhower's admonition that we need to remember what happened at Dachau, there is a large sign over the main gate to the camp, which reads, "Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it."
"The Dachau Concentration Camp," from "The History Place"
Conversations with Lyle Wilcox