Reporting from Dachau, April 1945:
Seventy years ago, on April 30, 1945, my father-in-law, Sidney Olson, was the first American newsperson to enter Dachau, reporting for Time magazine.
Seventy years ago, on April 30, 1945, my father-in-law, Sidney Olson, was the first American newsperson to enter Dachau, reporting for Time magazine. I believe it’s worth sharing what he saw and wrote. Here are a few excerpts from his 13-page typewritten dispatch, much of which ran in the May 7, 1945 issue of Time. Parental guidance is recommended.
— Allen Clark
Perhaps the U.S. is satiated with horrors after the other prison camps; certainly there is a limit to how much horror the mind can absorb. But when all the other names of prison camps are forgotten, the name of Dachau will still be infamous….
It was the first great concentration camp that Rudolf Hess set up for Adolf Hitler, and its mere name was a whispered word of terror through all Germany from the earliest days of Nazi control. It was the largest of all to which German opponents of Nazism were sent. Here came the Social Democrats and, later, of all nations that fell into Hitler’s hands, the intellectuals, the journalists, the professors…
And here were concentrated the flower of Nazi sadists, the beasts who delighted in torture and death. This was the training school, the proving ground for Gestapo sadists who were promoted as the New Order spread into control of the concentration camps. But no one ever improved on the old model….
We waited outside the little town until the woodpecker noise of submachine guns had died down somewhat…. Beside the main highway into the camp there runs a spur line off the main Munich railroad. Here, a soldier stopped the two jeeps and said, ‘ Colonel, I think you better take a look at these boxcars.’ The cars were filled with dead men. Most of them were naked. On their bony, emaciated backs and rumps were whip marks. Most of the cars were open-top like American coal cars…. I counted 39 of them. The smell was very heavy…. I cannot estimate with any accuracy the number of dead, but I counted 53 in one car and 64 in another…. There were another 15 to 20 more freight cars farther along, but there were many loose SS snipers firing from houses only a few yards farther up the line, so I turned back….
We began to meet the liberated. Several hundred French, Yugoslavs, Italians and Poles were here frantically, hysterically happy…. They began to kiss us and there is nothing you can do when a bunch of hysterical, unshaven, lice-bitten, half-drunk typhus-infected men want to kiss you. Nothing at all. It is no good trying to explain that you are only a correspondent. A half-dozen of them were very proud: they had killed two German soldiers…. They threw the bodies down on a railroad track…. The Germans had been beaten to death….
In the crematory were two large furnaces, both cool to the touch. Before the two furnaces were hooks and pulleys…. Here, according to the Frenchmen, the SS often hanged men by the necks or thumbs or whatever their fancy dictated…. Behind one furnace on the walls were portions of two curious sadistic, pornographic murals. Each showed an SS officer riding a large white sow (repeat, sow, pig). This was in keeping with the SS doctrine that all opponents are swine. The figures had no heads but curiously the officers were drawn wearing large Windsor bow ties around their collars. In the next room was another great stack of bodies, piled about seven feet high, much like cordwood, all naked, all emaciated, and many with whip marks….
We were quite tired and tense. The fighting was still very close, sometimes only a few barracks away…. The eyes [of those we met] defy my powers of description without going off the deep end. They are the eyes of men who have lived in a super hell of horrors for many years and are now driven half crazy by the liberation they have prayed so hopelessly for. Again and again, in all languages, they called on God to witness their joy….
As far as you could see swarmed these men, cheering as hard as their feeble strength would permit…. They tore themselves getting through the barbed wire to touch us, to talk to us…. Some were merely mad with joy. Here were the men of all nations that Hitler’s agents had picked out as prime opponents of Nazism; here were the earliest Hitler haters….
Over the big concrete gate that stretches between two guardhouses hung the camp slogan of the SS: “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work will make you free), a lie that deceived no living soul in Dachau…. Three Belgians [told) me that last night the SS had killed two thousand inmates… with machine guns all that night and the early morning long, even women with babies in their arms….
We wanted to tour the inside of the camp to see these massacred bodies and to get an idea of the living conditions…. We found plenty of stacks of bodies, all right, but the quick came before the dead. The pitiful stacks of bodies – and we were told that hundreds had been thrown into the river when the Nazis got hurried last night – were like all those we had seen….
The barracks surround a great, bare, open exercise ground about the size of five big football fields side by side…. We went into one barrack after another. They are about the size that the American army builds to house 72 men or less. Each was jammed, and the Belgians and French whom we could understand said each barracks held at least 1,000 men. In one I will swear there were at least 1,000 and possibly 1,500, so many were sick and possibly dying of starvation and beatings that they lay or leaned or sat shoulder to shoulder, too weak to do more than grin glassily….
We had seen the final horror of Dachau: what it is for sick and dying and tortured men whose only hope is a quick death and who know that the one thing they could not expect was a quick death – what it is for such men to have to live like rats jammed together. One can only imagine what an especial torture this must have been to men of culture, taste, education and refinement to watch themselves necessarily growing more beastly every day and at last caring nothing for their lives.
We were all long since horribly sick of Dachau. I had seen too many dead men for even my Swedish stomach, but the live ones were even worse because so many were obviously mentally scared of life by what they have endured.
My father-in-law’s report ended with, “Today (April 30), incidentally, is my birthday.” It was a day he never forgot. Nor should we.