As the men of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division rumbled into the quiet Bavarian town of Dachau, the hush of anticipation hung heavily in the air. The war’s end seemed within grasp, and they expected to find an abandoned training facility for Adolf Hitler’s elite SS forces or perhaps just another POW camp. But fate had a different plan that would etch the darkest of memories into their souls.
The town, cloaked in eerie silence, betrayed no hint of the unspeakable horrors concealed behind its walls. Like macabre monuments to human suffering, piles of emaciated corpses greeted the liberators. Dozens of train cars stood as haunting coffins, their contents grotesquely decomposed human remains. Yet, what struck the soldiers hardest was the living nightmare that staggered before them—thousands of “walking skeletons,” survivors of Dachau, the Nazi’s first and longest-operating concentration camp.
Innocence met malevolence as American troops, from generals down to privates, confronted the unfathomable reality of a concentration camp. They had been shielded from the depths of Nazi depravity, the ghastly conditions, and the torment inflicted on innocents. John McManus, a professor of U.S. military history, would later recount that moment, “Almost none of the soldiers… had any concept of what a concentration camp really was… It was stunning.”
April 29, 1945, would forever mark the day when Dachau’s gates creaked open, not the first liberation by Allied troops, but one that would sear the collective conscience of America. The Soviets had uncovered the harrowing remains of Auschwitz and other death camps months earlier, but Dachau’s horrors were uniquely haunting. The wrenching images etched into their memories, the firsthand testimonies they would carry home, brought the true horrors of the Holocaust home to a nation far removed from the atrocities.
What Actually Happened at Dachau Concentration Camp?
When Dachau opened its gates in 1933, it bore a sinister title bestowed upon it by the notorious Nazi war criminal Heinrich Himmler: “the first concentration camp for political prisoners.” Those early years defined the grim purpose of Dachau, as it functioned as a bleak forced labor detention camp for those deemed “enemies” of the National Socialist (Nazi) party.
The list of those incarcerated grew, beginning with trade unionists, communists, and Democratic Socialists, but soon extending its grasp to include Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Jews.
The machinery of cruelty at Dachau operated with chilling efficiency, largely the creation of an SS officer named Theodor Eike. Under his malevolent guidance, a “doctrine of dehumanization” took root, characterized by the horrors of slave labor, brutal corporal punishment, merciless flogging, the withholding of sustenance, and the cold, calculated executions of those who dared to flee.
The prisoners of Dachau toiled under the harshest of conditions, their labor tearing down a massive WWI-era munitions factory, only to erect the barracks and offices that would serve as the vile crucible for the training of the SS.
Within these walls, humanity was stripped away and replaced by a brutal regime of suffering and oppression.
The horror within Dachau knew no bounds, as the prisoners themselves constructed a chilling addition to the sprawling complex—a so-called “protective custody camp.” This euphemism concealed the grim reality: 32 squalid barracks encircled by an electrified barbed-wire fence, a foreboding ditch, and seven menacing guard towers.
Here, the depths of human suffering reached new lows. Medical experiments were carried out on prisoners, involving injections of deadly diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. For those not claimed by these cruel experiments, the toll of relentless labor and unrelenting torture led to countless deaths, their remains incinerated in the grim embrace of the on-site crematorium.
An ominous gateway, forged from cold iron, separated the concentration camp from the rest of Dachau. On this gate, taunting words etched in metal declared, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”), a sickening irony in the face of unimaginable suffering.
Dachau proved to be a macabre success for the Nazis, a testament to the twisted ingenuity of Theodor Eike. His malevolence earned him a chilling promotion to inspector general of all German concentration camps, with Dachau as the horrific model.
As the darkness of Nazi tyranny deepened, the number of Jewish prisoners at Dachau swelled. The night of Kristallnacht, infamous for the destruction of Jewish synagogues, businesses, and homes by Nazi mobs across Germany, marked a turning point.
More and more Jewish individuals found themselves held within Dachau’s grim confines. On the eve of American liberation, a staggering 67,665 registered prisoners languished within the concentration camp, and roughly a third of them were Jewish—innocent lives caught in the web of hatred and cruelty spun by the Nazis.
The US Forces Arrives at Dachau
For the unsuspecting U.S. infantrymen marching into Dachau in late April 1945, an unsettling premonition took shape through their senses, beginning with an ominous smell. It was a scent that defied easy description, a noxious blend that some likened to standing downwind from a chemical factory.
In contrast, others compared it to the nauseating stench of feathers being singed off a plucked chicken. None of their previous combat experiences could have prepared them for the horrors that awaited.
In the weeks leading up to this fateful encounter, the commanders at Buchenwald, another dread-infused German concentration camp, embarked on a heinous endeavor. They crammed at least 3,000 prisoners into 40 cramped train cars, a desperate attempt to conceal them from the approaching Allied armies.
What was meant to be a brief journey to Dachau turned into a torturous odyssey lasting three agonizing weeks. Starvation, dehydration, asphyxiation, and disease claimed all but a quarter of the train’s pitiful passengers.
Those who survived were herded into the concentration camp, while the railway cars bore witness to a grotesque tableau of death as the lifeless bodies of thousands were left to rot.
John McManus, an authority on the subject, observes, “If you’re a U.S. soldier arriving at Dachau, you’d almost certainly see the ‘death train’ first.” In this hellish encounter, the soldiers would face a macabre reality beyond their darkest nightmares.
The abhorrent sights and the suffocating stench of the death train left many American soldiers physically ill and emotionally shattered, yet this was only a foretaste of the horrors lurking within the camp’s sinister depths. In the grim weeks leading to liberation, the Nazis had transported prisoners from across Germany, even as far as Auschwitz.
Like the survivors of the Buchenwald death train, these newcomers were emaciated, their frail bodies ravaged by diseases such as typhus.
Inside Dachau’s already overcrowded barracks, the newly arrived prisoners were packed like sardines, their numbers exceeding the capacity designed for the buildings by staggering proportions. Up to 1,600 men crammed into spaces meant for 250, an unbearable existence where starvation and disease ran rampant.
The camp became a gruesome stage for death’s relentless performance, claiming the lives of thousands of prisoners just days before the liberating forces arrived. The Nazis attempted to incinerate as many of these wretched bodies as they could before fleeing Dachau, but the scale of death overwhelmed them.
An additional 7,000 Dachau prisoners, predominantly Jews, were forced on a death march to Tegernsee in the south, a treacherous journey where stragglers met with bullets, and thousands succumbed to exhaustion and despair.
When the American GIs ventured deeper into the concentration camp, they were met with a chilling tableau of horror—piles of naked corpses, their emaciated forms defying belief, their skin drawn tight over skeletal frames.
In retelling their experiences, the soldiers often described the dead bodies as being “stacked like cordwood,” a metaphor that unwittingly stripped the fallen prisoners of their last vestiges of humanity. To see those lifeless forms as fully human at that moment would have been an unbearable burden for the soldiers.
John McManus, an authority on the subject, reflects, “Everywhere you turn is just this horror of bodies and people near death or in a state of complete decrepitude that you can’t even process it.” In the heart of Dachau, the soldiers were thrust into a maelstrom of suffering beyond the limits of comprehension.
The Liberators of Dachau Concentration Camp Loses their Cool
The discovery of the death train acted as a devastating catalyst, igniting a fuse of emotions that could not be extinguished. The battle-hardened soldiers of the 45th “Thunderbird” Division, weary from 500 days of combat, had believed they had witnessed the darkest atrocities war could offer.
Yet, the sight of that train, a grim cargo of innocent lives with vacant eyes and open mouths, as if imploring for mercy shattered their fragile composure. Many American soldiers were overcome with grief, their sobs echoing in the desolate landscape, while others seethed with a fiery rage that threatened to consume them.
Amidst this turmoil, four German officers emerged from the woods, waving a white handkerchief in a gesture of surrender. However, Lieutenant William Walsh, his heart aflame with righteous indignation, led them into one of the boxcars strewn with lifeless bodies and ended their lives with his pistol.
The mortally wounded Germans cried out in agony, and other American GIs, their emotions a tumultuous mix of sorrow and anger, completed the grim task.
Yet, the horrors would escalate further within the heart of Dachau. Approximately 50 to 125 SS officers and various German military personnel, including hospital staff, were gathered in a grim coal yard. Lt. Walsh called for the instruments of death—a machine gun, rifles, and a Tommy gunner. A chilling moment unfolded as the soldiers began to load a belt of bullets into the machine gun.
Whether driven by desperation or defiance, the German prisoners began to advance toward their American captors. It was in that harrowing instant that Walsh, according to accounts, drew his pistol and shouted, “Let them have it!”
In that chaotic and nightmarish moment, the line between vengeance and justice blurred, and Dachau became a crucible of raw, overpowering emotions and violence that defied easy explanation.
After a brief but intense 30-second barrage of gunfire, the Dachau coal yard bore witness to a grisly tableau. At least 17 German prisoners, once captors but now captives themselves, lay lifeless on the unforgiving ground.
John McManus, a scholar well-versed in the intricacies of history, observes with a sobering perspective, “I will tell you, as someone who has studied this in great depth, that this is pretty much the only time that American soldiers do this among many, many liberations in many places.” The defining factor, he explains, lies in leadership—a company commander so profoundly affected by the horrors he had witnessed that he lost control of his emotions. When a leader falters, the soldiers under their command are swept away in anguish and rage.
What Happened to the Survivors of the Dachau Concentration Camp?
Among the many haunting and traumatic experiences that awaited the liberators at Dachau, none were as starkly chilling as their encounters with the surviving prisoners, numbering around 32,000. “Walking skeletons” was the only apt description for these souls, their bodies reduced to mere shadows by extreme malnourishment and illness.
Afflicted by typhus and plagued by lice, these emaciated prisoners reached out with trembling hands, their eyes filled with disbelief that their unimaginable torment had finally ended.
The American soldiers did what they could, unprepared for the sight before them and lacking knowledge of how to care for individuals in such advanced stages of starvation. They pulled out their C-rations and Hershey bars, offering everything to the skeletal figures before them.
The prisoners, their desperate hunger overwhelming them, gorged themselves on the meager sustenance. Tragically, their emaciated bodies were no longer equipped to handle solid food, and this act of kindness unwittingly added to their suffering.
In this heart-wrenching moment of liberation, the soldiers grappled with the cruel irony that their efforts to provide sustenance and relief, born of compassion, inadvertently brought further agony to those they sought to rescue.
Decades later, the emotional burdens carried by some of these soldiers continued to weigh heavily on their hearts. John McManus shares that “some of these soldiers were guiltier over the revulsion they first felt when seeing the prisoners, and then for overfeeding them.”
Their initial reactions, driven by the shock of witnessing the prisoners’ skeletal forms, had been tainted by a well-intentioned but misguided act of kindness. In their earnest desire to alleviate suffering, they inadvertently contributed to it—a painful truth that haunted them in the following years.
Compounding this guilt was the realization that the American soldiers couldn’t simply release the liberated prisoners from Dachau. They were physically debilitated and needed extensive care to nurse them back to health, a process that would take months. Beyond that, these survivors needed a new place to call home.
Tragically, some Jewish prisoners who had been liberated from Dachau found themselves languishing in displaced persons camps for years before being granted the opportunity to emigrate to destinations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Palestine.
The legacy of Dachau, with its complex tapestry of compassion, guilt, and the long road to recovery, left an indelible mark on the lives of those who played a role in its liberation and the survivors who emerged from its dark confines.
Most of the American GIs who played a role in liberating Dachau only remained at the camp for a few days before being deployed on other missions. The responsibility for the care of the survivors was entrusted to combat medical units, while teams of engineers were tasked with the somber duties of burying the deceased and cleansing the camp of its horrifying remnants.
The word of what transpired at places like Dachau and Buchenwald spread rapidly through the ranks of the Allied forces. Many soldiers and officers felt compelled to pilgrimage to the concentration camps in the days and weeks following their liberation, driven by a profound need to witness the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Adolf Hitler’s suicide, which occurred a day after Dachau’s liberation, marked Germany’s near-certain defeat. However, for these soldiers, seeing the horrors of Dachau with their own eyes bestowed a newfound significance upon the war.
They were no longer just fighting against an enemy but battling the embodiment of evil itself.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, accompanied by Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley, visited the Ohrdruf concentration camp on April 12, 1945, just a week after its liberation. It was as if Eisenhower possessed a profound foresight, recognizing that the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust might one day be dismissed as “exaggerations” or denied outright.
Eisenhower later conveyed his deep and searing impressions, stating, “The things I saw beggar description. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick… I made the visit deliberately to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.'”
Eisenhower’s visit served as a testament to the indomitable will of the Allied forces to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and ensure that the world would never forget the horrors of Dachau and the other concentration camps.
The Fate of the Soviet Deserters Who Joined the Germans
By January 1946, 12,000 people—including Russian army deserters and those who had been apprehended while wearing German army uniforms—and 18,000 members of the SS were imprisoned at the camp. As agreed upon at the Yalta Conference, 271 Russian deserters were to be placed into trains and returned to Russian-controlled territory, sparking rioting by the inhabitants of two barracks.
Within two barracks, prisoners surrounded themselves. While the first was easily evacuated, individuals in the second building set it on fire, tore off their clothes to annoy the guards, and linked arms to fight against being taken out of the building.
Before storming the barracks, the US soldiers deployed tear gas, only to discover that many people inside had committed suicide. Stars and Stripes, an American services newspaper, revealed:
The GIs swiftly took down most people who had hung themselves from the rafters. The ones still conscious were yelling in Russian, pointing at the guards’ weapons first, then at themselves, pleading with us to fire.
During the incident, 21 troops made an apparent attempt at suicide with razor blades. However, only 10 of them were successful in their mission. 500 American guards had “cracked heads” on many of them to manage the situation.
A harrowing chapter in human history was laid bare for all to see in the shadow of Dachau’s liberation.
Next, read about The Horror of What’s Happening in Israel-Palestine now, and then, about the Black Dahlia Murder!
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