University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies
chgs@umn.edu
612-624-0256


CHGS

Memories of a Day in the Country

It was Tuesday, May 1, 1945, in West Germany. I arrived by Jeep along with Charlie and "Chappie" (our chaplain) to a new bivouac over in some of the most beautiful countryside I had ever seen. It was a pastoral scene that brought with it a relaxing sense of peace.

We arrived about 11:00 a.m. only to learn that a few minutes earlier two of our vehicles had struck mines, killing Larson, our electrician, and wounding Hammond, the Jeep driver. Also wounded were Parise and Hanson, A company ambulance drivers. The ambulance had gone up a back road about 400 yards from camp when they hit a mine. A Jeep that had just passed by going in the opposite direction heard the explosion, turned around, and it too struck a mine! Larson's legs were blown off and Hammond suffered a large laceration of his right thigh. The Jeep was demolished.

The next day, Wednesday, May 2, Elmo (Garnet), Charlie and I rode down to Dachau about 15 miles north of Munich. We had been hearing on our radios horror stories of the Nazi death camps. When we parked our vehicle about 200 feet from the entrance, all appeared peaceful. The fences were high and topped by barbed wire. There were masses of people milling about inside the fence, but still there was an air of quiet. The grounds were neat outside the fence and the sky was a beautiful blue with just a few clouds. As we walked closer, the pastoral beauty was marred by two jarring sights.

Before us, lying in the ditch, was the battered body of a Nazi S. S. Trooper, He had been snatched away from the U.S. troops who were protecting him from the prisoners and was beaten to death with clubs, rocks, fists! Even if he were lying there nude, one could tell he was not a prisoner, since he was the only one around who had any fat on his body.

On our left was a railroad siding with a boxcar providing a most gruesome sight, The door was open and countless nude bodies could be seen in the car, some hanging half out of the door, while numerous others were lying on the ground. There were many little children also. They, as well as the adults, had all the earmarks of longstanding malnutrition. The expression "skin and bones" applied perfectly.

Entering the camps we saw thousands of persons, nearly all male, mostly dressed in prison garb with black and white vertical stripes. Most of them appeared to be anemic, showing the profound weight loss associated with starvation. Within moments of entering the gates the crowd of prisoners surrounded us. They caressed our woolen shortcoats as though to garner some strength or sustenance from the contact.

As we attempted to move along, one bedraggled fellow looked at me questioningly and asked, "Bist der un yid?" "Are you a Jew?" When I nodded "yes", he was so overjoyed it was impossible to describe. It was as though a spark had ignited a flash fire. In moments I was surrounded by fifty Jews all talking at once and "shushing" each other. They stated that there were 2,000 Jews in the camp and expressed fears they would not be treated equally. I tried my best to reassure them that everyone would be treated well and equally by the American troops.

The subservient attitude, the deference shown us was both pathetic and embarrassing. As we walked by men doffed their hats, bowed, or saluted. Others shouted, "Mach platz!" ("Make way!") as we walked along. A Polish priest born in Connecticut acted as our guide. He had left for Poland in 1932, Then in 1942 he became a prisoner in this camp. Can I ever forget his exuberant, "My Gosh, we were happy when the Americans came on Sunday," To hear that Americanism contrasted with his broken English was heartwarming.

He went on to inform us that the census was 32,000, mostly political prisoners. There were also some soldiers. Included were Poles, Dutch, Russians, Yugoslavs, Czechs, French and Jews. "Two to three hundred die daily of malnutrition and disease," he said. "There was a flareup of Typhus in January and February. In addition there is much TBC!"

Of the original 30,000 prisoners in 1939, there remain only six persons.

The priest went on to say that 5 million Jews were killed in Poland, that none remain. We couldn't comprehend such numbers. He continued, "Of 2,200 priests of all nationalities, few are alive, All priests but Poles are permitted to use the chapel at Dachau. If a man is found with a rosary, he is forced to kneel in the street and others must spit on him as they pass by."

In Block 24, we saw fresh inmates from Buchenwald who differed from the corpses only in the fact that they still moved, groaned, and breathed a little. One lay on the floor on a narrow passageway, recently expired. Eight men sleep in a space designed for three. The space from the bottom of a bunk to the top still reminds me of a bakery with barely enough space for each loaf.

Gangrenous hands and feet bedsores and wounds all untreated. A horrible sight never to be forgotten They were used as human guinea pigs. They were inoculated with various diseases and experimental drugs were used. There was a separate compound with 300 Jewesses. There were eleven whores living with the men. The S.S. Officers took pleasure in watching them cohabit. The whores were promised freedom but were shot before the S.S.

On our left as we entered, there was a one story brick building. As we faced it, there were two tall chimneys with dark grey smoke drifting upward. In front of this building was a pit about 25 feet square, 15 feet deep and surrounded by a strong wire fence about 10 feet high. On the wall of the pit, adjacent to the brick building were several small doors. Imbedded in this wall about 8 feet high were several meat hooks such as are seen in pucking plants. We were told that in another camp, live prisoners were thrust on the hooks and starving dogs were set loose to devour as much of the prisoners as they could reach!

Next we walked around the pit described above and entered the "shower" room. It appeared to measure about 30 feet square. It was neatly tiled and the ceiling was low with about 10 or 20 "shower" heads. The floor had a number of drains scattered about. The only oddity was the two doors, made of steel and diagonally opposite each other, constructed to make an airtight closure. The victims were headed into the room, instructed to remove all their clothing, then they were given a piece of soap and a towel. The doors were then closed and the gas was turned on. An observation window allowed the Nazis to watch the death struggles (in the interest of science, perhaps?).

Our tour next took us to the other side of the building, below the smoke stacks. Before us were four giant ovens, one of which had a brisk fire burning, On either side of the ovens were stove rooms containing, on the left, dozens of nude bodies and, on the right bodies partially clothed (another example of Nazi efficiency?). Again, one saw extreme emaciation and countless sores. The eyes! Those that were open seemed to reflect accusation, an indictment of a world that could overlook such cruelty.

It is estimated that, at least, 100,000 persons had been murdered 'in this camp.

The priest quoted a recent message from Himmler ordering evacuation of the camp on Monday, April 30, 1945, with instructions to murder all the prisoners before leaving. The S.S. were busily engaged in following orders by machinegunning the prisoners when the Americans arrived. They showed me a pencilled memo purportedly from Himmler that confirmed the priest's statement.

With some difficulty I tore myself away after giving them a package of cigarettes and taking some pictures. Before leaving, we visited the surgery where there were three wellequipped operating rooms. There were three surgeons  one Pole, one Slav and one Czech  and five assistants. The Polish doctor, Myer, told of the spending 12 hours in surgery daily. Thus ended "A Day in the Country." Although this was 42 years ago, the scenes I have attempted to describe, albeit inadequately, remain burned indelibly in my memory,

Gene Rinkey
1987