Chaplain David Max Eichhorn, Camp Croft, South Caroline, 1942
This is Rabbi Max Eichhorn’s report of his experiences at Dachau.
First week of May, 1945, Dachau
The XV Corps took Nuremberg o April 20 and Munich, about 125 miles southeast, on April 30. Thus to our Corps went the honor of capturing two main centers of Nazidom. En route from Nuremberg to Munich, in the town of Treuchtlingen, I was given a large Sefer Torah whish had been hidden in the town hall by a local official on the November night in 1938 when the Treuchtlingen synagogue ws burned and all the Jews in Treuchtlingen were killed or driven off to the woods.
The concentration camp at Dachau, twelve miles northwest of Munich, was taken on April 29. I arrived there on the afternoon of April 30. The horrors of this camp have been described by so many in detail that I shall not dwell at length upon this aspect except to record the following reactions of myself and others who were with me. We saw the 39 boxcars loaded with Jewish dead in the Dachau railway yard, 39 carloads of little, shriveled mummies that had literally been starved to death; we saw the gas chambers and the crematoria, still filled with charred bones and ashes. And we cried not merely tears of sorrow. We cried tears of hate. Combat hardened soldiers, Gentile and Jew, black and white, cried tears of hate. Then we stood aside and watched while inmates of the camp hunted down their former guards, many of whom were trying to hide out in various places in the camp. We stood aside and watched while those guards were beaten to death, beaten so badly that their bodies were ripped open and innards protruded. We watched with less feeling than if a dog were being beaten. In truth, it might be said that we were completely without feeling. Deep anger and hate had temporarily numbed our emotions. These evil people, it seemed to us, were being treated exactly as they deserved to be treated. To such depths does human nature sink in the presence of human depravity.
Soon after arriving at Dachau, I met Meyer Levin, the novelist and newspaper correspondent. The next morning, he and I went to Allach, a sub-camp of Dachau, about five miles away. The Allach Camp was divided into separate sections of Gentiles and Jews, about 3,300 Jews and 6,000 Gentiles. The comparative conditions in the Jewish and Gentile sections may be understood through one simple statistic: the first day I was there, 40 Jews and 5 Gentiles died. In other words, the death rate was about 15 Jews to one Gentile. Causes of death were listed as malnutrition and general debility.
Both at Allach and Dachau, death was commonplace. Naked bodies lying outside of barracks waiting to be carted away were a familiar sight. And the bodies did not smell. There was no meat left on them to rot, just skin and bones. While I was sitting on the corner of a bed in the Allach “lazarett” [hospital] talking to a Professor Schwartz, who had for six years been the only unconverted Jewish professor at the University of Warsaw, the man whose bed I was sitting on died. A doctor came along, saw that the man was dead, covered his head with a sheet and Professor Schwartz and I continued our conversation as calmly as before. Just like that. I did not even get up from the bed. “Poor fellow,” said Professor Schwartz. “At any rate, his worries are ended.” It was a fitting eulogy.
I presented the Torah from Treuchtlingen to the Jews of Allach. I shall never forget the presentation ceremony and the service which accompanied it. There were quite a number of rabbis and cantors in Allach, including a Czecho-Slovakian rabbi, Dr. Klein, who spoke about a dozen languages. During the service, Dr. Klein thanked me eloquently for the Torah in English, German, and Hungarian. Another dramatic moment was the chanting of the “El Male Rachamin” by a cantor from Warsaw with a very beautiful voice. After the service, literally hundreds of people crowded around me, kissing my hand and begging for an “autogram.” It was a very embarrassing experience. I felt that it was I who should be humbling myself before them and honoring them for that which they had suffered and surmounted. I kept reminding myself that it was not I to whom they were paying homage but the wonderful American Army which had delivered them from certain death and from physical and mental tortures worse than death. To die from a bullet is so easy and so quick, many said. But to die slowly, in mind and body, from torture, humiliation and hunger is much worse.
The administration of the Allach camp was in the hands of a non-Jewish American officer, Lieutenant Schreiber, and a small group of American soldiers who moved heaven and earth in a mighty effort to get food and medicine quickly to the starving and sick. They were aided greatly by a fine group of inmates who were organized within the camp into a well disciplined and smoothly functioning committee. Lieutenant Schreiber, in his early twenties, a toughened combat soldier, reacted to the situation with the mind of a brilliant executive and the heart of a saint. The tragedy of these unfortunates became his personal tragedy. To work with such a person was an exalting experience, even in the midst of misery and death.
A few paragraphs back, I wrote of deep anger and of hate. In harboring such thoughts, one must be sure that he is directing his thoughts towards those who are really guilty and not towards those whom he presumes to be guilty. Every time I hear some thoughtless person say that the only good German is a dead German, I think of the hundreds of Germans and Austrians I met inside the concentration camps, priests and ministers, lawyers and doctors, Socialists and pacifists, workers and farmers, living skeletons with eyes that burned with and imperishable prophetic fire and a boundless love for their fellow-men. I think of many Germans whom I knew who had saved Jewish lives at the risk of their own. I think especially of SS Mann Gerhardt Schmidt. Schmidt looked like the kind of man the Nazis brag about, the perfect typical Aryan, tall, blond, and handsome. He was a pilot in Luftwaffe. He was shot down and wounded and then forced into the SS. He was a patriotic German who loved his country but who hated Hitler and the Nazis and everything for which they stood with a hatred that was deep and true. In the spring of 1944, he was sent to the Jewish section of Allach as “block fuehrer,” section leader. He protected his Jewish flock in every way within his power. Every evening he listened in secret to the broadcasys of the BBC and kept te hopes of the Allach Jews buoyed up by informing them of the progress of the Allied advance. When he learned that certain Jews were destined for extermination, he hid them until the danger had passed. When a Jewish inmate would contract typhus, which was a one-wy ticket to the gas chamber, he would smuggle the sick person out of the camp in one of the camp’s straw wagons, take him to his home in Dachau where the patient would be nursed back to health by Schmidt’s wife and then be smuggled back into the camp. Three days before the American liberators arrived, he hid two machine guns and bandoleers of ammunition in his straw-wagon, brought them into the camp and buried them in the Jewish section. He informed his Jewish brethren (and, God bless him, I write that word deliberately) that he would fight with them to the death against the other SS if they attempted to massacre the Jews before they retreated. Fortunately, the other SS left so fast that there was no massacre.
SS Mann Schmidt did not run away. He took off his uniform, put on civilian clothes and went home. Three days later, he decided to return to the Jews of the Allach camp. He and his wife walked up to the gate where they were stopped by an American guard and questioned. When Schmidt readily admitted that he had been a German soldier, he was quite naturally taken into custody ad destined for a quick trip to a POW compound. His wife came into the camp office and pleaded with Lieutenant Schreiber to release her husband. Some of the Jewish leaders were summoned and they attested to the truth of the facts I have just written down. They said further that the Jews of Allach would be grateful and happy for the privilege of taking their German comrade into “protective custody” so that he could go on working with them as before. Lieutenant Schreiber secured permission from Corps HQ to have Schmidt retained as a worker in the camp. He was released by the military and placed in the care of the Jewish committee. I accompanied Herr and Frau Schmidt from the office to the Jewish compound. It was the home-coming of a hero. The Jews crowded around their beloved “fuehrer,” hugging him, kissing his face, his hands, his feet. The big man broke down and cried. So did his wife. So did I. When I left Allach, Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt were living in the headquarters of the Jewish committee and Herr Schmidt was a key-figure in the manifold relief activities that were being conducted there. A few weeks later I learned that one night the Schmidts quietly left the camp for an unannounced and unknown destination. It seems that they had heard that some of the bad Germans in the nearby community of Dachau had vowed to kill the “traitors” at the first opportunity. There were and there still are many bad Germans as well as good ones. The same may be said of every other group of people on the face of the earth,
After two days at Allach, I returned to Dachau on May 3. I was placed on temporary duty there as a member of the camp staff and remained for four days. I roomed in an Army hospital that had been set up just outside of the “lager” [camp] gates; but practically all my time was spent inside the camp compund. Because of the prevalence of typhus, I received an injection of anti-typhus serum. Every time I had to go out of the camp, which was about three or four times a day, I was dosed with anti-louse powder. By nightfall I was so full of powder that the inside of my clothes and my body were lily-white. And I certainly needed the the stuff. Whether it was the son of the Gerer Rebbe or the melamed from Palestine or the merchant from Prague or the plain ordinary Jew from Lodz, all the inmates were emaciated , filthy, and lice-ridden. Only the Jewish doctors were clean. In some semi-miraculous way, the physicians had maintained the standards of cleanliness demanded by their profession. Another exception to this condition of disease and dirt was the barracks of Hungarian, Greek, and Italian Jewish girls, 160 of them, who had been brought to Dachau just a week before. Some of them had been workers in the factories and farms, some had been used in German military brothels. They had been treated with so little consideration by the Germans that most of them had lost the female’s normal sense of modesty. When, from time to time, my duties brought me to their barracks, they continued to dress or undress in my presence as though I were not there. I used a room in this barracks as a sort of headquarters, not because of the suituation jus described but because it was the only semi-cheerful spot in all of Dachau. The girls had not been in Dachau long enough to by afflicted with typhus or lice and, occasionally, some of them smiled. Unfortunately, when these girls were given thorough medical examinations in the ensuing weeks, it was discovered that many of them, who looked healthy outwardly, were afflicted with tuberclosis.
I did what I could, in the short time at my disposal, to bring what comfort and cheer was possible to the approximately 2,600 Jewish men and 225 Jewish women wo remained among the 34,000 inmates of Dachau. I visited every barracks in which there were Jews, talked to the bed-ridden, miserable unfortunates and tried to raise their spirits. I also tried to act as a liason between the Jews, the camp’s International Prisoners’ Committee and the American military authorities. At both Allach and Dachau, I supervised the gathering of a list of the names and addresses of all the Jews in the camps. The overwhelming majority of the Jews at both places were Hungarian and Polish. I met only one German Jew and a few French and Belgians.
I had a very unpleasant experience soon after being assigned to the Dachau staff. The inmates, after liberation, left the camp, invaded the town of Dachau, took whatever food they could find from the greatly frightened Germans of the town and proceeded to eat and eat and eat. Their emaciated bodies could not stand the strain. A number of them literally gorged themselves to death. The American medical suthorities decided that, for the protection of the inmates, they must be forcibly detained within the compound in order to get the proper medical attention and to be fed the proper kinds and amounts of food. The effect of this on the inmates is not difficult to imagine. Many of them were not in the proper state of mind to understand the necessity for this action and they thought that their liberators had suddenly become persecutors. Since it was impossible to change many of the disagreeable features of confinement at a rate fast enough to satisfy the inmates, considerable discontent generated rapidly in the compound.
The doctors ordered me to see to it that no inmates got out of the sections in which most of the Jews were quartered. Armed guards were placed around the fences to make sure that this order was obeyed. Some of the inmates were still bringing food they had “liberated” in Dachau back to the compound by means of bicycle, wheelbarrow, dnkey cart or any other type of vehicle they could commandeer. Finding the gates locked, they would scurry up the fence, throw the food parcels over the fence to those on the other side and then quickly scurry away. I was told by the medics that this would have to be stopped. I instructed the guards to frighten away the food-bearers by shooting over their heads. This worked quite well for a while, but, when the food-bearers discovered that the soldiers were not aiming directly at them, they continued their well-meant but harmful tactic. I was compelled to tell the guards that they would have to hit one of the offenders in a non-fatal spot on his anatomy in order to protect the health of those in the compound. This was done. The next fellow who tried to throw food over the fence got a well-aimed bullt through his leg, was taken off to the hospital and eventually recovered from the wound. This drastic measure halted all urther events to get any more food over the fence.
(I had another unpleasant experience of a somewhat similar nature a little more than a month later at the concentration camp at Ebensee, Austria. The JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] bought 12 tons of food in Switzerland which was delivered to XV Corps HQ in Salzburg by the International Red Cross. Here it was loaded on Army trucks for delivery under y supervision to the camp at Ebensee. The shipment consisted of such items as raw beef, flour, cocoa, and other normally inedible items. When the camp inmates saw the trucks come through the gate of the camp, their hunger was so intense that they made a mad dash for the food shipment. I was on the lead-truck of the twelve-truck convoy sitting beside the driver. On every other truck was a driver and a guard. Feelig sure that the approaching mob would trample us to death in its determined rush for the food, I ordered the drivers and guards to get off the trucks and stand in line with fixed bayonets, with the hope that this would put a stop to the renzied dash of those coming in our directon. Fortunately for all concerned, this did the trick. The mob came within perhaps seventy-five or an hundred yards of us, stopped uncertainly and then slowly retreated. We were able to deliver the supplies to the Ebensee kithen without any further interruption… About seven or eight years later, I was visited at my office at the National Jewish Welfare Board in Neww York by a fine-looking young American soldier. “Remember me?” asked he. “No,” I replied. “You should remember me,” said he, “I tried to kill you once.” “That is something I ought to remember,” said I, “but I don’t.” He laughed. “Of course, you don’t,” said he. “I was one of that mob of hunger-crazed people who tried to run you down at Ebensee.” His eyes lit up. “And while those trucks were being unloaded,” said he, “I stole a hunk of that raw meat and carried it off to my room and ate it all by myself. Best tasting meat I ever ate in my life.”
On Friday afternoon, May 4, I held a service in the women’s barracks. It was, of course, a very touching experience, as were all such services which I was to hold during the months to come in many DP [displaced person] camps in Germany and Austria. At the end of the service, a lieutenant colonel who had been standing at the rear of the room approached me with tears streaming from his eyes. He introduced himself. “My name is George Stevens. I am in charge of the Signal Corps unit which is taking the official Army pictures of Dachau. When will you hold another such service? I want to get a film of it for the historical record.” I told him that a camp-wide Sabbath service was planned for the next morning, Saturday morning, and that he certainly could make a film of it if he wished. The service was to be held at 10 a.mm. in the main square of the Dachau compound. The International Committee had promised to have the platform in the square decorated with the flag of every nation represented in the camp (I think there were 28 in all) and, in addition, every nationality would send a delegation to the service as an indication of its brotherly sympathy for the Jewish people. I arrived at the square at 9 a.m. to make sure that everything was in readiness for the service. To my amazement, no preparation of any kind had been made. I sent for Charles Baum, a young Belgian, the Jewish representative on the International Committee, and asked for an explanation. Greatly embarrassed, Mr. Baum informed me that the service would not be held in the main square. The Polish non-Jewish inmates had threatened that, if a Jewish service were held in the square, they would break it up by force. (This was only one of a number of ways in which the poles of Dachau showed hostility for their fellow Jewish sufferers. I was informed that, when the Polish Red Cross distributed food packages to the Poles of Dachau, the packages were given out on the basis of one to every Polish Christian and one to every two Polish Jews.) Rather than cause a disturbance, the Jews had decided to cancel the service in the square and to hold the service, instead, in the camp laundry, which was only big enough to accommodate about 80 people and could, therefore, hold only a very small percentage of the Jews who would want to be present. While I was not pleased with the decision, I raised no strong objection as I felt that the Jewish inmates were more knowledgeable in this particular situation than I was and should be allowed to do what they considered proper. So I set up an alter in the laundry and prepared for the limited service.
While the service was in progress, in a jam-packed room with hundreds of others outside crowded around the open doors and windows, colonel Stevens came in, elbowed his way to my side and demanded to know why the service was not being held in the square. His cameras and crews were ready for action and he wanted the event to go on as scheduled. I stopped the “davaning” long enough to tell him that I would explain, after the service, what had happened. He waited outside until the end of the service to hear the explanation. After hearing the “inside story,” he exploded in anger. “I did not give up a good job in the movie business in Hollywood,” he bellowed, “to risk my life in combat for months and months in order to free the world from the threat of Fascism and then stand idly by while the very victims of Fascism seek to perpetuate its evils. I am going to do something about this.” And do something about it he did. He took me to the Camp Commandant, a fine gentleman of Irish extraction who had formerly been police Commissioner of Boston, and, with loudness of voice and much banging of the table, George Stevens repeated his anti-Fascistic sentiments. The Commandant readily agreed with Colonel Stevens. It was decided that the service would be held next morning, Sunday, May 6, at 10 a.m. under an American military “guard of honor.” As an added “movie” touch, colonel Stevens requested that I teach some of the girls in the women’s barracks to sing “God Bless America” at the service. I did as he asked. That Saturday night I spent about two hours teaching a choir of fifteen Hungarian Jewish girls to sing the Irving Berlin composition; and they learned to sing it quite well, even though they knew not one word of English.
And so, thanks to the decent instincts of an American movie director, the camp-wide service was held in the main square. It was attended by every Jewish male and female whose health permitted. As promised, every nationality was represented by flag and delegation. There were an estimated two thousand Jews and non-Jews at the service. And ringing the outer rim of the service with faces turned away from the platform and with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets was the American military “guard of honor.” They were prepared to deal with a situation which did not develop. No untoward incident of any kind marred the service.
The program of the day was as follows: The opening remarks were made by Mr. Kuci, formerly Albanian Minister of Propaganda, chairman of the inmates’ International Committee, who said that all the inmates of Dachau were very much aware of the exceptional intensity of Jewish suffering there and elsewhere under the Nazi yoke and that all freemen rejoiced that the Jews of Dachau were, at long last, able to resume their religious life without hindrance. The ark was opened and I recited “Shehecheyanu” and “benched Gomel” and went through a brief Torah service. After being formally introduced by Mr. Charles Baum, I gave a short talk. When I finished, one of the loveliest of the Dachau girls presented me with a bouquet of flowers on behalf of Dachau Jewry. Then a Palestinian “chalutsa” came up on the platform bearing a Zionist flag and made an impromptu speech in beautiful Sephardic Hebrew to me and the assembly. Little American and Zionist flags made by the girls from their precious stores of remnant materials were presented to me as priceless “souvenirs” of this never-to-be-forgotten occasion. My talk, given in English, was then translated into German by one of the inmates. He must have made what I said sound good because the crowd’s response was very generous. Then my girls’ choir sang “God Bless America” sweetly and enthusiastically. Then Mr. Baum spoke in French and German, thanking all the non-Jewish delegations for coming to the service and also expressing the hopes and aspirations of Jews of Dachau. The latter part of his speech was so moving that it gave everyone a chance to have a good cry. The assembly joined in the singing of “Ha-tikva,” after which I ended the program with a benediction. The entire service, about forty-five minutes in length, was filmed with sound by Colonel Stevens and his crew. While the service was in progress, a wagon-load of naked dead came past the assembly on the way to the crematorium. Colonel Stevens ordered the cameras turned on the wagon and a filmed record made of this weird though temporary addition to the audience. (Several years later I was invited to the Army Pictorial Center in Astoria, L.I., to witness a showing of the film of the Dachau service. The “staged” singing of “God Bless America” was retained in the film. The dead-wagon scene was eliminated. “We had to take it out,” the movie people explained to me. “It seemed so improbably that a viewing audience would suspect that the scene had been “staged.”)
For an hour after the service, I was mobbed, kissed, photographed and signed so many “autographs” that I vowed then and there to give up completely and absolutely whatever chance I had of becoming a movie star. It was a tiring, and as mentioned before, highly embarrassing experience.
The next morning I attended two Polish Catholis cases also held in the main square at Dachau as memorial services for the Polish dead of Dachau. I did so for two reasons: to express my gratitude by this act to the small number of Christian Poles who had attended the Jewsish service and to show their less brotherly brethren that we have greater respect for their religion than they have for ours.
On Monday afternoon, May 7, I returned to HQ XV Corps, which, in my absence, had moved with the battle-line about seventy five miles eastward from Munich, Germany, to Salzburg, Austria. Here, on May 8, the war in Europe officially ended; but die-hard Nazi units of the German forces did not cease fighting with our units until May 11. On that date, XV Corps was placed in charge of the Austrian Occupation Zone, a mission which it fulfilled until July 1. During these six weeks, I traveled constantly between Innsbruck on the wst and Linz on the east, holding services for our widely scattered troops and trying to be of some help to the DPs in the many camps throughout Austria.
The text if the speech which I delivered at Dachau on May 6, 1945, follows:
My Jewish brethren of Dachau,
In the portion which we read yesterday in our holy Torah, we found these words: “Ukrawsen d’ror baw-awretz l’chawl yoshvehaw; yovel hee ti’ye lawchem; v’shavtem ish el achuzawso v’ish el mishpatchto tawshuvu” which mean “Proclaim freedom through the world to all the inhabitants thereof; a day of celebration shall this be for you, a day when every man shall return to his family and to his rightful place in society.”
In the United States of America, in the city of Philadelphia, upon the exact spot where 169 years ago a group of brave Americans met and decided to fight for American independence, there stands a marker upon which is written these very same words: “Proclaim freedom throughout the world to all the inhabitants thereof.” From the beginning of their existence as a liberty-loving and independent people, the citizens of America understood that not until all the peoples of the world were free would they be truly free, that not until tyranny and oppression had been erased from the hearts of all men and all nations would there be a lasting peace and happiness for themselves. Thus it has been that, throughout our entire history, whenever and wherever men have been enslaved, Americans have fought to set them free, whenever and wherever dictators have endeavored to destroy democracy and justice and truth, Americans have not rested content until these despots have been overthrown.
Today I come to you in a dual capacity—as a soldier in the American Army and as a representative of the Jewish community of America. As an American soldier, I say to you that we are proud, very proud, to be here, to know that we have had a share in the destruction of the most cruel tyranny of all time. As an American soldier, I say to you that we are proud, very proud, to be with you as comrades-in-arms, to greet you and salute you as the bravest of the brave. We know your tragedy. We know your sorrows. We know that upon you was centered the venomous hatred of power-crazed madmen, that your annihilation was decreed and planned systematically and ruthlessly. We know, too, that you refused to be destroyed, that you fought back with every weapon at your command, that you fought with your bodies, with your minds and your spirit. Your faith and our faith in God and in humanity have been sustained. Our enemies lie prostrate before us. The way of life which together we have defended still lives and it will live so that all men everywhere may have freedom and happiness and peace.
I speak to you also as a Jew, as a rabbi in Israel, as a teacher of that religious philosophy which if dearer to all of us than life itself. What message of comfort and strength can I bring to you from your fellow Jews? What can I say that will compare in depth or in intensity to that which you have suffered and overcome? Full well do I know and humbly do I confess the emptiness of mere words in this hour of mingled sadness and joy. Words will not bring the dead back to life nor right the wrongs of the past ten years. This is not a time for words, you will say, and rightfully so. This is a time for deeds, deeds of justice, deeds of love… Justice will be done. We have seen with our own eyes and we have heard with our own ears and we shall not forget. As long as there are Jews in the world, “Dachau” will be a term of horror and shame. Those who labored here for their evil master must be hunted down and destroyed as systematically and as ruthlessly as they sought your destruction… And there will be deeds of love. It is the recognized duty of all truly religious people to bestir themselves immediately to assist you to regain health, comfort and some measure of happiness as speedily as is humanly possible. This must be done. This can be done. This will be done. You are not and you will not be forgotten men, my brothers. In every country where the lamps of religion and decency and kindness still burn, Jews and non-Jews alike will expend as much time and energy and money as is needful to make good the pledge which is written in our holy Torah and inscribed on that marker in Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love.
We know that abstractions embodied in proclamations and celebrations must be followed by more concrete, more helpful fulfillments. We do not intend to brush aside the second part of the divine promise: “V’shvtem ish el achuzawso v’ish el mishpachto tawshuvu.” Every man who has been oppressed must and will be restored to his family and to his rightful place in society. This is a promise and a pledge which I bring to you from your American comrades-in-arms and your Jewish brethren across the seas.
You shall go out with joy, and be led forth in peace;
The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing:
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress,
And instead of brambles myrtles shall spring forth;
And God’s name will be glorified;
This will be remembered forever,
This will never be forgotten. [Isaiah 55:12, 13]