Flares of Memory: Stories of Childhood during the Holocaust

By Anita Brostoff; Sheila Chamovitz | Go to book overview

A Letter from Dachau
Arthur Peternel
Captain, 48th Engineer Combat Battalion,
1108th Combat Engineers, 5th Army

APRIL 29, 1945

Dear Collie, Yesterday I witnessed one of the most horrible sights that anyone can imagine. It was so horrible that had I not seen it, I wouldn't have believed it. Even now, I wonder if what I saw could possibly be true in this civilized world.

I visited the German concentration camp at Dachau. You've probably read about it in the newspapers, but I want to put here in writing what I actually saw, so that you will know that the horror of what was described in the paper is not propaganda.

It was one of those cold, blustery, spring days, with rain, snow and sleet mixed with short periods of sunshine. The fruit trees were in blossom, patches of flowers seemed to shimmer in the chill air.

As I approached the far edge of town the road ran parallel to the railroad track. A train had been left standing on the tracks. Through the open doors of the box cars, I saw them—bodies. Cars full of them! They apparently had died of starvation, for the bodies were thin and emaciated, just skin and bones. A full-grown man, and his thighs were no bigger around than my arm.

The enclosure covered several acres. Inside were prisoners of all nationalities, numbering, I was told, some forty-five thousand. They were housed in filthy wooden barracks, surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence, electrically charged, so that they could not escape. All were garbed in striped uniforms, and as an added precaution to prevent their escape, giant dogs had been trained to attack any man in the striped uniform. I was told that from thirty to forty died per day, from lack of food or wounds that had been inflicted by the guards. These dead were unceremoniously dumped on a pile and later carted off.

But the most horrible sight of all was the crematory. There was carried on the most systematic mass murder program that a fiendish brain could conjure. The men were brought to this place and forced to remove all their clothing, take a hot shower, and then forced into a gas chamber and asphyxiated. Later the bodies were cremated, and the ashes supposedly placed in earthenware jars and sold to the surviving relatives of the deceased.

Our troops entered this place, apparently, during an operation. In one room were about a hundred nude bodies, stacked like plucked chickens in a butcher's

-288-

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