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The Liberation

Welcome to "The Liberation"

Welcome to "The Liberation", our virtual tour of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. Here we will tell you the story of how Dachau Concentration Camp was liberated by American troops on April 29th, 1945.

Prisoners flock at the windows and doors of the Jourhaus. In front: US-soldiers (photo: USHMM) SS-Untersturmführer Heinrich Wicker, a US-soldier, Victor Maurer from the International Red Cross and US-Brigadier General Linden standing on the wall

1 The Jour Haus

This photo was taken on April 29th, 1945 – the day the camp was liberated by American forces. You are now standing at almost exactly the same spot as the photographer that day. You can position the photo precisely over the building with the entrance gate. This building is called the Jourhaus by the way.

The tour contains 12 photos and takes around 25 minutes. We have to point out: not all the places in the photos arestill accessible to the public. Furthermore not all the places photographed can be identified today. In order to tellthe story of the liberation in as much detail as possible, you will soon see some photos that were actually takenoutside the current memorial site itself.

But there is no doubt about this particular photo. Let's take a closer look: the photo shows the entrance of the prisoners' camp shortly after the liberation. The man standing on the wall is General Henning Linden, brigadier general of the 42nd "Rainbow" Infantry Division of the US Army. Just below and in front of him stands a man with a white armband. This is Victor Maurer, a representative from the International Committee of the Red Cross. He arrived in Dachau the day before the liberation and is responsible for the peaceful handover of the concentration camp to the American forces. The tall man to the left of Victor Maurer is SS-Untersturmführer (equivalent to 2nd Lieutenant) Heinrich Wicker. He is 23 years old and has been camp commandant for just two days, as the original SS personnel have fled. They did not want to be captured by the Americans. 

In the background you can see quite a lot of people looking out of the windows and doors of the Jourhaus. Most of them are prisoners – you can get an idea of how full the camp is just from this first photo: over 32,000 people were imprisoned in Dachau Concentration Camp on the day it was liberated. The camp was built to hold just 6,000.

But the Jourhaus is not the first thing the American troops see, when they arrive at Dachau Concentration Camp.

Let's move on to the next photo, then listen to the first eyewitness.

Utility poles at a railway track Corpses in and in front of a goods train. US-soldiers in front of the wagons, looking inside (photo: USHHM)

2 The Dead in the train from Buchen­wald

The first thing the US soldiers see is a goods train full of corpses. The train was not exactly on this spot; it was actually about a kilometer away, where there used to be an SS camp. We are looking roughly in that direction at the moment. The site is not accessible to visitors now.  Prisoners from Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar were transported to Dachau in these wagons. They traveled for three weeks without adequate provisions. Almost 5,000 prisoners had left Buchenwald; half of them did not survive the journey. Hundreds of corpses lie in the open wagons.  The first thing that the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions of the US Army came to see as they advanced to Dachau Concentration Camp were these corpses. The soldiers, many of them not even 20 years old, were horrified by the sight. William Cowling, 1st Lieutenant of the 42nd Division of the US Army is one who witnessed the situation.. He was accompanied by a couple of journalists. He is not in this photo, but he describes the circumstances in a letter to his parents:

“En route we learned from civilians and two newspaper people that just off the main road was the concentration camp of Dachau. These newspaper people were going up to see the camp so we decided to go up too. We rode in a Jeep with a guard out ahead of the boys and we were several hundred yards ahead as we approached the camp.

The first thing we came to was a railroad track leading out of the camp with a lot of open box cars on it. As we crossed the track and looked back into the cars the most horrible sight I have ever seen (up to that time) met my eyes. The cars were loaded with dead bodies. Most of them were naked and all of them skin and bones. Honestly their legs and arms were only a couple of inches around and they had no buttocks at all. Many of the bodies had bullet holes in the back of their heads. It made us sick at our stomach and so mad we could do nothing but clinch our fists. I couldn’t even talk.

We then moved on towards the camp and my Jeep was still several hundred yards ahead. As we approached the main gate a German officer and a civilian wearing an International red Cross band and carrying a white flag came out. We immediately filed out and I was just hoping he would make a funny move so I could hit the trigger of my tommy gun. He didn’t however and when he arrived abreast of us he asked for an American officer. I informed him he was talking to one and he said he wished to surrender the camp to me.”

Let's move on to the next photo to find out what happened after this first encounter.

SS-Untersturmführer Heinrich Wicker, Paul Lévy, Victor Maurer, General Henning Linden and other US-soldiers standing in a circle (photo: USHHM) Unknown SS-man and an unknown US-soldier standing by

3 The Americans are here

This photo captures the moment when Dachau Concentration Camp was handed over to the US Army. Featuring from left to right: an SS man with his arms folded behind his back. He covers the man in front of him, SS-Untersturmführer Heinrich Wicker, camp commandant at the time. The man opposite us, wearing the light-colored scarf is Paul Lévy, a Belgian journalist, who was working for the Americans as an interpreter. The man wearing a white armband with his back to us, is Victor Maurer of the International Red Cross; he is carrying a pole, to which he has attached a white flag, which is barely discernible. Next to him, facing us, is Henning Linden, the brigadier general of the 42nd "Rainbow" Infantry Division:. The other men are unknown US soldiers. 

The handover did not happen at this exact spot.

It is Sunday, April 29th, 1945, at around 5 p.m.
The man with the white armband, Swiss national Victor Maurer of the International Committee of the Red Cross, had arrived at Dachau the day before. It was his job to prepare the camp handover.  He describes precisely that one moment in a report written that very same night:

“The sound of the battle became unbearable, and I noticed that the fighting was now in front of the gate. I then decided to take the following action: I found a broomstick and hung a white towel from it. I asked a German officer to accompany me, and we walked through the main gate. The bullets whistled above us. A little later, I saw an American motorized column which I attracted by waving the white flag.

Soon we were surrounded by American military vehicles. I introduced myself. At first, the American general asked me to have the German officer take photographs of a train filled with cadavers. As I learned later, the train had arrived from Buchenwald. In my opinion, many of them had been killed, others died of hunger. I then met Major Avery and l told him about the plan to turn the Camp over to the Americans, and I asked him to transmit this information to the General. We reentered the prison courtyard in the Major’s vehicle; by this time some Americans were there. Thousands of prisoners were beside themselves with the joy of freedom.”

While Victor Maurer is still speaking with the General, a couple of journalists and US soldiers set off towards the entrance. Let's do the same now.

Young prisoners behind the gate with the label “Work sets one free” (photo: Maurice Ede, Gamma Presse, Getty-Images)

4 The Gate

The entrance gate to the concentration camp. The gate bears the notorious inscription "Arbeit macht frei", or "Work sets you free". This photo was taken shortly after the liberation. The US soldiers and two journalists walking through this gate and into the camp have no idea what to expect. Let's listen once again to Lieutenant William Cowling of the 42nd Infantry Division. He is with the journalists:

“The newspaper people said they were going on into the camp and I got permission to go on with them with my guard leaving the others with the General. We went through one gate and spotted some Germans in a tower. I hollered in German for them to come to me and they did. I sent them back to the guards and the General and I got on the front of the newspaper people’s Jeep and headed for the gate.

A man lay dead just in front of the gate. A bullet through his head. One of the Germans we had taken lifted him out of the way and we dismounted and went throughout the gate into a large cement square about 800 squares surrounded by low black barracks and the whole works enclosed by barbed wire.

When we entered the gate not a soul was in sight. Then suddenly people (if you could call them that) came from all directions. They were dirty, starved skeletons with torn and tattered clothes and they screamed and hollered and cried. They ran up and grabbed us, myself and the newspaper people and they kissed our hands, our feet and all of them tried to touch us. They grabbed us and tossed us into the air screaming at the top of their lungs.”

Let's go through the gate now and see the jubilation for ourselves.

Former prisoners and US-soldiers celebrating together (photo: Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial archive) An unknown former prisoner and three US-soldiers talking with each other An unknown former prisoner holding a bottle in his hand

5 Free at last

In this photo you can see some of the liberated prisoners celebrating together with US soldiers. Their expression is one of joy and relief.
One of the prisoners joyously greeting the Americans is Arthur Haulot, a Belgian resistance fighter. He is friends with Paul Lévy, the Belgian working as an interpreter for the Americans. You just saw Paul Lévy in the previous photo; he was the man wearing the white scarf. At that point the friends did not know that they would be meeting again soon. This is how prisoner Arthur Haulot describes the moment he is liberated and meets his friend again:

“Two soldiers climb over the fence, one embraces me. I kiss him, he kisses me … and I notice that he is a woman. An American war correspondent, the first American citizen to enter the liberated camp. A complete frenzy was let loose. The whole camp was shoving toward the fences. The SS men who had been rounded up on the other side are openly scorned. If we could get our hands on them, we would tear them apart. The crowd yells out its joy. It's impossible to calm them down. But what a surprise, what a delight for me! I discover Paul Lévy in the group of people surrounding the American general! He came to look for me.”

How lucky for the two friends to find each other here again after all that time - right in the middle of a war. Let´s hear Paul Lévy`s impression of this encounter, too:

“At that time, being unable to control myself, I ran inside the camp. Sub-machine guns were suddenly fired again. It was then that the prisoners, seeing one of the American soldiers, crashed through the doors of their barracks. A huge outcry rose from the crowd. Through the bars of the gate I saw thousands of inmates running like madmen, spilling all over the roll call square. I attemped to open the gate. From the inside, crying, screaming, and cheering inmates grabbed my hands, kissed them… and, all of a sudden, I heard my name shouted by a familiar voice. Arthur Haulot was there...”

However, most prisoners were far too weak to run to the American troops. We will now take a closer look at the state the camp was in when it was liberated.

Several prisoners at the Appellplatz in front of a barrack (photo: Ghetto Fighters House archive) A prisoner carrying a stretcher Three unknown, malnourished and faint prisoners support each other while walking over the Appellplatz

6 At their limits

In this photo you can see malnourished prisoners, ravaged by disease, holding on to each other for support. They are known as "Muselmänner" in concentration camp slang, a word that refers to completely starving, lethargic prisoners who are closer to death than life.

Ben Lesser describes the liberation from the perspective of one of the sick prisoners.. He is not in this photo. At that time, Ben was 17 years old and had barely survived the transportation in the Death Train from Buchenwald - together with his cousin Isaac. You remember the Death Train from the other photograph.

“Three days later, not having moved from the floor, Isaac and I thought we were imagining the jubilant noises coming from the yard. It sounded as if the almost dead prisoners were trying to shout, ‚Liberation! Liberation!‘ – in many different languages. The one we understood the clearest was Yiddish: „Bafreiung!“ Confused and curious as to why so many Musselmans -almost dead men - were faintly screaming this word so ecstatically, my cousin and I leaned against each other for leverage and somehow forced ourselves to stand up.

We held on to each other and hobbled shakily outside. We saw a joyful mob of inmates rushing to hug our saviors. Sadly, we also saw many of them fall and die before they could touch their liberators. The Americans had been so shocked and disgusted by the sight of emaciated walking skeletons and corpses scattered and piled all over the place, that many of them were on their knees, sobbing and throwing up.

Isaac and I barely stood there hanging on to each other, too numb to move and too stunned to even think. We watched as two young, clean, and healthy American soldiers approached us. We didn’t even know what to think or feel. They tried to mask their horror at the sight of us with friendly smiles.”

Like Ben Lesser, lots of prisoners were inside the barracks when the Americans arrived. So let's go to the barracks on the right. Our liberation tour continues at the back of the barracks.

The austrian physician Ella Lingens, an inmate in the Concentration Camp Dachau, bends over a bed with a sick prisoner A sick unknown woman lying on a bed in a barrack of the concentration camp Dachau (photo: Lee Miller Archive)

7 More dead than alive

Here you can see Austrian doctor Ella Lingens examining another inmate. There were almost 300 women among 32,000 liberated prisoners. Most of the female prisoners were not housed in Dachau itself, but in its satellite camps. By now, Ella Lingens was imprisoned for two years for being an anti-Nazi activist.

“We women found out about all this only in fragments. I was very busy again during those days, because 250 women who had been walking by foot from Saxony to Dachau in 14 days were in a terrible state and needed to have their feet bandaged. We did not have time to worry about anything else. At 5 o´clock p.m., while I was bandaging foot after foot, I heard shots and loud, jubilant shouting. I ran to the roll-call area with another prisoner from Vienna who happened to be nearby at the time. The gate of the “Schurhaus” was open and in came the first American soldiers, welcomed by indescribable cheering from the prisoners.”

Let's look a bit further along the barracks.

Several unknown prisoners looking out of a window of a barrack (photo: USHMM) Barbed-wire window of a barrack in the concentration camp Dachau

8 Between hope and fear

In this photo you can see several prisoners looking out of the barracks window. It was taken shortly after the liberation. We do not know exactly who they are.On the day of the liberation, April 29th, 1945, most prisoners remained inside the totally overcrowded barracks. Many were too weak, but lots were afraid too. Some prisoners heard the SS had orders to kill all the inmates. And there had been no food for days. Another fear was that the camp was to be destroyed in combat. Anton Gortnar, a Slovenian, does not appear in this photo, but listen now to his impression of the situation as the news of the liberation spreads all over the camp.

“April 29th was a Sunday. Very early in the morning, we noticed a white flag outside the camp. The camp was surrendering! The guards were still in their towers. We heard occasional gunfire from the Plantation over the course of the day. Bullets went flying over the camp too. We stayed in the barracks and waited. At half past five, I heard the pounding of feet from people running on the camp road. I went out of the barracks and saw a flood of people rushing towards the roll-call area. There was one word on everyone's lips: "Americans, Americans!" I watched them as they made their way along the camp fence one after the other. The roll-call area was full of prisoners in no time. Cries of joy and delight! Now and then a belated burst of fire from the machine guns in the guard towers. But even those machine guns eventually fell silent for good. Some prisoners broke through the fence and ripped the guards crawling out of their towers, apart.”

We will come back to what happens to the SS men later. Let us first take a look inside a room in the barracks.

Several unknown prisoners lying close to each other on the bunk beds of a barrack, one prisoners climbing upwards (photo: Lee Miller Archive)

9 Not enough space

The camp is in an appalling state, almost indescribable. And with over 32,000 prisoners, it is completely overcrowded – the camp was actually designed for just 6,000. Photographer Lee Miller took this shot of a room inside the barracks. It was taken the day after the liberation to keep records of the conditions there. You will now hear Anton Gortnar again with his description of the situation inside the barracks.

“Our camp was so full that each room housed 300 or more prisoners. Bunk beds had been set up in the living areas as well. The "cleanliness" that had been the "pride" of this camp in the first few years was now nowhere to be seen. Everything was full of lice; there were typhus epidemics, diarrhea, and other diseases. The sick simply lay in their beds and died there. They even had to relieve themselves there. There was a dreadful smell in all the so-called “Invalid” blocks (the odd-numbered blocks from 15 to 19) Not even the dead had been taken away regularly . Prisoners who were still strong enough would throw themselves out of the windows. The dead bodies were left on the upper bunks as everyone was too weak to reach for them.”

The situation that Anton Gortnar describes in his report is hard to imagine. Just in the time from the beginning of January until the liberation, seven thousand one hundred and 10 people died. Let us take a closer look.

People squatting and sitting in a street between two barracks in the concentration camp Dachau (photo: Lee Miller Archive) Several unknown prisoners standing close to each other between two barracks Four corpses lying at the wall of a barrack

10 Corpses everywhere

The rescue comes too late for many prisoners. In this photo you can see emaciated bodies laid out between the barracks. Next to them are former prisoners. Since the previous winter of 1944, there was no fuel left in the camp to burn the corpses in the crematorium.

Journalist Marguerite Higgins is accompanying the 42nd Infantry Division of the US Army as a war correspondent. You have already heard of her – she was one of the first people to enter Dachau Concentration Camp. Marguerite Higgins writes for the "New York Herald Tribune". In her report dated April 29th, 1945, she pictures the conditions like those in this photo:

“The barracks at Dachau, like those at Buchenwald, had the stench of death and sickness. But at Dachau there were six barracks like the infamous No. 61 at Buchenwald, where the starving and dying lay virtually on top of each other in quarters where 1.200 men occupied a space intended for 200. The dead lay on concrete walks outside the quarters and others were being carried out as the reporters went through. The mark of starvation was on all the emaclated corpses. Many of the living were so frail it seemed impossible they could still be holding on to life.”

Now we will continue to the barbed wire near the guard tower. That is our next station.

Young prisoners standing behind barbed wire, waving and celebrating (photo: Horace Adams / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

11 Rescue at the last moment

The moment the Americans arrive: young prisoners cheer their liberators from behind the barbed wire. This photo was probably not taken at this exact spot.

There are over 1,000 children and young people among the freed prisoners. Steve Ross was 14 years old when he was liberated from Dachau Concentration Camp. Back then, he was still called Sz(ch)mul Rozental. He has revisited the Dachau memorial site and thinks he recognizes himself on this photo. According to his memory he should be the first boy from the left with the striped inmate clothing, leaning against the barbed wire. This is how Steve Ross remembers this moment:

“I saw prisoners running to the Main Gate. I was very weak and hardly able to walk, but I had to get to the gate. I walked for a while, but got dizzy and fell down. My brother didn’t want me to go, but he followed me. When I fell, he picked me up and walked with me. There were hundreds of dead bodies lying everywhere. We were forced to step on some just to get by.

On the way, we saw giant soldiers carrying emaciated victims in their arms. They spoke to us, but we couldn’t understand them. As we got closer, we saw many soldiers enter the Camp. There was such confusion and bedlam, the soldiers didn’t know what to do first.

They immediately gave us food: crackers, canned food, chocolates. They even shared cigarettes. They were called ‘God’s Army.’ I looked at them and they looked at me I wanted to be a soldier just like them. I was so overwhelmed with joy and happiness when I saw such strong men who had saved my life. Had they arrived a few days later, I might not have survived.”

We will remain here for the next photo: on the death strip between the barbed wire and the outer wall.

Several corpses of shot SS-men at the outer wall of the Concentration Camp Dachau, in the back: a watchtower In the background: barracks of the Concentration camp Dachau (photo: USHMM) A US-soldier with a rifle (photo: USHMM)

12 SS-men are shot

In this photo you can see a US soldier standing in front of a group of SS guards, who have been shot dead. On the day of the liberation, there is still some exchange of fire between the Americans and the SS men in the grounds of the concentration camp. Some of the SS men are executed on the spot by US soldiers or – a very small number are killed by prisoners. But as you have already heard: . Most prisoners are against these acts of revenge. Johann Steinbock, a Catholic priest held captive in Dachau for four years, describes it like this:

“We rush around, and soon see five SS men by Guard Tower B outside Block 18 who have been shot dead. The machine gun is still sticking out from the tower on the side facing the camp, while a white flag is waving on the outside. The prisoners who saw what happened tell us the men came down, the Americans took hold of them, something or other was said, maybe they denied having weapons, quick as a flash the American seemed to twitch, pulled out his submachine gun almost imperceptibly and with just a small movement of his finger, the five were dead on the ground.

We looked for the cause of the other shots. On the camp wall on the other side, near to the Plantation gate, we saw eight SS men shot dead. They had been marched out of the towers; I could not find out why they had been lined up against the wall.”

Now let's move on to the last photo.

Three unknown, malnourished, young prisoners sitting on the stairs of a barrack in the concentration camp Dachau (photo: USHMM)

13 How to carry on

We do not know who the prisoners in this photo are. It was taken shortly after the liberation. Heinz J.(jot) Herrmann, a Czech national, is 24 years old and has been a concentration camp inmate since 1942. He only came to Dachau from Auschwitz in January 1945. He is not in this photo. But his memories of the liberation reflect the mood of this photo very well:

“Quite a few people, myself included, just could not understand what was going on, that there was no need to be afraid anymore, that one minute we were hunted beasts and the next we were free men.

I can't remember there being lots of cheering, not many of us had the strength for wild delight, but everyone expressed their joy in their own way. People got on their knees and prayed, cried, laughed, threw themselves onto their liberators and embraced them. Others looked for their friends to savor this wonderful moment together, and many did not know what to do with their newfound freedom. Did they have relatives to return to, did they have a home that was willing to accept them, was there an existence for them after all those years of being "provided for"?

Many of the liberated prisoners were just lying around apathetically, weakend and dazed. Some of them survived the liberation only for a few hours or days. They could not be saved and did not even realize that they were free.”

We've come to the end of the virtual tour of the 75th anniversary of the liberation. If you want to know more, we can recommend our Podcast: "Die Befreiung - Die letzten Stunden in den Konzentrationslagern Flossenbürg und Dachau", available in German only. Here you can hear the stories of some of the people you've met in the virtual tour in greater depth.

Titelbild vom Podcast „Die Befreiung“

Die Befreiung – Podcast

Weiter eintauchen im Podcast: Die Geschichten einzelner Häftlinge und Befreier aus dem Rundgang werden hier vertieft und um Schicksale aus dem KZ Flossenbürg ergänzt.

Zum Podcast


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