“Here now coming from behind a cement-mixer parked at the edge of the camp, an olive drab shadow, with a spotted cape like a torero’s and a helmet embellished with leaves and branches, moves cautiously forward, submachine gun in one hand, grenade in the other. He is still quite far away but I can already imagine that I see him chewing gum. He comes cautiously, yes, but upright, stalwart, unafraid. I almost expect to see him followed by a pure white charger.”
This was the recollection of journalist Nerin E. Gun (pictured above) of the first glimpse which he had of an American soldier coming to liberate him, and the other prisoners of Dachau Concentration Camp in Southern Germany late on today’s date, April 29 in 1945. Gun goes on to describe how America had always been a faraway, distant country which he and the other Europeans had known only through the Western movies and how this soldier seemed like something out of “…a tumultuous western.”
“This soldier of the 3rd Battalion, 45th Combat Division, born in the American Midwest of Polish parents and now come to Dachau, was for us, in this moment of intoxication, the very incarnation of the American hero; not one detail was out of character — his bearing, his face, the way he held his submachine gun, his slightly ridiculous helmet…”
Dachau: A Center for Evil
Dachau was one of the first concentration camps in Germany established in the very heart of Bavaria, near the city of Munich. Built originally to confine some 5,000 political prisoners of the Nazi Government of Germany, it eventually became the central establishment in a network of some 150 subcamps in that area, and by this point in 1945, was housed over 30,000 beaten, starved inmates.
Here on the other side of gates which cynically bore the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work brings freedom”) the inmates of Dachau were beaten, starved, and subjected to slave labor, and truly inhumane experiments by sadistic Nazi doctors. They were made up primarily of Jews, but every group which the Nazi government considered unfit, such as Communists, liberals, Clerics, Gypsies, and Homosexuals, were represented there. And dangerous writers such as the journalist Gun, who as a Swiss correspondent published accounts of Nazi activities in the Warsaw Ghetto, and their defeats in Russia, found themselves imprisoned behind the barbed wire fences of this hell on earth. And true to Dante’s vision, this inferno was equipped with gas chambers to murder the maximum number of inmates possible along with ovens to cremate their remains.
Margaret Higgins Reports
In a report published in the New York Herald Tribune on May 1, 1945, reporter Margaret Higgins described the wild delirium of those first hours after the liberation of the camp by elements of General Wade H. Hailslip’s XV Corps of the United States Seventh Army:
“…the minute the two of us entered a jangled barrage of ‘Are you Americans?’ in about sixteen languages came from barracks 200 yards from the gate. An affirmative nod caused pandemonium. Tattered emaciated men, weeping, yelling and shouting ‘Long Live America!!’ swept toward the gate in a mob. Those who could not walk limped or crawled…. I happened to be the first through the gate, and the first person to rush up to me turned out to be a Polish Catholic Priest… who was not a little startled to discover that the helmeted, uniformed, begoggled individual he had so heartily embraced was not a man.”
It was a moment of overwhelming thankfulness for Nerin E. Gun and the other men who were liberated by this American soldier: “It was you, unknown GI, coming from the shadowy edge of the field, with your submachine gun in your hand; you. carefree, brave and daring GI who made us men again.”
General Eisenhower’s Reaction to the Nazi Death Camps
It was in reaction to a liberation of a death camp earlier in April that Allied Supreme Commander General Dwyght D. Eisenhower recorded his shocked reaction in explaining why he requested that reporters and news reel cameras be dispatched to record the atrocities for the world to see:
“I have never felt able to describe my emotional reaction when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard for every shred of decency. I am certain however that I have at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock…. I felt that evidence should immediately be placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”
“Day of the Americans” by Nerin E. Gun, Fleet Publ. Co., New York, 1966
“The Redemption of the Unwanted” by Abram L. Sachar, St. Martins/Marek, New York, 1983
“Reporting World War II” Part Two, Literary Classics of the United States Inc., New York, 1995
“A General’s Life” by Omar N. Bradley and Clay Blair, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983.
“Crusade in Europe” by Dwyght D. Eisenhower, Doubleday & Co., Garden City, New York, 1948