Last night, I watched the movie Hemmingway and Gellhorn on HBO. I was surprised that Martha Gellhorn’s famous coverage of the liberation of Dachau was not mentioned. The New York Times named her article about Dachau in Collier’s Weekly on June 23, 1945 as one of the 10 Magazine Articles that Shook the World.
You can read the full story of the liberation of Dachau on my website here.
This quote from the New York Times is about Gellhorn’s Dachau article:
Martha Gellhorn was one of the first female war correspondents and one of the first journalists to report from the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany after its liberation. “Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice,” she wrote. “They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky.’’ Her close observation, her attention to detail and her honest, subjective prose brought to life the unspeakable realities of Dachau for her readers. Eleanor Mills and Kira Cochrane, editors of the book Journalistas, say Gellhorn’s report “reawakens a sense of fresh horror in a way that a fifty-year-on commemoration of the now-familiar look of the camps can never do.”
Martha Gellhorn was way ahead of her time: she was a female war correspondent in a world where Women’s Liberation was as yet unknown, and she was a non-objective journalist in a world where news articles were expected to give both sides of any story.
This quote from Wikipedia explains how Gellhorn was a pioneer in the writing of the news in the style of today’s journalists:
Gellhorn remained a committed leftist throughout her life and was contemptuous of those who, like Rebecca West, became more conservative. She considered the ideal of journalistic objectivity “nonsense”, and used journalism to reflect her politics. Gellhorn was a prominent supporter of Israel and the Spanish Republic. For Gellhorn, Dachau had “changed everything”, and she became a life-long champion of Israel. She was a frequent visitor to Israel after 1949, and in the 1960s considered moving to Israel. An uncompromising opponent of fascism, Gellhorn had a more ambivalent attitude toward communism. While she is not known to have praised communism and Stalinism, she equally refused to criticize it.
In the movie Hemmingway and Gellhorn, the Gellhorn character says that she is “half Jewish.”
Martha Gellhorn was not at Dachau on April 29, 1945, the day that the camp was liberated. She arrived there on May 7, 1945, the day that Germany surrendered to end World War II.
This quote from her article is from this website:
“In their joy to be free, and longing to see their friends who had come at last, many prisoners rushed to the fence and died electrocuted. There were those who died cheering, because that effort of happiness was more than their bodies could endure. There were those who died because now they had food, and they ate before they could be stopped, and it killed them. I do not know words to describe the men who have survived this horror for years, three years, five years, ten years, and whose minds are as clear and unafraid as the day they entered. I was in Dachau when the German armies surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. We sat in that room, in that accursed cemetery prison, and no one had anything more to say. Still, Dachau seemed to me the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory. For surely this war was made to abolish Dachau, and all the other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it for ever.”
These quotes, from this website, are from her article on the liberation of Dachau:
“Behind the barbed wire and electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky. We crossed the wide, crowded, dusty compound between the prison barracks and went to the hospital. In the hall sat more of the skeletons, and from them came the smell of disease and death. They watched us but did not move; no expression shows on a face that is only yellowish, stubbly skin, stretched across bone. What had been a man dragged himself into the doctor’s office; he was a Pole and he was about six feet tall and he weighed less than a hundred pounds and he wore a striped prison shirt, a pair of unlaced boots, and a blanket which he tried to hold around his legs. His eyes were large and strange and stood out from his face, and his jawbone seemed to be cutting through his skin. He had come to Dachau from Buchenwald on the last death transport. There were fifty boxcars of his dead travelling (sic) companions still on the siding outside the camp, and for the last three days the American Army had forced Dachau civilians to bury these dead.” [...]
“…This man had survived; he was found under a pile of dead. Now he stood on the bones that were his legs and talked and suddenly he wept. Everyone is dead, he said, and the face that was not a face twisted with pain or sorrow or horror. “No one is left. Everyone is dead. I cannot help myself. Here I am and I am finished and cannot help myself. Everyone is dead.” [...]
You can read the story of the Death Train and the man who survived, after he was found under a pile of dead, on my website here. (Scroll down to see photos of the man who was rescued.)
The website article about Gellhorn continues with this quote:
Martha goes on to describe how the Polish doctor, who had himself been a prisoner at the camp for nearly five years, told the man that he would be okay, that in three or four weeks he would be a young man again. Martha also describes how the doctor had had to stand by and watch what was happening in the camp knowing he could do nothing about it. The Polish doctor also explained to Martha that German doctors and scientists had experimented on the inmates. One experiment was to find out how high a flyer could go without oxygen. So, having put an inmate into a closed car they gradually withdrew all the oxygen. The Polish doctor explained to Martha that it was a slow death, about fifteen minutes, and a hard death and proved that no one could live above 36,000 feet without oxygen. Martha writes that the Polish doctor explained that the Germans did not kill too many inmates in this experiment, only about eight hundred or so. [...]
She visited over fifty German cities, all of them in ruins, and she talked to people who had no gas or electric or jobs or medicines or food but who had not been in the concentration camps and she felt no pity for them, not then, not ever.
You can read more quotes from Gellhorn’s Dachau article on this website:
In Dachau she writes:
“We have all seen a great deal now; we have seen too many wars and too much violent dying; we have seen hospitals, bloody and messy as butcher shops; we have seen the dead like bundles lying on all the roads of half the earth. But nowhere was there anything like this. Nothing about war was ever as insanely wicked as these starved and outraged, naked nameless dead.Behind one pile of dead lay the clothed healthy bodies of the German soldiers who had been found in this camp… And for the first time anywhere one could look at a dead man with gladness.”
There were also:
“…the women who were moved to Dachau three weeks ago from their own concentration camps. Their crime was that they were Jewish. There was a lovely girl from Budapest, who was somehow still lovely, and the woman with mad eyes who had watched her sister walk into the gas chamber at Auschwitz and been held back and refused the right to die with her sister…the day the American Army arrived…There were those who died cheering, because the effort of happiness was more than their bodies could endure. There were those who died because…they ate before they could be stopped, and it killed them. I do not know words to describe men who have survived this horror for years…and whose minds are as clear and unafraid as the day they entered.”
Martha Gellhorn was at Dachau when she heard the news of the German surrender and Dachau was to her “the most suitable place in Europe to hear the news of victory. For surely war was made to abolish Dachau, and all other places like Dachau, and everything that Dachau stood for, and to abolish it forever.”
Today’s young people, who might be reading this, will have a hard time understanding why I am critical of Gellhorn’s reporting on the liberation of Dachau. Today’s journalists are overwhelmingly left-leaning liberals who report only one side of the news.
In Gellhorn’s day, it was considered proper to report both sides of the news. For example, Gellhorn could have mentioned the typhus epidemic that was raging in the camp, or that the water main had been broken by an Allied bomb hitting the camp and that there was no running water — and no electricity. She could have mentioned the healthy inmates in the camp, or that America was also conducting experiments for the American Air Force. One thing that Gellhorn absolutely should have mentioned is that Japanese-Americans and German-Americans were also interned in camps in America.
If Martha Gellhorn had written the truth about Dachau, she would be hated and reviled today as a “Holocaust denier.”