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March 21, 2010

Where are the bodies of the prisoners who died at Dachau?

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 11:27 am

When the US Seventh Army arrived at Dachau on April 29, 1945 to liberate the concentration camp, many of the American soldiers reported later that the smell of the smoke from the burning of the bodies was horrific.  Some said that they had seen partially burned bodies in the ovens.  Others reported seeing smoke coming from the chimney on top of the crematorium.

There were stories told by the American liberators about the ashes that they saw flying in the air, or ashes covering the ground like snow.  Some visitors today imagine that they can still smell the burning bodies at Dachau. Others completely freak out when they see the ovens in the crematorium.

Some of the tour guides tell visitors today that the Nazis were killing the prisoners at Dachau as fast as they could before the American liberators got there.  Actually, the prisoners were dying at the rate of up to 400 per day in a typhus epidemic, and the Germans had run out of coal to burn the bodies.

The truth is that half of all the prisoners, who died during the 12 years that Dachau was in existence,  died in the last six months that the camp was open, including 2,226 who died in the month of May after the camp was liberated and 196 who died in June 1945 before the typhus epidemic was finally over.  The burial of the bodies at Dachau didn’t begin until May 13, 1945 and then only because the rotting corpses could not be kept on display any longer for the American soldiers and newspaper reporters who were brought to Dachau to see the horror.

Reporters view bodies at Dachau, May 3, 1945

The photo above shows bodies of prisoners who died after the Dachau camp was liberated; the bodies were left out so that newspaper reporters could see them on May 3, 1945.

Many tourists believe that there are mass graves in the woods to the north of the crematorium at Dachau, but these are graves of ashes, not bodies.  Up until October 1944, when the Germans ran out of coal to burn the bodies, the bodies were burned in the two creamatoria just outside the prison enclosure.  When the bodies could no longer be burned, they were buried in mass graves at Leitenberg, a hill that is a few miles from the camp.  A hill was chosen as the burial site in order to prevent contaminating the ground water at Dachau.

German citizens bury bodies at Leitenberg -- Photo Credit: Donald E. Jackson

Mass graves at Leitenberg cemetery near Dachau

Jewish monument at Leitenberg cemetery

Most of the prisoners who died at Dachau were Catholic, and the majority of the Catholic prisoners were Polish.  They were imprisoned at Dachau because they had been captured as illegal combatants after the Polish Army stopped fighting, but never surrendered.

Polish resistance fighters at Dachau celebrate their liberation

Polish resistance fighters honored at Leitenberg

Few tourists ever go to to see the cemetery at Leitenberg, mainly  because they’ve never heard of it.  The tour guides who escort groups of prisoners around the camp probably don’t even know about it.

I went to the hill called Leitenberg in May 2001 when I stayed for a week at Dachau.  I had a taxi driver take me there and come back for me two hours later.  I was all alone in the cemetery and it seemed to me to be a peaceful place.  At one point, I laid my camera on a rock while I rested awhile.  Then I got the feeling that I was not alone.  I couldn’t hear anyone, but I knew that there was someone there.  After awhile, two naked men stood up and folded the blanket that they had been lying on.  I couldn’t help thinking that these men would have been prisoners in the Dachau camp if they had been born 40 years earlier.

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