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May 24, 2010

Survivors of the Dachau “death train” saved by an African American soldier

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, World War II — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 8:12 am

I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal, published on November 25, 2003, about a young Jewish boy who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the death train to Dachau; you can read the full article here.  After Dachau was liberated on April 29, 1945, the boy was moved, along with other Dachau survivors, to the SS garrison next door to the concentration camp, which had been taken over by the American Army. There he met some African American soldiers who were in a supply convoy.  Lt. John Withers, the leader of the all-black convoy, violated Army orders by hiding this boy and another Dachau death train survivor among the black soldiers in his unit. The two boys stayed with the African American unit for more than a year while they recovered their health.  They could have remained with the other Displaced Persons at the SS garrison and been taken care of, but these two boys decided that they wanted their freedom after being in Nazi prison camps for years.

Dachau death train brought prisoners from Buchenwald to Dachau

The “death train” was  a transport train that arrived at Dachau on April 27, 1945 after a 20 day trip, bringing prisoners from the Buchenwald concentration camp.  Most stories about the train do not mention that there were survivors who entered the Dachau camp and were liberated two days later by American soldiers. You can read the full story of the death train here.

Here is a quote from the Wall Street Journal article which gives the gist of the story about the young survivor saved by an African American soldier who risked his future by disobeying orders:

From his labor camp near Auschwitz, where he had been for six months, 16-year-old Mieczyslaw heard the Russian cannons. In late January of 1945, the Nazis marched him and thousands of others northwest. Mieczyslaw wrapped his shoes in paper bags so he wouldn’t slip on the snow. Many who faltered were shot, he later recalled.

He wound up in the “Little Camp” at Buchenwald. In April, he was loaded onto a snow-filled train that zigzagged through Germany and Czechoslovakia for three weeks. He sat on a man who had frozen to death. When he arrived at Dachau, his ribs poked at his skin. He’d been there two days when U.S. troops liberated the camp on April 29, 1945.

U.S. soldiers moved Mieczyslaw and other inmates to an abandoned SS barracks near Munich, he recalled. One day Mieczyslaw discovered that a bag holding his only belongings — a few items of clothing — had been stolen. The theft so infuriated him that he left.

Dressed in his ragged prisoner’s uniform, Mieczyslaw walked to another barracks where he’d noticed black U.S. soldiers. He had heard that American blacks were poor and, like him, had faced discrimination.

He found members of Quartermaster Truck Company 3512 washing dishes. Using hand gestures and some German, he made them understand he wanted a job.

The men let Mieczyslaw help. That first night he slept outside on a table, he later recalled. The next morning, the soldiers gave him a room with a bed, a bureau, a desk and a window that looked out on a forest. They fed him goulash and bread, and gave him a nickname, “Peewee,” because his name was a mouthful and he was about 5 feet tall.

Then one morning, the soldiers told Mieczyslaw — now Peewee — that a lieutenant had learned of his presence, as well as that of another Dachau refugee, 20 years old, whom they’d dubbed “Salomon.” John Withers, who’d recently been promoted to first lieutenant, wanted to see them.

Quartermaster units had orders to avoid contact with the Dachau prisoners, Lt. Withers later recalled. His superiors worried that supply convoys would pick up diseases and spread them to other Army units. Researchers at the National Archives couldn’t locate specific records of such orders but said other records indicate that Army brass were acutely concerned about health risks posed by Dachau prisoners.

Lt. Withers had learned that it was especially important for blacks to follow orders in the segregated Army. He recalled worrying that sheltering Dachau refugees might get him a dishonorable discharge — and then there would be no GI Bill for him.

He assumed the two refugees were war-toughened men who were exploiting his soldiers’ sympathy. So he was unprepared when the soldiers brought Peewee and Salomon. The refugees seemed shrunken and frightened, really just boys, he recalled thinking.

Peewee would later recall that his knees felt weak as he waited for the lieutenant’s verdict. He assumed that his immediate family was dead. He was 16. He had no home, no money and no clothing but what he wore. He wanted no more part of the Allies’ displaced-persons camps. In the chaos following the war, he had no idea what to do next.

Lt. Withers assumed that Peewee and Salomon would be returned to Dachau, where thousands of former prisoners were still convalescing, according to Army dispatches from the summer of 1945. He’d been to Dachau on a bread-and-milk delivery shortly after it was liberated. He’d seen bodies decomposing in an open ditch, smelled the rotting flesh. How could he send them back?

“Keep them,” he recalled blurting to his men. “We’re going to take care of them.”


  1. Do you really believe this story?

    Comment by Sceptic — May 26, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    • Yes, I think that these two young Jewish boys were at Dachau when the camp was liberated, and they were moved into a DP camp at Dachau. They decided to run away from the DP camp and join an African American supply convoy. If they had stayed in the DP camp, they would have been fed and taken care of by the American military, but they would not have had the freedom of following a supply convoy around Germany for a year.

      Comment by furtherglory — May 26, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

      • So what happened to the African-Americans who did such an irregular thing — actually ignored regulations. Shouldn’t they be reprimanded for that? Did the American military decide to make it into a feel-good story? How could that supply convoy hide those boys for a year … they weren’t black!

        Comment by Sceptic — May 27, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

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