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June 19, 2012

91-year-old WWII veteran breaks his silence about the Dachau massacre

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 10:38 am

Most news articles, about the American soldiers who liberated the Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945, mention that these veterans have never talked to their families about the horror of Dachau.  Now one of the Dachau liberators, Don Ritzenthaler, has broken his silence and has told his grandson about what really happened at Dachau when the camp was liberated.

Gatehouse at Dachau concentration camp, 1945

This quote is from an article written by John Deem on May 25, 2012 in the Lake Norman Citizen newspaper:

Grandpa Ritz has never been able to talk about Dachau, other than to say he was there, and that what he saw was horrible. After reading about the place and what the Germans did to their mostly Jewish prisoners, I wasn’t surprised that the mention of Dachau rendered my typically effusive grandfather mute.

But there always was something in Grandpa’s reaction that made me wonder: Was he haunted by more than just the ghosts of what he’d seen on April 29, 1945?

According to the Official Report by the U.S. Army, there were 31,432 prisoners in the main camp on the day the camp was liberated.  Among the survivors were 2,539 Jews who had been brought to the main camp from some of the 123 sub-camps just a few weeks before the liberators arrived.

Most of the prisoners in the sub-camps of Dachau were Jews who had survived Auschwitz and had been brought on trains to Germany after Auschwitz was abandoned by the Germans in January 1945. Other Jews at Dachau on the day of liberation had been brought there from three Lithuanian ghettos in the Summer of 1944. The American liberators got most of their information about the Dachau main camp from these Jews who had only recently arrived and were eager to tell their stories.

Throughout its 12-year history, Dachau was mainly a camp for political prisoners, including Communists, Social Democrats, trade union leaders, spies, resistance fighters, and others who were considered “enemies of the state.”  Also among the prisoners were Catholic priests, common criminals, Gypsy men, homosexuals, and asocials. Dachau was not a death camp for the genocide of the Jews.

This quote is from the article written by John Deem:

“We were some of the first ones in,” he [Don Ritzenthaler] recalled. “It was a terrible place.”

We’d heard that much before, and nothing more. But I always sensed that there was something more. I even had a pretty good idea just what that something was.

“After what we saw, we shot any German guards we saw on sight,” Grandpa [Ritzenthaler] continued.

The shooting of the “German guards” and a few Wehrmacht soldiers who were dragged out of a military hospital at Dachau, an event known as the Dachau massacre, was kept secret for over 40 years.

The article by John Deem includes this quote:

I now knew that for 67 years, the uncharacteristically violent actions of this uncommonly gentle man had only multiplied the horror of what he’d seen, because he had become a participant in it.

Of course, most of us would have done the same thing. But leaving hell with Satan’s blood on our hands makes us the Devil’s kin, even if it’s as distant cousins. It means we’ve surrendered to the very hate that so repulsed us in the first place.

While he’s never said so, I can’t help but believe that this nexus of revulsion and revenge triggered something unrecognizable, something uncontrollable, in Grandpa, and it frightens him still.

Here is the full story on the liberation of Dachau:

On April 29, 1945, SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker surrendered the camp to the 42nd Rainbow Division of the US Seventh Army, which had found the camp on its way to take the city of Munich, 18 kilometers to the south. Accompanied by Red Cross representative Victor Maurer, 2nd Lt. Wicker surrendered the Dachau concentration camp to Brigadier General Henning Linden, commander of the 42nd Rainbow Division, under a white flag of truce.

The 45th Thunderbird Division of the US Seventh Army also participated in the liberation of Dachau, arriving at the nearby SS garrison before the 42nd Division approached the main entrance on the south side of the Dachau complex where 2nd Lt. Wicker was waiting to surrender the camp.

Before reaching the concentration camp, the 45th Thunderbird Division had discovered an abandoned train, with no engine, on a branch railroad line which at that time ran from the Dachau station along Freisinger Street in the direction of the camp. Inside the 39 train cars were the corpses of prisoners who had been evacuated from Buchenwald on April 7, 1945 and, because of heavy bombing and strafing by Allied planes in the last days of the war, had not reached Dachau until three weeks later, two days before the American soldiers arrived.

Most of the regular SS guards and the administrative staff had fled from the camp the next day and there was no one left to oversee the burial of the bodies. No precise figures are available, but the train had started out with approximately 4,500 to 6,000 prisoners on board and between 1,300 and 2,600 had made it to Dachau still alive. Some of the dead had been buried along the way, or left in rows alongside the tracks. The gruesome sight of the death train, with some of the corpses in the open cars riddled by bullets, so affected the young soldiers of the 45th Thunderbird Division that they executed Waffen-SS soldiers stationed at the Dachau garrison after they had surrendered.

Upon entering the camp after the surrender, the American liberators, and the news reporters accompanying them, were horrified to discover over 900 dying prisoners in the infirmary barracks. According to the court testimony of the camp doctor, as many as 400 prisoners were dying of disease each day in the final days before the liberation.

Political prisoners at Dachau after the camp was liberated Photo credit: USHMM

Accompanied by Communist political prisoners, who served as guides, the Americans toured the prison camp and were shown the building, just outside the barbed wire enclosure, which housed the homicidal gas chamber disguised as a shower room. The Americans heard eye-witness accounts from Dachau survivors who said that prisoners had been gassed to death in the fake shower room; they also heard stories of how prisoners had been shoved into the crematory ovens while still alive. Bodies of fully-clothed dead inmates were found piled inside the new crematorium building and many more naked corpses were piled up outside. Outside the disinfection chambers, there was a huge pile of clothing waiting to be fumigated with Zyklon-B gas pellets.

Waffen SS soldiers, still wearing battle fatigue uniforms, were sent to Dachau to help with the surrender of the camp

The so-called “guards”, who were killed by the Americans, were German and Hungarian SS troops who had been sent from the battlefield to help with the surrender of the camp.  The men, who were killed by the American liberators, were completely innocent, but were murdered in cold blood by the Americans who didn’t bother to ask questions before shooting anyone they saw who was not dressed in a prison uniform.

It is good that some of the Americans involved in the Dachau massacre are now admitting what they did.  Here is one last quote from the article by the grandson of Don Ritzenthaler:

What I pray, though, is that he dies knowing he was nothing like the Germans who acted as Satan’s lackeys at Dachau. If he had been like them, he wouldn’t have shot them, because he wouldn’t have given a damn.

I agree that, if Don Ritzenthaler had been like the Germans at Dachau, he would not have shot the “guards” who were wearing battle fatigues or the Wehrmacht soldiers who were recovering from war wounds in a hospital.  He would not have shot anyone, after the Army that he was fighting with, had accepted the surrender of a camp that held mostly political prisoners.