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May 14, 2013

Did the American liberators of Dachau know that there was a typhus epidemic in progress there?

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, Holocaust, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 10:43 am

This morning, I read a news article in the online Redding Eagle newspaper, which tells the story of Frank Stevenson, Jr. who was at Dachau when the camp was liberated on April 29, 1945.

Dachau guards who were captured by the American liberators

Dachau guards who were captured by the American liberators; Frank Stevenson is on the right

This quote is from the news article in the Redding Eagle:

Death camp changed life of Wernersville WWII veteran
[by] Bruce Posten

As an Army soldier, Frank Stevenson Jr. helped liberate Dachau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp, and its subsidiary camps in late April 1945.


Stevenson witnessed the horror of human atrocity firsthand.

“As soon as Hitler was in business, Dachau was operating as a place for his political prisoners of many nationalities,” said Stevenson, who will celebrate his 90th birthday on June 6, the 69th anniversary of D-Day.

That’s an appropriate irony, not because he was part of the historic World War II Allied invasion, but what the success of that endeavor allowed him to witness during the final days of the war.


But it was Dachau, the model for other German camps, that left the lasting impression, with its legacy of starvations (sic), executions and prisoners worked to death.

What he saw [at Dachau], he will never forget: the famished inmates surrounded by barbed wire; a railroad track that led up to a door where victims were herded into a gas chamber; a room of I-beams with pulleys and nooses for hangings; and another with an incinerator where bodies were burned.

Stevenson came upon a bloodstained wall showing evidence of executions. And in still another room, he saw the bodies piled up to the ceiling, people killed within days of the liberation with no time for the Germans to burn them.

“We really had no idea of all this,” Stevenson said, adding that with the approach of Allied liberators some prisoners escaped and gathered weapons, seeking vengeance by killing Nazi guards.

Note that Frank Stevenson mentioned that the prisoners were killing Nazi guards, but apparently he didn’t know that some of the SS soldiers at Dachau were killed by the American liberators. Apparently, he also did not know about the typhus epidemic in the camp and that the dead bodies found in the camp were the bodies of prisoners who had died from typhus.  He assumed that the bodies of prisoners, that were piled up in the morgue, were the bodies of prisoners who had been murdered in the last days of the war.

This quote is a continuation of the news article in the Redding Eagle:

In [Stevenson’s book], a letter to his mother and father on May 1, 1945, read: “Since I’ve been over here I’ve found that a lot of what we are told is either grossly exaggerated or just plain propaganda; however, the weirdest story that was ever told about this concentration camp was perfectly true.”

Nothing was perfect at Dachau, except the horrible human truth.

“I used to be quite a believer in God, taught Sunday school and attended church,” Stevenson said. “But after I saw that I just kept asking myself, ‘Where was God when all those people were killed?’ I respect anyone’s faith, because it can provide comfort, but for me that’s no more. I believe when you’re dead, you’re dead.”

In 1984, Stevenson took a trip to Europe, but Dachau wasn’t on the itinerary. Stevenson was drawn to go back.

“Our tour director didn’t want us to go and said, ‘You don’t believe all that stuff that was supposed to have happened there?’ ” Stevenson said.

Stevenson believed it; he had seen it.

Along with 15 others, he took a side trip and caught up with the tour later.

“I know what I saw,” Stevenson said.

And no distance of decades or others’ delusions can mask what he witnessed.

American reporters view bodies of prisoners who died of typhus after the camp was liberated

American reporters view bodies of typhus victims after Dachau was liberated

The photo above shows bodies laid out in rows near a barracks building on the east side of the Dachau camp; these were the bodies of prisoners who had died of typhus after the camp was liberated.

Prisoners in the typhus ward set by Americans after Dachau was liberated

Prisoners in the typhus ward set up by American doctors after Dachau was liberated

After the Dachau camp was liberated, the former inmates had to be kept inside the prison enclosure for several weeks until all danger of spreading the typhus epidemic in the camp had passed. Just before the Americans arrived, up to 400 prisoners had been dying each day in the typhus epidemic which was out of control, according to the testimony of the Chief Doctor of the camp at the American Military Tribunal held at Dachau in November 1945.  On 2 May 1945, the 116th Evacuation Hospital arrived at Dachau and set up operations. According to a report made on 20 May 1945, there were 140 prisoners dying each day in the camp; the principle causes of death were starvation, tuberculosis, typhus and dysentery. On liberation day, April 29, 1945, there were 4,000 prisoners in the Dachau camp hospital and an unknown number of sick prisoners in the barracks who had been receiving no medical attention.

There were 18 one-story wooden SS barrack buildings in the Dachau army garrison which were converted by the American liberators into hospital wards. The American medical workers were housed in the SS administration building. A Typhus Commission arrived, within days, and began vaccinating all medical personnel and the prisoners. There was a daily dusting of DDT to kill the lice which spreads typhus.

Dachau prisoner being dusted with DDT to prevent typhus

Dachau prisoner being dusted with DDT to kill the lice that spreads typhus

On 3 May 1945, the sick prisoners were brought to the hospital wards. They were bathed, dusted with DDT powder and given clean pajamas to wear; their old prison clothes were burned.

By July 1945, the typhus epidemic in the Dachau concentration camp had been brought under control by the US Army doctors, and all the prisoners had either been released or moved to a Displaced Persons camp at Landsberg. The photograph below shows former inmates being tested for typhus before being allowed to leave.

Survivors of Dachau were given a test for typhus before being allowed to leave

Survivors of Dachau were given a test for typhus before being allowed to leave

So why didn’t the Nazis take care of the prisoners and prevent a typhus epidemic at Dachau?  No one ever mentions that the SS administrators at Dachau DID try to prevent epidemics, but in the last months of the war, when Germany was being bombed back to the Stone Age, everything got out of control.

Disinfection Hut at Dachau where clothes were disinfected to prevent typhus

Disinfection Hut at Dachau, where clothes were disinfected to prevent typhus, was torn down to make a space for a memorial to the Jews who died at Dachau

The photograph above shows the disinfection hut at Dachau, which is no longer in existence. Before it was torn down, the building was used as a restaurant, when the Dachau camp became a refugee camp for 17 years, for Germans who had been expelled from the Sudetenland in what is now the Czech Republic after the war. The restaurant was torn down in 1965 to make room for the Dachau Memorial Site. The location of the disinfection building is where the Jewish Memorial now stands.

Jewish Memorial stands in the location of the former disinfection building

Jewish Memorial stands in the location of the former disinfection building

On April 30, 1945, one day after the Dachau camp was liberated, a Displaced Persons team of US Army soldiers arrived to take care of the survivors. Marcus J. Smith, who was a medical doctor on this team, described the disinfection building, which he saw when the prisoners escorted him around the camp. In his book, The Harrowing of Hell, Smith wrote the following:

“Our escorts take us to the disinfection building. Here, while prisoners were bathed in antiseptic solution every two to four weeks, their clothes were put into an apparatus in which they were exposed to two to four meter radiowaves and a temperature of 182 degrees Centigrade. So I am told. This is an experimental method, and I cannot ascertain its effectiveness. My recommendation will be to use soap, water, antiseptic solutions and DDT. Nearby is a concrete building in which 300 prisoners could shower at a time. I am told that each prisoner was permitted one shower every two weeks. (The building has been closed for the last three weeks.)”

The shower building which Smith described, in his book, had been closed for three weeks because a bomb that hit the Dachau complex on April 9, 1945 had destroyed the water main, and there was no running water in the camp when the Americans arrived.

Smith went on to describe the “crematorium and the gas chamber” which were in the “large concrete and brick building with the high smokestack,” so it is clear that neither the “disinfection building” nor the shower room, which he described above, was the building where the homicidal gas chamber was allegedly located.

The prisoners who took Smith on a tour of the camp, one day after it was liberated, did NOT point out that the four disinfection chambers in the crematorium building used Zyklon-B for delousing the clothes. Regarding the clothes piled up outside the Baracke X building where four delousing chambers and the homicidal gas chamber were located, Smith wrote the following:

“There are conflicting stories as to the use of the gas chamber. […] Many of the stories described the shedding of clothes before execution. This was purposeful. The clothing was collected and later issued to newly arriving prisoners.”

Smith assumed that the clothes, that were shed by the prisoners, prior to being gassed in Baracke X, were taken all the way across the camp to the old disinfection building to be deloused.  He did not understand that the “gas chambers” in the Baracke X building were being used for disinfecting clothing.

Door into disinfection chamber in Baracke X

Door into disinfection chamber in Baracke X where clothing was disinfected

DDT was in common use in America in 1945, but was apparently not being used by the Germans. Smith wrote the following in his book The Harrowing of Hell:

“As the years passed, reports began to appear about the resistance of certain insects to DDT, and its harmful effects on certain species of birds, fish, amphibians, and mammals. But in 1945, we had no inkling of adverse effects. We used DDT by the ton; it coated our clothes, food, and air, and the results achieved by it in the control of the typhus fever epidemic were spectacular.”

The Germans were way ahead of American scientists, who had not yet discovered the harmful effects of DDT. If only the SS had used DDT at Dachau, there would not have been dead bodies at Dachau for American soldiers, like Frank Stevenson, to find, and assume that these prisoners had been deliberately killed by the Nazis.

There were 2,539 Jews at the Dachau main camp when it was liberated.  The number of Jewish deaths at Dachau is unknown.
Dachau Liberated: TheOfficial Report of the US Seventh Army, published in 1945, mentions that 14,700 deaths had occurred at Dachau in the first quarter of 1945.  This was during the time that there was a typhus epidemic at Dachau.

Paul Berben, a prisoner in the camp, wrote a book entitled Dachau, the Official History 1933 – 1945, in which he stated that 2,888 prisoners had died at Dachau in January 1945, 3,977 prisoners had died in February, 3,668 had died in March and 2,625 had died in April, for a total of 13,158 in the first four months of 1945.  Most of these deaths were due to typhus and other diseases in the camp.

In the month of May 1945, an additional 2,226 Dachau prisoners died after the camp was liberated, in spite of the excellent care given to them by American military doctors. There were 196 more deaths in June before the typhus epidemic was finally stopped by the use of DDT and the vaccination of all the prisoners.

According to a book published by the US Seventh Army immediately after the war (Dachau Liberated, The Official Report by The U.S. Seventh Army), there was a total of 29,138 Jews brought to Dachau from other camps between June 20, 1944 and November 23, 1944. The US Seventh Army report says that Jews were brought to Dachau to be executed and that they were gassed in the gas chamber disguised as a shower room in the Baracke X building, and also in the four smaller gas chambers. According Barbara Distel, the former director of the Memorial Site, the gas chamber at Dachau, which was disguised as a shower room, was never used for any purpose.

Today, tour guides tell visitors that the gas chamber at Dachau was used, but not for “mass gassing.”