On April 26, 1945, three days before the American liberators arrived at Dachau, a transport of 1,735 Jewish prisoners left on a train bound for the mountains in southern Germany. Then another 6,887 prisoners, half of them Jews and half of them Russian POWs, were marched south toward the mountains of the South Tyrol. The photo above shows the prisoners on this march.
There seems to be a controversy, among the readers of my blog, regarding the march of the Dachau prisoners to the South Tyrol in the days just before the concentration camp was liberated. Were the prisoners marched out of the camp to kill them, or to save them?
The days and weeks just before the liberation of Dachau was a frightening time for the prisoners. There were rumors that the SS had orders to kill them all, rather than let them be released by the Allies.
The prisoners knew that it would be difficult to evacuate the whole camp: convoys of trucks and trains were constantly being attacked by American fighter planes which were also strafing the outskirts of the camp; the sub-camp at Allach had been bombed just before the American liberators arrived and the Dachau main camp had been bombed on April 9, 1945.
In the last days of the Dachau camp, the Nazis had run out of coal to burn the bodies and corpses were piling up faster than they could be hauled out of the camp and buried. Realizing that the situation was totally out of control, the camp Commandant immediately proposed to surrender the Dachau camp to the Allies, but the concentration camp headquarters in Oranienburg refused to allow it because Hitler insisted that the inmates not be turned over to the Allies. One of Hitler’s reasons was that all the camps in Germany, including Dachau, had prisoners who were career criminals that had been sent to a concentration camp after they had served their prison term for their second offense.
At the time of the American liberation of Dachau, there were 759 of these career criminals at Dachau, according to former prisoner Paul Berben’s book entitled Dachau 1933 – 1945: The Official History.
German citizens were already so terrorized that many of them were committing suicide by drowning or shooting themselves just before the Russians and the Americans arrived to take over their towns. There was also the fear that typhus would spread throughout Germany if the prisoners were released after the camps were surrendered to the Allies.
Dachau was in the western part of Germany and it became an end destination for the prisoners from other camps in the east that were being evacuated from the war zone. The prisoners from the Kaufering sub-camps at Landsberg am Lech and the Mühldorf sub-camps were also brought to the Dachau main camp shortly before it was liberated.
Paul Berben, the official historian of Dachau and a member of the International Committee which controlled the main camp at the end, wrote the following in his book called Dachau 1933 – 1945: The Official History:
At the beginning of the evacuation of these camps, situated in areas threatened by the victorious advance of the Allies, the horror surpassed anything that had been seen till then.
From the start of the evacuation, tens of thousands of prisoners arrived at Dachau in a state of terrible exhaustion, and a vast number died before the liberation and in the weeks that followed. These massive arrivals caused unparalleled difficulties and a large number of deaths among the camp population, particularly as the typhus epidemic spread.
Half of the deaths in Dachau occurred in the last 6 months that the camp was in operation, including 2,226 prisoners who died in the month of May, after the liberation.
According to Paul Berben, there were 18,296 deaths in the main camp and all the subcamps of Dachau between November 1944 and the end of May 1945. Most of these deaths were due to the typhus epidemic in the camp, according to Berben.
According to testimony given at the Nuremberg IMT, the march to the Tyrol was part of a plan, devised by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, to kill all these prisoners.
At the Nuremberg IMT, on January 2, 1946, Lt. Commander Whitney R. Harris submitted Document 3462-PS, the sworn interrogation of Bertus Gerdes, the former Gaustabsamtsleiter under the Gauleiter of Munich. This interrogation was taken in the course of an official military investigation by the U.S. Army. During the interrogation, Gerdes was ordered to state all he knew about Kaltenbrunner.
Lt. Commander Harris read part of Document 3462-PSI, beginning with the third paragraph of Page 2, as quoted below from the transcript of the Nuremberg IMT on January 2, 1946:
“Giesler told me that Kaltenbrunner was in constant touch with him because he was greatly worried about the attitude of the foreign workers and especially inmates of Concentration Camps Dachau, Mühldorf, and Landsberg, which were in the path of the approaching Allied armies. On a Tuesday in the middle of April 1945 I received a telephone call from Gauleiter Giesler asking me to be available for a conversation that night. In the course of our personal conversation that night, I was told by Giesler that he had received a directive from Obergruppenfuehrer Kaltenbrunner, by order of the Fuehrer, to work out a plan without delay for the liquidation of the concentration camp at Dachau and the two Jewish labor camps in Landsberg and Mühldorf.
The directive proposed to liquidate the two Jewish labor camps at Landsberg and Mühldorf by use of the German Luftwaffe, since the construction area of these camps had previously been the targets of repeated enemy air attacks. This action received the code name of ‘Wolke A-1.'”
“I was certain that I would never let this directive be carried out. As the action Wolke A-1 should have become operational already for some time, I was literally swamped by couriers from Kaltenbrunner and moreover I was supposed to have discussed the details of the Mühldorf and Landsberg actions in detail with the two Kreisleiter concerned.
The couriers, who were in most cases SS officers, usually SS Untersturmfuehrer, gave me terse and strict orders to read and initial. The orders threatened me with the most terrible punishment, including execution, if I did not comply with them. However, I could always excuse my failure to execute the plan because of bad flying weather and lack of gasoline and bombs.
Therefore, Kaltenbrunner ordered that the Jews in Landsberg be marched to Dachau in order to include them in the Dachau extermination operations, and that the Mühldorf action was to be carried out by the Gestapo.
“Kaltenbrunner also ordered an operation Wolkenbrand for the Concentration Camp Dachau, which provided that the inmates of the concentration camp at Dachau were to be liquidated by poison with the exception of Aryan nationals of the Western Powers.
“Gauleiter Giesler received this order direct from Kaltenbrunner and discussed in my presence the procurement of the required amounts of poison with Dr. Harrfeld, the Gau health chief. Dr. Harrfeld promised to procure these quantities when ordered and was advised to await my further directions. As I was determined to prevent the execution of this plan in any event, I gave no further instructions to Dr. Harrfeld.
“The inmates of Landsberg had hardly been delivered at Dachau when Kaltenbrunner sent a courier declaring the Action Wolkenbrand was operational.
“I prevented the execution of the Wolfe A-1’ and ‘Wolkenbrand’ by giving Giesler the reason that the front was too close and asked him to transmit this on to Kaltenbrunner.
“Kaltenbrunner therefore issued directives in writing to Dachau to transport all Western European prisoners by truck to Switzerland and to march the remaining inmates into Tyrol, where the final liquidation of these prisoners was to take place without fail.”
Rudolf Hoess, the former Commandant of Auschwitz, testified at Nuremberg, as a defense witness for Ernst Kaltenbrunner; he said that he himself had no knowledge of a plan to destroy the Dachau camp with a bomb or with poison.
The following quote is from the Nuremberg IMT trial transcript:
DR. KAUFFMANN: It has been maintained here–and this is my last question–that the Defendant Kaltenbrunner gave the order that Dachau and two auxiliary camps were to be destroyed by bombing or with poison. I ask you, did you hear anything about this; if not, would you consider such an order possible?
HOESS: I have never heard anything about this, and I do not know anything either about an order to evacuate any camps in southern Germany, as I have already mentioned. Apart from that, I consider it quite impossible that a camp could be destroyed by this method.
The prisoners on the march to the South Tyrol were finally overtaken by American troops and liberated on May 2, 1945.
One of the Jewish prisoners who survived the march was Hirschel Grodzienski, who came to the USA in December 1946 and changed his name to Harold Gordon. Another survivor of the death march was Jack Adler, who was liberated by American troops on May 1, 1945.
The American Army believed that Hitler was planning to hole up in the mountains near the town of Berchtesgaden in a last-ditch effort to escape capture; some Holocaust historians believe that these prisoners were being sent to build a redoubt.
The 137 prominent VIP prisoners in Dachau were evacuated on April 26, 1945; they were moved southward for their own safety. Some of the Catholic priests in the camp were taken to the town of Dachau on April 24th and then released.
Dachau Commandant Wilhelm Eduard Weiter accompanied a transport of prisoners to Schloss Itter, a subcamp of Dachau in Austria. On May 6, 1945, Weiter shot himself, according to Johannes Tuchel, the author of Dachau and the Nazi Terror 1933-1945. However, the German Wikipedia gives May 2, 1945 as the date that Weiter shot himself.
Stanislav Zamecnik wrote in his book entitled That was Dachau, published in 2005, that Weiter committed suicide. Zvonimir Cuckovic stated that Weiter was buried in the forest near Schloss Itter.
However, in the book entitled World without Civilization: Mass Murder and the Holocaust, published in 2004, Robert M. Spector wrote the following:
Feig indicates that a Wilhelm Weiter, as Commandant, was “probably shot by a zealot SS officer.”
Nerin E. Gun, a journalist who was a former prisoner at Dachau, wrote the following in his book The Day of the Americans, published in 1966:
The SS commandant of the camp, Weiter, for having disobeyed Hitler’s orders, was executed by a fanatic SS sergeant, Ruppert, in the countryside while trying to escape. Weiter died with a bullet in the neck, clutching a picture of Hitler.
Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert was the SS officer in charge of executions at Dachau; he was put on trial by an American Military Tribunal in November 1945, but he was not charged with the murder of Weiter, nor with the murder of four British SOE women, another crime that he was accused of by a former prisoner.
May 6, 1945, the day that Weiter either committed suicide or was shot by someone else, was the same day that the 137 Dachau VIP prisoners were liberated by American soldiers. According to Gun, an SS man named Fritz threw a grenade at the liberators.
Regarding the American retaliation for the grenade attack, Gun wrote the following in The Day of the Americans:
The Americans were furious and shot down all the guards posted around the village. The Resistance, during this time, had not sat on its hands. The six Gestapo functionaries, the professional killers who had joined the convoy at Innsbruck, were hanging from the trees in the village square.
Nerin E. Gun also wrote that Dr. Sigmund Rascher was shot in Innsbruck, although the Museum at Dachau says that Dr. Rascher was executed on the orders of Heinrich Himmler in the bunker on April 26, 1945, the day that the VIP prisoners at Dachau were evacuated from the camp.
An account of the period just before the liberation of the camp, called The Last Days of Dachau, was written jointly by Arthur Haulot, a Belgian prisoner, and Dr. Ali Kuci, an Albanian prisoner. Nerin E. Gun mentioned in his own book that he was Kuci’s assistant.
The book written by Haulot and Kuci mentions the orders given by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler after Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of the Security SD forces, ordered that the prisoners should be “liquidated” in the event that it was impossible to evacuate the camp. Himmler’s order stated that the camp was to be immediately evacuated and that “No prisoner should fall into the hands of the enemy alive…” This message was received in the camp in response to a query sent to Berlin by the camp commandant, according to Kuci and Haulot.
Information from The Last Days of Dachau, given by Marcus J. Smith in his book, The Harrowing of Hell, is as follows:
The day before (on April 8, 1945), the commandant and his staff had worried about the possibility of concealed knives and firearms in the prison compound; they feared an insurrection. Knowing that the prisoners were getting out of hand, they made plans to massacre them. At the designated time, the barracks were surrounded by SS troopers, their machine guns ready.
But the SS camp surgeon protested strongly. He believed that there should be no more killings. The commandant decided to search for weapons; if they were found, he could justify the executions. Nothing was found.
Kuci and Haulot wrote that the members of the Communist underground resistance group began to initiate action designed to create confusion within the camp in order to prevent the evacuation of the prisoners.
At midnight on April 23rd, a group of 400 Jewish women arrived, having walked all the way from a sub-camp in Landsberg am Lech, near Munich. Many of them must have died soon afterwards because an official American Army report claims that there were only 225 Jewish women alive in the camp when it was liberated.
On April 24th, a group of Jewish inmates at Dachau were forced into boxcars parked outside the camp, but no engine was available for the train, so they had to remain there for three more days. According to Kuci, it was rumored that the Jews were being kept in the outer area in the hope that they would be bombed by the American planes.
On April 26th, according to Kuci, the prisoners ransacked the trains, canteen, kitchen and warehouses for food and civilian clothes. At 9 a.m. that day, the order was given to evacuate the entire camp, but the underground committee moved quickly to sabotage the SS plans.
According to Kuci’s book, the SS had assembled 6,700 prisoners for evacuation by 8 p.m. on April 26th. Then, just as the inmates were ready to leave the camp, a group of 120 barefoot women entered the camp; they were all that remained of 480 women who had walked all the way from the Auschwitz concentration camp, according to Kuci, as told by Marcus J. Smith in his book The Harrowing of Hell. In spite of this distraction, 6,887 prisoners left the camp at 10 p.m. that night.
The Sachsenhausen concentration camp, near Berlin, had already been evacuated on April 21, 1945 and the prisoners were on a death march, trying to evade the approaching Red Army of the Soviet Union.
According to Kuci, the “death train” from Buchenwald had arrived at noon on April 27th. However, witnesses at the trial of the transport leader, Hans Merbach, said that the train had arrived on the 26th. Kuci wrote that there were 1,600 survivors out of 2,400 who had left Buchenwald. Marcus J. Smith wrote that these figures were later changed to 2,000 to 2,500 out of 6,000 who started the trip three weeks before.
Two hundred of the survivors died that afternoon and another 400 had to be hospitalized immediately, according to Kuci. Two of the survivors said that there were only 1300 prisoners alive upon arrival, out of 5,000 who had originally been on the death train.
Victor Maurer, a representative of the Red Cross, said that he was told that, out of 5,000 prisoners who started the trip, 2,700 were dead on arrival, which would mean that there were 2,300 survivors who entered the camp.
The book The Last Days of Dachau ends with the following story, as told by Marcus J. Smith in his book:
The next day, April 28, the battle front was only ten or twelve kilometers away. The nearer it came, the fewer the number of Nazi soldiers in the camp. About one hundred remained; most of the officers were gone.
Members of the prisoners’ committee moved into the open, distributing a bulletin saying they were taking command. All prisoners were to remain in their quarters, to refrain from contact with the guards. (Some guards had been helpful in the last few months. They, too, were aware of the progress of the Allies.)
At 6 p.m., three of the committee leaders, Arthur Haulot, Captain Willem Boellaard, and Father Phily, a French priest, were summoned to the office of the commandant. Four others, Patrick O’Leary, Leon Malczewski, Ali Kuci and Edmond Michelet, waited nervously in the hospital. About two hours later the three reappeared, smiling.
The commandant had conceded, they said. He had introduced them to an official of the International Red Cross, who had just arrived with five truckloads of supplies.
“We had a long conversation with him concerning the distribution,” said Captain Boellaard.
According to Marcus J. Smith, the Red Cross representative, Victor Maurer, arrived at Dachau on April 27, 1945. Other sources say that the date of his arrival was April 28th.
The following is an excerpt from Maurer’s official report, as quoted in Smith’s book, The Harrowing of Hell:
At the camp, I told a sentry that I wished to speak to the camp commandant. A little later I was received by the adjutant, Lt. Otto, in the commandant’s office. I asked for permission to circulate freely through the area where the prisoners were kept. The commandant said that it was not possible to issue such an authorization, that only General (Ernst) Kaltenbrunner could grant such permission, and that he was in the vicinity of Linz (Austria). The telephone and telegraph being out of order, the affair had become considerably complicated.
The Germans were very happy to know about the arrival of the (five truck loads of) food parcels. The commandant acquainted me with his desire for the immediate repatriation of 17,500 prisoners in a good state of health. These were mostly French and Polish; German, Jewish and Bulgarian inmates could not be released. I replied that I had to contact my district commander as soon as possible, but I could not do this until the next day. Lastly, the commandant asked me to quickly transport a cargo of food parcels to a depot in the Tyrols.
The request for food to be sent to the Tyrols might have been intended for the 6,887 prisoners who had left the camp at 10 p.m. on April 26th, headed in that direction. However, Smith also wrote that some of the prisoners who had escaped from the march reported that all the prisoners on this march had been murdered by the SS and that the only survivors were the 60 prisoners who had escaped.
The Official Report by The U.S. Seventh Army, which was based on interviews with 20 political prisoners at Dachau, included the story of the prisoners being massacred by the SS guards, leaving only 60 survivors. One of the survivors of the march, Hirshel Grodzienski, wrote in his memoirs that the column of prisoners had been strafed by American planes, and in the confusion, he had escaped along with some of the other prisoners.
The official report of Victor Maurer continued as follows, as quoted in Smith’s book:
We said good-bye. I was permitted to personally distribute parcels to the prisoners. Lt. Otto accompanied me to the prison courtyard while a column of prisoners were led into the courtyard. Naturally, a very great joy prevailed among the prisoners because this was the first time a delegate of the ICRC has had access to the camp. Because some SS officers were always around, it was with great difficulty that I learned that, since January 1, 1945, 15,000 prisoners had died of typhus, and that in a transport of 5,000 prisoners from Buchenwald, about 2,700 were dead on arrival at Dachau.
The number of dead bodies on the train varies considerably, according to who is telling the story. Later, in the same report, Maurer said that there were 500 bodies on the train, and that some had been killed, while others had died of starvation.
Maurer’s report continues, as quoted by Marcus J. Smith in his book:
I further learned that M. Blum, Schuschnigg, and others were taken away a few days ago, at the same time as 6,000 others. In my opinion this happened because the combat front had drawn nearer. Some of the prisoners (trustees) emptied the trucks and signed the accompanying receipts. I spent the night in Barrack 203, Room 3. This was not in the prison camp.
On the night of April 28, 1945, Martin Gottfried Weiss left the camp dressed in civilian clothes and carrying false identification. The next day, two divisions of the US Seventh Army arrived to liberate the Dachau camp, but a few prisoners had already escaped from a work party sent to the town of Dachau in the last days just before the liberation.
Along with a few residents of the town, the prisoners fought a pitched battle with SS men in the town, but were defeated. The prisoners who survived the battle escaped. Two former prisoners of Dachau, Walter Neff and Georg Scherer, who had continued to work in the concentration camp after they were released, were the organizers of the confrontation with the SS in the town of Dachau.
On April 29, 1945, the same day that the camp was liberated, Weiss and his adjutant, Rudolf Heinrich Suttrop, were captured by 19-year-old Corporal Henry Senger in Munich after two escaped prisoners from Dachau told him where they were hiding. Senger did not identify the two prisoners, nor explain why they were in Munich on the day that Dachau was liberated. They may have been among the prisoners who had escaped with the help of Dachau citizens in the last days of the camp.