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August 6, 2012

More about the only Irish prisoner at Dachau

I am continuing my research on John McGrath, the one and only Irish prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp.  I found this website which tells about the hotel where the 137 VIP prisoners from Dachau (including John McGrath) were liberated after they were taken out of the Dachau concentration camp on April 26, 1945 and sent to the South Tyrol.

I also found a copy of a letter which was supposedly written, by John McGrath on April 14, 1945, to Sigismund Payne Best who was also a VIP prisoner at Dachau.  The letter, which is signed “J. McGrath, Lt. Col. R.A.  P O W 1135,” is on this website.

This quote is from McGrath’s letter to Payne Best:

I am a prisoner of war. I was wounded and taken in France and in 1941 they transferred me to a Camp for Irishmen, where I was Commandant. The Germans had some wonderful schemes for all the Irish soldiers and to make a long story short I smashed it all and a number escaped. When I came to Sachsenhausen [concentration camp] I was told that I would probably be shot unless I gave information as to who assisted us from the outside, however, I sat tight and here I am.

So it seems that McGrath, who was a POW, was sent first to the “Irish camp,” then to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp because of his activities in the “Irish Camp” and finally to the Dachau concentration camp. Sigismund Payne Best was also a prisoner at Sachsenhausen before he was transferred to Dachau, but the two were not allowed to talk to each other in either of these camps.

I still don’t understand how John McGrath rated VIP status and was taken with the VIP prisoners to the South Tyrol.

You can read the list of the names of the prisoners who were taken to the South Tyrol on Wikipedia here.  In the case of Sigismund Payne Best, he was imprisoned because he was involved in “the Venlo incident” and Hitler hoped to put him on trial after the war.

In his letter to Payne Best, John McGrath was very critical of Richard Stevens, who was also involved in “the Venlow incident.” The following quote is from McGrath’s letter:

In confidence I should tell you that I have absolutely no use for the man who was taken with you, Stevens. I think that he is the biggest Rotter that I have ever heard of. It is a long story and goes back to 1941 when I was taken to Berlin on my way to the Irish Camp just outside the City. There I met a young German officer who was married to a girl in Ireland and who was at Trinity College, Dublin for 5 years. He was in the background of your case and knew everything. He was very willing to talk as his wife wished to return to Ireland to live and he wanted a job there. He knew that I was connected with a lot of companies and could probably assist him. He asked me if I knew Stevens and gave me some of the facts.

I find it strange that prisoners at Dachau could write letters to each other “in confidence,” and these letters were not censored by the staff at Dachau. Or was McGrath writing this letter in hopes that it would be read by the SS men at Dachau?

Large room in the Dachau bunker where Richard Stevens was held as a prisoner

From 1943 to 1945, the room shown in the photo above was the private prison cell of Richard Stevens, who was arrested at Venlo in Holland on November 9, 1939, along with Captain Sigismund Payne Best on a charge of conspiring to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the German government.  Both Stevens and Payne Best were initially imprisoned at Sachsenhausen, but Payne Best was supposedly transferred to Buchenwald. On April 9, 1945, Captain Payne Best was allegedly brought from Buchenwald to Dachau two days before the Buchenwald camp was liberated by American soldiers. On that very day, there was a bomb that hit the Dachau camp, killing Georg Elser, who was a prisoner in the bunker.  I previously blogged about Georg Elser, the man who tried to kill Hitler, here.

Both Richard Stevens and Payne Best were among the VIP prisoners who were taken to the South Tyrol on April 26, 1945 three days before the American liberators arrived at Dachau.

In his memoirs, Captain Payne Best said that Dr. Sigmund Rascher had confessed to him that prisoners were gassed at Dachau. He claimed that he had met Dr. Rascher at Buchenwald, but testimony at the Nuremberg IMT revealed that Dr. Rascher was held in a Munich jail before he was sent to Dachau and was never at Buchenwald. Dr. Rascher was the man who had been in charge of conducting medical experiments at Dachau for the German Air Force, before he was arrested and charged with illegally adopting children and then claiming them as his own.  I previously blogged about Dr. Rascher here.

March 8, 2011

New book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells about his sad last days

Filed under: Buchenwald, Dachau, Germany — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 12:03 pm

I am currently reading the new best-selling book by Eric Metasas, entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  The book is long; life is short.  So I decided to skip ahead to read the ending.

Caution: Spoilers ahead.  If you don’t want to know how the book ends, don’t read any further.

Before I started reading this book, I knew that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had spent some time as a prisoner at the Buchenwald concentration camp, but what I didn’t know was that he had met Dr. Sigmund Rascher who was also a prisoner at Buchenwald.

On page 508, the author mentions that Dr. Waldemar Hoven and Dr. Sigmund Rascher shared the last two months of Bonhoeffer’s life, meaning that Dr. Rascher and Dr. Hoven were prisoners at Buchenwald in the Spring of 1945. I quickly checked the notes for the book and learned that this information had come from the book entitled The Venlo Incident written by Captain Payne-Best.

Dr. Sigmund Rascher was the SS doctor who had conducted medical experiments for the Luftwaffe at Dachau, starting in May 1942, with the consent and approval of Himmler. Then in May 1944, Dr. Rascher and his wife were arrested because they had registered, as their own, a child that was not their’s.  This information comes from an affidavit signed by Dr. Friedrich Karl Rascher, the uncle of Dr. Sigmund Rascher, which was entered into the proceedings of the Nuremberg IMT.

The following quote is from the book entitled The SS, Alibi of a Nation, 1922 – 1945 by Gerald Reitlinger:

Rascher remained at work in Dachau til May 1944, when Freiherr von Eberstein, higher SS and police leader for Munich, came to arrest him — but not for his experiments. It had been discovered that the children whom Frau Rascher had borne after the age of forty-eight had in reality been kidnapped from orphanages. The camp commandant and the chief medical officer at Dachau thereupon discharged a flood of complaints against Rascher, whom they described as a dangerous, incredible person who had been under Himmler’s personal protection for years, performing unspeakable horrors. Himmler naturally refused to have the Raschers tried, but they were confined in the political bunkers of Dachau and Ravensbrueck, the fate under the Third Reich of people who knew too much. Captain Payne-Best met Sigmund Rascher during the southward evacuation of the Dachau political bunker at the beginning of May 1945. He found Rascher garrulous and sympathetic. One of Rascher’s boasts to Captain Payne-Best was that he had invented the gas chamber. Perhaps that was why Sigmund Rascher disappeared soon afterwards, and likewise Frau Rascher who was last seen in Ravensbrueck.

So, acccording to Reitlinger, a highly respected historian, Captain Payne-Best did not meet Dr. Rascher until both were on the evacuation trip from Dachau to the South Tyrol.

According to Freiherr Von Eberstein, the SS officer and Police President of Munich, who arrested Dr. Rascher, he was sent to a prison in the city of Munich.  Munich is 18 kilometers from Dachau, so it makes sense that Dr. Rascher would have been sent to Dachau, not to Buchenwald.

Metaxas points out in his book that a group of prisoners, including Bonhoeffer, were taken from Buchenwald to Flossenbuerg in a van with a “wood-fueled engine.”  Along the way, they encountered bridges that had been destroyed and bomb damage along the roads. With such scarce transportation near the end of the war, why would Dr. Rascher have been moved from the Munich prison to Buchenwald, which was over 200 miles away?

Captain Payne-Best wrote that he arrived at Dachau on April 9, 1945, the same day that Dr. Rascher arrived there.  But were they on the same bus or train?  Captain Payne-Best was with a group of prisoners from Buchenwald, but Dr. Rascher had been in prison in Munich. Was Dr. Rascher first transferred from Munich to Buchenwald before being sent to Dachau?  April 9th was the day that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenbuerg, where he had been transferred from Buchenwald.

Dr. Sigmund Rascher was allegedly shot on April 26, 1945 inside a prison cell at Dachau on the direct orders of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, but according to Gerald Reitlinger, Dr. Rascher had been sent from Dachau to the South Tyrol, along with Captain Payne-Best.

Captain Sigismund Payne-Best was a British intelligence agent; he was arrested on November 9, 1939 as a suspect in an alleged British plot to kill Hitler. Before he was moved to the Buchenwald concentration camp in August 1944, Captain Payne-Best had previously been a prisoner at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where Georg Elser, the man who had tried to kill Hitler with a bomb planted at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on November 8, 1939, was also a prisoner.

Both Elser and Captain Payne-Best were awaiting a trial during which Hitler expected to prove that the British intelligence service (MI6) was involved in Elser’s failed assassination attempt.  Georg Elser was allegedly killed at Dachau on April 9, 1945 during an Allied bombing raid. All the other prisoners in the bunker were taken to a bomb shelter and Elser was the only one who was killed. Wait a minute!  Did Captain Payne-Best arrive at Dachau on the day that there was a bombing raid?

The story of Georg Elser’s execution, according to Captain Sigismund Payne-Best, is that either Adolf Hitler or Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had ordered the head of the Gestapo, SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, to deliver a letter, authorizing the execution of “special prisoner Georg Eller” during the next Allied air raid, to the Commandant of the Dachau concentration camp, Obersturmbannführer Eduard Weiter, on April 5, 1945.

Eller was a code name for Elser so that the other prisoners would not know his true identity. By some strange coincidence, Captain Payne Best had come into possession of this letter in May 1945 shortly before the end of World War II.

In my humble opinion, Captain Payne-Best made up some of the stories in his book, The Venlo Incident, including the story that Dr. Rascher was a prisoner at Buchenwald. But why would he do that?  I think that it was because he wanted to tell the story that he had met Dr. Rascher in a washroom at Buchenwald and that Dr. Rascher had told him all about the gas chamber at Dachau.

To this day, tour guides at Dachau tell visitors that the gas chamber at Dachau was not used for “mass murder” but it was used a few times to test different kinds of poison gas.