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April 1, 2013

By what method were the prisoners on the “death train” at Dachau killed?

A regular reader of my blog wrote this in a  recent comment:  “Were any cars in the Dachau “death train” strafed by Allied planes? Has Allied strafing ever been mentioned as a cause of prisoner deaths?”

The answer to both questions is YES!

I previously blogged about the infamous “death train” that was discovered by 45th Division soldiers when they arrived at the Dachau concentration camp here and here.

Open gondola cars on the death train which was strafed by American planes

Open gondola cars on the death train which was strafed by American planes

Private John Lee, a 45th Division soldier who was one of the first men on the scene, was quoted by author Sam Dann in his book entitled Dachau 29 April 1945: The Rainbow Liberation Memoirs:

These people were stuffed in these cars. The cars had bullet holes all over them, evidently from strafing on the way to Dachau. Most of the GIs just stood there in silence and disbelief. We had seen men in battle blown apart, burnt to death, and die many different ways, but we were never prepared for this. Several of the dead lay there with their eyes open, a picture I will never get out of my mind. It seems they were looking at us and saying, ‘What took you so long?'”

In a book entitled The Last Days of Dachau, written by Dr. Ali Kuci, a Dachau survivor from Albania, and Arthur Haulot, a Belgian political prisoner at Dachau, the authors wrote that the train had arrived at noon on April 27, 1945 with 1,600 survivors out of 2,400 prisoners who had started on the journey from Weimar. Marcus J. Smith wrote that these figures were changed, after the war ended, to 2,000 to 2,500 survivors out of 6,000 who had been put on the train. The change in the numbers was made because a typical transport of prisoners consisted of 60 cars with 100 prisoners in each car.

The strafing of the “death train” while the train was on its way from Buchenwald to Dachau was mentioned in the American Military Tribunal proceedings against Hans Merbach, the SS man in charge of the ill-fated train.

Hans Merbach, the SS man in charge of the death train

Hans Merbach, the SS man in charge of the death train

Hans Merbach was the 35-year-old SS man assigned to supervise the evacuation of Buchenwald prisoners to Dachau in an effort to prevent them from being released by the American liberators.  The Nazis feared that the prisoners, if released, would go to the nearby city of Weimar and attack German civilians.

The “death train” left the Weimar train station on April 8, 1945 but didn’t arrive at Dachau until almost three weeks later because of delays caused by Allied bombing of the train tracks. By that time, many of the prisoners were dead.

One of the Jewish prisoners who survived the evacuation transport from Buchenwald to Dachau was Martin Rosenfeld, who testified for the prosecution at the proceedings against Hans Merbach, which began on April 11, 1947. On the witness stand, Rosenfeld claimed that 350 of the Buchenwald prisoners were shot as they walked the 5 miles from the concentration camp down to the train station at Weimar; he testified that he personally saw Merbach shoot ten of the prisoners.

During direct examination by his defense attorney, Merbach testified that there were already dead bodies lying beside the road from Buchenwald to Weimar before the prisoners were marched to the train station on April 7, 1945. These prisoners had died on an earlier evacuation march out of Buchenwald to the Flossenbürg camp, or on the April 2nd evacuation march from the Ohrdruf sub-camp to the main camp at Buchenwald.

Rosenfeld also testified that Merbach used a Machine Pistol to kill civilians in the Czechoslovakian town of Pilsen because they had heard about the train on the radio and had brought food for the prisoners when the train stopped. He claimed that when the train made another stop along the way, Merbach went from one boxcar to another, shooting the prisoners, including 20 in the boxcar that Rosenfeld was riding in.  Miraculously, Rosenfeld was spared so that he could testify against Merbach at his trial at the American Military Tribunal.

According to Rosenfeld’s court testimony, Merbach ordered all of the French prisoners out of the boxcars and then mercilessly gunned them down. The remaining prisoners were forced to bury the bodies, according to Rosenfeld, and those who were too weak for the task were shot.

According to Rosenfeld’s testimony, as quoted by Joshua M. Greene in his book Justice at Dachau, the “death train” was strafed by Allied planes on the way to Dachau and the prisoners were forced to stay in the open boxcars, while the SS men took cover in the woods. Other survivors of the “death train” testified that Merbach shot dying prisoners, after the train was strafed; these were prisoners who had been wounded by American bullets when the train was strafed.

Merbach claimed that he had gone out of his way to get additional food for the prisoners on the train after he realized, before the train started on its way, that the train would be delayed because the tracks were being bombed by Allied planes. He said that when he tried to get more food, he was told that there was “barely any bread left” at Buchenwald.

When the train stopped at Dresden, the captain of the police there told Merbach that “it was impossible to get a piece of bread because the city was overrun with refugees.” The citizens of the Czechoslovakian town of Pilsen had heard about the train on the radio and they brought food for the prisoners when the train stopped. Rosenfeld claimed that when the train made another stop along the way, Merbach went from one boxcar to another, shooting the prisoners, including 20 in the boxcar that Rosenfeld was riding in.

The train was strafed by Allied planes on the way and the prisoners were forced to stay in the open boxcars, while the SS men took cover in the woods, according to Rosenfeld’s testimony, as quoted by Joshua M. Greene in his book Justice at Dachau. Other survivors of the Death Train testified that Merbach had shot dying prisoners and prisoners who had been wounded by American bullets.

The “death train” passengers were among 7,000 prisoners who made it to Dachau alive when they were evacuated from other camps in the final three weeks before the Americans arrived. There was a total of 14,000 prisoners who had been brought to Dachau in the final two months before the camp was liberated. Another train, which had left Buchenwald around the same time, made it to the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia, which had already been turned over to the Red Cross by the Nazis, and would soon be liberated by Soviet troops.

According to author Sam Dann, there were exactly 2,310 bodies on the “death train.” However, at the trial of 40 staff members of the Dachau camp, before an American Military Tribunal in November 1945, the first witness for the prosecution, Col. Lawrence Ball, an officer in the Army Medical Corps, testified that he had arrived at Dachau two days after the camp was liberated and had seen 38 cars with 10 to 20 corpses in each car. That figures out to approximately 380 to 760 dead bodies on the train. There was no testimony during the American Military Tribunal at Dachau about the 2,310 bodies allegedly counted on the train.

In the proceedings of the American Military Tribunals at Dachau, the accused were considered guilty until proven innocent. Their guilt had already been established by interrogations beforehand.

The interrogation of Hans Merbach took place at Freising on July 11, 1945 at which time Merbach testified that “Officers were beaten with a piece of cable in the face. And that, I suppose, is why the most incredible stories came out, particularly concerning this transport.”

On August 14, 1947, Hans Merbach was convicted by the Tribunal at Dachau and sentenced to death. He was the last of the war criminals in the main Buchenwald trial to be hanged; the date of his execution was January 14, 1949. He was convicted under the “common plan” theory of guilt, under which a defendant was guilty by association if he had anything whatsoever to do with a concentration camp.

February 10, 2011

An American Jewish soldier’s letter to his wife about the Dachau “death train”

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 10:57 am

On May 1, 1945, a Jewish soldier in the American Army saw the “death train” outside the Dachau concentration camp; a few days later, he wrote home about it. Dachau had been liberated on April 29, 1945, but on May 1st, this soldier did not know whether the train, filled with dead bodies, had just arrived or if it was just leaving.

This is a quote from the letter written by 1st Lt. Fritz Schnaittacher to his wife; you can read the full text of the letter here.

… the most striking picture I saw was the “death train” — I say picture, no not picture, but carload and carload full of corpses, once upon a time people, who were alive, who were happy and people who had convictions or were Jews — then slowly but methodically they were killed. Death has an ugly face on these people — they were starved to death — the positions they were lying in show that they succumbed slowly — they made one move, fell, were too weak to make another move, and there are hundreds of such lifeless skeletons covered by some skin. I tried to find out the origin of this train. Some of the stories corresponded — whether this train was to leave Dachau or had just arrived is not essential — essential is that they were locked into these cattle cars without sanitation and without food. The SS had to take off in a hurry — we came too fast — it was too late to cover up their atrocities.

Note that he “tried to find out the origin of this train,”  but it was of no importance to him whether the train was coming or going; the “essential” part of the story is that the prisoners were locked in the cars without food.

The infamous “death train” parked outside the Dachau camp

Young German boys forced to view the bodies on the Dachau “death train”

The photo above shows American soldiers forcing German boys in the Hitler Youth, some as young as 12 years old, to look at the dead bodies on the train.

The prisoners had been on the train for 19 days, from the time that the train left Buchenwald until it arrived at Dachau. Out of around 4,500 or 5,000 prisoners, who had been put on the train, there were 1,300 survivors who had been able to walk the short distance from the railroad spur line into the Dachau prison compound, according to two of the survivors, as told to Sam Dann, who wrote Dachau 29 April 1945.

Why didn’t 1st Lt. Fritz Schnaittacher talk with some of the 1300 survivors?  He was fluent in German, having been born in Germany, and he had lived in Germany until 1933.  Why didn’t he talk with Martin Rosenfeld, a Jewish survivor, who testified before an American Military Tribunal that some of the prisoners had been killed by American planes which had strafed the train? Why didn’t he talk with some of the members of the International Committee of Dachau, a prisoners’ organization that was in charge of the camp after the SS guards had left on April 28th?

Maybe he did talk with some of the survivors of the “death train,” and he knew the truth about the train, but he could not write home about it because this information was being kept secret.

It is interesting that 1st Lt. Schnaittacher did mention the liberation of Dachau, although he left out the part about Waffen-SS soldiers being gunned down with their hands in the air, after they had surrendered the camp.

Here is a quote from his letter about the liberation of Dachau:

Our regiment took Dachau or should I say liberated the human wreckage which was left there. This I consider one of the most glorious pages in the history of our regiment, not because the fighting was tough, it wasn’t, but because it finally opened the gates of one of the world’s most hellish places.

According to Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, the commander of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Thunderbird Division, he received orders at 10:15 a.m. on April 29, 1945 to liberate the Dachau camp, and the soldiers of I Company were the first to arrive at the camp around 11 a.m. that day.

Is this the “regiment” to which 1st Lt. Schnaittacher was referring?  If he was with the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Division, then there is no way that he would not have known about the Dachau massacre when these German Prisoners of War were shot with their hands in the air.  Is that what he was referring to when he wrote about “one of the most glorious pages in the history of our regiment” and that the fighting wasn’t “tough”?  He was right about that; it is not a tough fight when you shoot unarmed soldiers who have surrendered.  Of course, he was not allowed to tell his wife the truth about the Dachau massacre because the Army kept this violation of the Geneva Convention a secret for over 40 years.

Here is the back story on the “death train” which 1st Lt. Schnaittacher didn’t tell his wife:

In April 1945, while the US Seventh Army was fighting its way across southern Germany, capturing one town after another with little resistance, the prisoners, who had been evacuated from the abandoned Ohrdruf forced labor camp to the Buchenwald main camp, were starting on the journey which would end on a railroad track just outside the Dachau concentration camp. On April 7th, the prisoners had been marched 5 kilometers from the Buchenwald camp to the city of Weimar. At 9 p.m. on April 8th, they were put onto a southbound train, headed to the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

The prisoners were guarded by 20 SS soldiers under the command of Hans Merbach. For their journey, which was expected to be relatively short, they were given “a handful of boiled potatoes, 500 grams of bread, 50 grams of sausage and 25 grams of margarine” according to Merbach, who was quoted by Hans-Günther Richardi in his book, Dachau, A Guide to its Contemporary History. According to Richardi, the train which left Weimar on April 8th was filled with 4,500 prisoners who were French, Italian, Austrian, Polish, Russian and Jewish.

According to Dachau author Hans-Günther Richardi, five hours after the train departed from Weimar, Hans Merbach, the transport leader, was informed that the Flossenbürg concentration camp had already been liberated by the Americans. Before the Americans arrived, the prisoners at Flossenbürg had been evacuated and death marched to Dachau. The train from Buchenwald had to be rerouted to Dachau but it took almost three weeks to get there because of numerous delays caused by American planes bombing the railroad tracks.

The train had to take several very long detours through Leipzig, Dresden and finally through the town of Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. In the village of Nammering in Upper Bavaria, the train was delayed for four days while the track was repaired, and the mayor of the town brought bread and potatoes for the prisoners, according to Harold Marcuse in his book Legacies of Dachau. Continuing on via Pocking, the train was attacked by American planes because they thought it was a military transport, according to Richardi. Many of the prisoners were riding in open freight cars with no protection from the hail of bullets.

The final leg of the journey was another detour through Mühldorf and then Munich, arriving in Dachau early on the afternoon of April 26th, three days before the liberation of the camp.

According to Gleb Rahr, one of the survivors, the prisoners were then taken to the Quarantine Barracks and given “hot oat soup,” which he said was “the first food of any kind” that was given to them since the start of the trip. In his account of the trip, Rahr said that the only food the prisoners got for the whole trip was one loaf of bread on the first day. He mentioned the four-day stop in Nammering, but did not say that the prisoners were given any food, as claimed by the mayor of the town. Rahr told about the bodies from the train that were burned at Nammering. The burning was unsuccessful and the prisoners had to bury the bodies, according to Rahr.

By the time that the 45th Thunderbird Infantry Division soldiers arrived in the town of Dachau, the locomotive had been removed from the abandoned train and 39 cars, half of them with dead prisoners, had been left standing on a siding on Friedenstrasse, just outside the railroad gate into the SS Garrison. Inside the SS camp, another freight train stood on the tracks, but this one was empty.

Among the survivors on the Death Train was a Jewish prisoner named Martin Rosenfeld, who testified before an American Military Tribunal in the proceedings against Hans Merbach. Rosenfeld testified that there were 1,100 survivors out of 5,000 who had boarded the train. According to Rosenfeld’s account, the train arrived at Dachau on April 26, 1945, although Gleb Rahr and Joseph Knoll both told author Sam Dann that the date of arrival was April 27, 1945.

In his testimony before the American Military Tribunal in 1947, Hans Merbach said the train had arrived on April 26, 1945. The confusion about the date may have been caused by the fact that there were actually two trains that arrived at Dachau. One of them was parked inside the SS camp complex and it was empty.

Survivor of the “death train” at Dachau

The American liberators of Dachau never missed an opportunity to turn the tragedy of the “death train” into propaganda.  The photo above shows a prisoner being removed from the train by American soldiers.  This scene was re-enacted by the Americans with the claim that this was the one and only survivor of the “death train.”

The alleged “lone survivor” of the Dachau “death train” poses for a publicity photo

The photograph directly above shows Lt. Col. Donald E. Downard on the right and Captain Roy Welbourn on the left, in a posed shot of the rescue of a survivor of the “death train.” Lt. Col. Downard personally took the survivor to the Aid Station, but on the way there, his driver wrecked the jeep in which they were riding. and Downard suffered a concussion. Downard was then ordered to continue on to Munich while Col. “Mickey” Fellenz was ordered to take charge of the concentration camp.

Regarding the train outside the Dachau camp, Michael W. Perry wrote the following in his Editor’s Preface to the book entitled The Official Report, written by the U.S. Seventh Army:

For many of the soldiers who stumbled onto the camp that day, their first glimpse into its horrors came as they walked along a rail spur outside the camp. Crammed into railroad cars and scattered along the tracks were the bodies of men who had been alive when they had begun the long journey during which their captors fully expected them to die of thirst and starvation. At the end of that journey, Dachau’s crematory stood eagerly waiting.

According to the US Army, there were 2,310 dead bodies on the “death train,” although Red Cross representative Victor Maurer estimated that there were only 500 bodies. The train had taken almost three weeks to travel 220 miles from the Buchenwald camp to Dachau because the tracks had been bombed by American planes. Prisoners riding in open gondola cars had been killed when American planes strafed the train, according to Pvt. John Lee, a soldier with the 45th Division who saw the train.

The sight of the dead bodies on the train enraged the soldiers of I Company in the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Division and it was understood that they would take no prisoners. The first four SS soldiers who came forward carrying a white flag of surrender were ordered into an empty box car by Lt. William Walsh and shot.

Then Lt. Walsh “segregated from surrendered prisoners of war those who were identified as SS Troops,” according to a report by the Office of the Inspector General of the Seventh Army, dated June 8, 1945.

The following is a quote from the I.G. report:

“6. Such segregated prisoners of war were marched into a separate enclosure, lined up against the wall and shot down by American troops, who were acting under the orders of Lt. Walsh. A light machine gun, carbines, and either a pistol or a sub-machine gun were used. Seventeen of such prisoners of war were killed, and others were wounded.”

These were Waffen-SS soldiers, who had been sent from the battlefield to surrender the Dachau concentration camp. They had offered no resistance to the liberators. According to Ted Hibbard, who works at the 45th Division Museum, the freed inmates were given 45 caliber pistols by soldiers in the 45th Division and allowed to shoot and beat the SS men who had been sent to surrender the camp.

No Americans were ever put on trial for killing soldiers who had surrendered at Dachau, but Hans Merbach, the man who was in charge of the guards of the “death train,” was prosecuted as a “war  criminal” by an American Military Tribunal.

The interrogation of Hans Merbach, by the Americans, took place at Freising on July 11, 1945 at which time Merbach later testified during his trial that “Officers were beaten with a piece of cable in the face. And that, I suppose, is why the most incredible stories came out, particularly concerning this transport.”

Hans Merbach, the leader of the “death train”

(click on the photo to enlarge)

On August 14, 1947, Hans Merbach was convicted by the American Military Tribunal at Dachau and sentenced to death. He was the last of the war criminals in the main Buchenwald trial to be hanged; the date of his execution was January 14, 1949.

It is commonly believed today by Holocaust experts that the prisoners on the death train were put onto the train in order to kill them by starving them as they rode around Germany and Czechoslovakia during the last days  of the war.  Some sources claim that dead bodies had been brought to Dachau to be burned, although the Dachau camp had run out of coal months ago.

In his testimony before the American Military Tribunal in 1947, Merbach explained that the purpose of evacuating these prisoners from the Buchenwald camp had been to keep them from being released by American troops who were nearing Buchenwald. After Buchenwald was liberated, the Americans did provide the liberated prisoners with guns and American jeeps and the prisoners went down to Weimar where they engaged in an orgy of raping, looting and killing innocent German civilians.  Elie Wiesel wrote about this in his original version of “Night,” so it must be true.

In his defense, Merbach claimed that he had gone out of his way to get additional food for the prisoners after he realized that the train would be delayed because the tracks had been bombed by Allied planes. He said that when he tried to get more food, he was told that there was “barely any bread left” at Buchenwald.

When the train stopped at Dresden, the captain of the police there told Merbach that “it was impossible to get a piece of bread because the city was overrun with refugees.” The refugees were German women and children who were trying to escape from the advancing Russian soldiers. Dresden had been fire bombed by American and British planes, only 8 week before, and thousands of civilians had been killed.

Merbach testified that at every stop, he sent four prisoners to the National Socialist Welfare Association to get buckets of water for the other prisoners. The photo below shows one of the box cars with a bucket in it.

A water bucket in one of the cars on the death train

In his defense, Merbach testified that the citizens of Pilsen in Czechoslovakia had not brought food to the train. The next stop was Namering, a town in Upper Bavaria. There the prisoners did receive rations from the people in the town, according to Merbach. This was confirmed by the mayor of Namering.

Merbach testified that some of the prisoners had escaped from the train, which sounds plausible since they were riding in open boxcars. Merbach’s “war crime” was that he had participated in the Nazi “common plan” to commit war crimes because he had prevented the escape of most of the prisoners from the train. Merbach said that he could not release the prisoners because “every time a prisoner escaped the most incredible things were happening among the civilian population.”

It is now almost 66 years since the “death train” was discovered at Dachau, but the truth is still not being told.  Instead, the letter written by a Jewish soldier is published and the lies continue.