In 1996, author Timothy Ryback visited the Dachau concentration camp Memorial Site and met a Polish Jew named Martin Zaidenstadt, who claimed to have been liberated from the camp on April 29, 1945, after being imprisoned there for three years. In February 2000, a book written by Ryback was published with the title The Last Surivor: In Search of Martin Zaidenstadt.
Martin Zaidenstadt, May 1997
In his book, Ryback revealed that there is no record of Martin Zaidenstadt ever being a prisoner at Dachau. Ryback also revealed the startling information that, before he retired, Martin ran “an independent finance and brokering service.” So the old guy was apparently loaded, but in retirement he decided to become a pan-handler at the Dachau concentration camp, and beg for money from tourists.
Ryback begins his book by describing how he went to visit Zaidenstadt at his home in the town of Dachau. Zaidenstadt pulled out a loaded gun and pointed it at Ryback. On the very first page of text in his book Ryback wrote:
“People in Dachau had warned me about Martin Zaidenstadt. They said he was a tortured soul, a deeply troubled man. Some said he was obsessed, others that he was deranged. Nobody told me that he was armed.”
In 1997, I went to the Dachau Memorial Site for the first time with a friend. We each went our own way and later met at the crematorium. My friend told me later that Martin Zaidenstadt had approached him outside the crematorium and told him that he was the prisoner who had posed for the statue of the Unknown Inmate that is located there. Martin asked for money, but my friend told me that he declined to give him anything.
Statue of Unknown Inmate, May 2007
The statue known as the “Unknown Inmate,” by Fritz Koelle, was erected in 1950 in front of the old crematorium. The model for the statue was Kurt Lange, who was a homosexual imprisoned at Dachau after he was arrested twice under Paragraph 175 of the German law.
Meanwhile, I saw Martin as he was walking away from the crematorium. He had stopped two American female tourists, but they also brushed him off and refused to hand over any money. I felt sorry for him, so I approached him and began speaking to him in English. He perked up right away when he learned that I was an American. He told me that he liked American, British and Canadian people, but he won’t speak to the Germans.
Martin told me that he was a prisoner at Dachau for three years (1942 to 1945), and that he had been coming to the camp every day for 50 years, which would mean that he started pan-handling at Dachau in 1947. At that time, I didn’t yet know that Dachau had been used as a prison camp for German war criminals from 1945 to 1948. Nor did I know then that, starting in February 1942, all Jews were sent to the death camps in what is now Poland, not to Dachau. Later, when the camps in the East were closed, the survivors were brought back to Germany, where some of them were eventually sent to Dachau just before the camp was liberated.
I asked Martin if I could take his picture and he agreed, but he wanted me to take the photo in the area of the crematorium, so I walked with him to a memorial stone where he posed. Then Martin handed me a business card with a rainbow on it; he said that he was liberated by the 42nd Rainbow Division of the US Seventh Army.
I accepted his card and he then asked me for money. I began to mentally calculate how many Deutschmarks I had left. At that time, I didn’t know that my train ticket to Munich could be used for the city bus back to the train station. I thought that I needed to save some money for the bus for myself and my friend, so I handed him only 5 Marks, which at that time was the equivalent of $2.50 in American money. He took the money, but grabbed the card out of my hand and walked off with an expression of anger and hatred on his face. I suppose I should be glad that he didn’t pull a gun on me and take all my money.
In his book, The Last Survivor, Ryback wrote that Zaidenstadt was
“… an elderly man living in contented retirement in a comfortable two-story home on a peaceful tree-lined street with a bus stop (bus #726) at the end of the block. [...] Martin decided to make Dachau his home. He found a job, married a German woman, and brought three children into this world. Unwilling to burden his family with the horrors of his past, he discarded his Jewish identify, befriended the locals, including former SS guards who became his drinking buddies, and regularly attended the Catholic church down the street from their home. Martin says that neither his wife, nor any of his three children, two of whom are now physicians, have ever visited the barbed-wire complex on the other side of town where Martin spent the most memorable years of his life. Until recently, Martin himself rarely stepped foot into the former concentration camp.
Baracke X, the building where the Dachau gas chamber is located
The photo above shows Baracke X, the building where the crematory ovens and the gas chamber are located at Dachau.
Ryback tells in his book about his first meeting with Martin:
I first encountered Martin at the camp on a bitter January day in 1996. I had brought my father and several visitors to Dachau to tour the camp and afterward to stroll through the old town. As we entered the tree-lined area that houses Baracke X, the official designation for the extermination unit, I directed my group to the far end of the building, explaining that the compound was originally entered from the west rather than the south. Visitors, I told them, walk directly into the crematorium room rather than entering the building, as intended, through the disinfectant stalls, into the undressing and holding rooms, and finally into the gas chamber – disguised as a shower – beyond which stand the crematory ovens.
“You are right,” I heard someone say, and turned to see an elderly man standing beside us. He was wearing a tweed hat with ear warmers, and a heavy coat. “My name is Martin Zaidenstadt. I come here every day for fifty years.” He went on to say that he was a Holocaust survivor and that after his liberation from the camp he remained in Dachau. When I told him that I occasionally wrote about Dachau, he gave me his name, address, and phone number, and told me that I should call on him the next time I was in town.
When Ryback went to visit Martin in his home, he learned that Martin was trying “to break Dachau’s conspiracy of silence about the gas chamber.”
For the last few years, Martin has verbally accosted the tour guides who have promoted the “lie” that the gas chamber was never put into operation. [...] For his efforts he has been reprimanded by Barbara Distel, the director of the memorial site and archives.
Martin showed Ryback a letter from Max Mannheimer, who was, at that time, the head of the International Committee of Dachau, an organization of former Dachau prisoners who controlled what was said and done at the Dachau Memorial Site.
Ryback quoted from Mannheimer’s letter in his book:
“…I must urgently request that you not interfere in the tours that are being conducted at the memorial site by various professional guides.”
Apparently nothing could stop Martin Zaidenstadt from accosting tourists and tour guides at Dachau, so he was allowed to continue until 2001 when he stopped coming because of illness. In 2003, the Dachau memorial site removed the portable sign that said in five languages that the gas chamber at Dachau was never used or never put into operation. Now some of the tour guides tell visitors that the gas chamber was used. So Martin finally won.
Timothy Ryback went to Poland and did some research on Martin Zaidenstadt’s previous life, prior to his time in the town of Dachau. He learned that Zaidenstadt was born in 1911 in the Polish town of Jedwabne. This is the town that was the subject of a book by Jan Gross, entitled Neighbors, published by Princeton University Press. Neighbors is the story of how the Polish Gentiles killed their Jewish neighbors in Jedwabne on July 10, 1941 and blamed it on the Germans. The violence was horrible: the head of a beautiful Jewish girl was cut off and used as a soccer ball by the Polish murderers.
After reading the book Neighbors, I can understand why Martin Zaidenstadt didn’t want to live in Poland after the war. There was a Displaced Persons camp set up at Dachau in 1945, which is probably what attracted Martin to the town. Several other Jews, including some of the former prisoners in the camp, also settled in Dachau.
Catholic church in Dachau which Martin Zaidenstadt attended
Around a million visitors a year now tour the grounds of the former Dachau concentration camp. During the ten years or so that Martin Zaidenstadt was begging for money at Dachau, there were at least a half a million tourists every year for a total of around 5 million people. If only one person in 5 gave a donation of only one dollar to Zaidenstadt, that means that he raked in a million dollars during his pan-handling days.
If Martin Zaidenstadt is still alive in the year 2014, he will be 103 years old. Strangely, Martin Zaidenstadt does not have an entry on Wikipedia. If he dies, will news of his death be published?
This blog post was last updated on February 2, 2014.