Scrapbookpages Blog

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.