Entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp (Wikimedia Commons/Rennett Stowe)

Nobody knew where we were heading, but rumors spread like fire in dry straw. “They will assemble us in one place, then exchange the whole lot for German prisoners held by the Allies,” some maintained. “Yes, they will get us together”— said the pessimists—“but use us as hostages. Hitler will ask in exchange that the Russians withdraw from Berlin.” “Hostages?” exclaimed Pierre. “You fools. They want us all to be in one spot so they can machine gun the whole bunch. I am telling you, if we had guts, we would escape.” “Why don't you?” someone asked. But Pierre was never one to answer embarrassing questions.

It was April 20, the Fuehrer's birthday (the last), and we were lying around in the sun, exhausted from the long night-march during which we had lost ten or twelve of our men. Above, in the clear blue sky, Allied and German planes were playing cat and mouse, but we were in relative safety, although in the middle of a hilly meadow. The planes were fighters; the bombers had already departed toward the south. The Bavarian morning was sharply cool, and we huddled together because our emaciated bodies offered no resistance to the penetrating wind.

“Mon Dieu, regarde!” Jean-Michel pointed excitedly to one of the big fighter birds coming down in flames. The others did not even turn their heads. Only Pierre asked: “Is it ours or theirs?”—but showed no real curiosity in finding out, for other problems filled our minds; why this sudden directive from H.Q. (wherever they were, at present) to all slave-work camps to converge on the nearest large concentration camp? Were the Germans really considering some last big deal? Were we pawns in their bargaining with the Allies? Or did they intend to liquidate us, just one minute before freedom?

Nobody knew, not even our guards. They were anxious too, and at least the older ones, the members of the Volksturm, wanted nothing more than to return home. Some of them could hardly carry the rifle on their stooped shoulders, and under the military garb they were, perhaps, just as fearful as we. But they still ate, their rations were still regularly issued, while we literally feasted on the fruits of the earth. A potato, some radishes, and occasionally some ugly brownish water, labeled coffee. No bread, no margarine, no marmalade.

It is true that the previous day I had a piece of luck. After the usual all-night promenade across the rain-drenched countryside, we were lying in a grange, unable even to make the effort to dry our poor rags. Suddenly I sat up. “Pierre,” I began. A groan interrupted me: “Shut up,” cried Pierre, “can't you lie still? Shut up and let me sleep.” But great things were stirring my repose. Suppose, I said to myself, that I go over to the farmhouse and ask for a bucket of hot water. I could scrape off at least two layers of dirt from my body, and who knows, some fleas might drown in the process. I knew that a group of American prisoners had been working around the farm, and the Americans were notoriously clean people. Perhaps the farmer was accustomed to seeing them wash, and would not refuse my request.

There was no use bothering with Pierre; once he turned in, not even the twenty-one gun salute that we had promised each other for liberation would wake him up. I went alone.

Twenty minutes later I came back. I would have run, had I not spent all my strength in the intricate movements of washing. I was beyond myself, exalted. I lay down next to Pierre and began shaking him. “Qu'est ce qu’il y a encore?” he growled. Instead of answering, I pushed before his blinking eyes the piece of bacon I just received from the farmer's wife. “Bacon,” I said. “Bacon,” he repeated, hypnotized by the size and smell of the prey.

We lived for three days on that piece of bacon. The term fat would have applied better, but for our fat-hungry (and dairy-hungry and sugar-hungry) organism it was like manna. We divided it up into microscopically small pieces and consumed it according to a carefully established plan.

The days were tolerable because the Germans had orders not to move and offer easy target for Allied planes. The latter were constantly overhead, as if the air-space over the Vaterland had been already occupied. Nobody dared so much as show his face before nightfall, but then everybody became active and excited. Our guards emerged from the farmhouse and began shouting orders, then counted and re-counted us, making sure that none would be left behind, hidden in the straw with the rats.

And so we marched on. Undorf, Regensburg, Altdoff, etc., followed like a slow-motion picture, peasants staring at us from their houses, guards excited and shouting “Schnell, schnell,” officers driving by in cars and on motorcycles.

On the second night, as we dragged our gaunt frames along, talking with great gusto of all the food, mainly pastry, on which we would revel after liberation, we noticed Franz, the Oberkapo (prisoner foreman), dressed in a strange assortment of civilian clothes. At first we hardly recognized him with his felt hat and necktie, but then it became clear that he was going to disappear, with the captain's tacit approval. Franz, a former German Socialist, had fought in the ranks of the International Brigade in Spain, escaped to France after Franco's victory, and was extradited in 1940. We feared and detested him, for in spite of his repeated assurances that he wanted our good, his hand fell heavily on those who, allegedly, upset his morning and evening roll calls.

Now he was on his way to freedom, and we bitterly envied him. But he was a German, and could easily disappear among his countrymen. Also, since the day before, he possessed a wrist watch that he had taken by force from Karl, a Czech boy from our team. For eight months Karl had managed to hide this precious object from guards and overseers, and used to tell the time to the weary inquirers as the work-day seemed to progress all too slowly. Now the “company watch” was gone, to help Franz appear like a genuine civilian. With hat and tie and all...

As we were getting nearer our still-unknown destination, covering mile after painful mile in the darkness of the cold rain, with anxiety gripping our exhausted souls, it often happened that we would forget our present plight, walk in a monotonous, dream-like half-awareness, and try to imagine what lay ahead. The expectation of freedom was so intense that we would see ourselves in the midst of our family, at the dinner table, engaged in small talk, and the well-known objects of the room would stand out with a vividness that bordered on hallucination. Plans were being made, feverish and grandiose plans, and, of course, vows of righting one's life, or, on the contrary, of living dangerously. Never before had I realized so dearly that the mind is made of a different stuff from that of the body, and that it could carry on a separate existence.

In the rare moments when the train stopped, one could hear the distant rumblings of artillery. Or was it thunder? We were hoping it was artillery, although we, too, risked being engulfed in its fire. But somehow it seemed that we could die no accidental death, and that the Nazis were the only source of mortal danger. Artillery, French or American, must have a soul of its own: it would avoid us, knowing that we were friends and compatriots.


Dachau represented the deepest pit, at the gates of which hope had to be renounced forever.

Toward daybreak on the 27th, the sky lit up in deep, angry red. There was no doubt any longer: the Allies were closing in, and we were caught, together with our German captors, in a huge mousetrap. It was around four o'clock; we were eagerly discussing the possibility of meeting an Allied detachment and being liberated, guards and all. The whole thing appeared to be so near, almost at the tip of one's outstretched hands, at shouting distance. Perhaps deep in our hearts some of us regretted that it would be over so soon, that the sweet moments, awaited for years, could not be prolonged and made to yield all their flavor.

In the heat of excited though subdued talk, we had not noticed that we were now marching between two rows of tall trees, and that at our left there rose the dark body of a wall, long, endless. But then we saw it, and silence fell upon us. A word was on the lips, a sinister word that filled with dread our mouths and minds: Dachau.

Everybody knew what it meant. In the dark Hell of slavekeeping Germany Konzentrationslager Dachau represented the deepest pit, at the gates of which hope had to be renounced forever. None of us had been there before, but one overseer had spent a few months within its walls and could tell of the crawling skeletons that peopled its gray barracks. So here was the end. No friendly army could now move fast enough to prevent our being engulfed by the threatening walls which seemed to march along with us, pitiless, in the graying light of the Bavarian highway.

Before we knew it, we were inside. Our wooden shoes were knocking on the pavement of an immense square, surrounded by uniform, low buildings and darkly emerging machine-gun towers. Then we halted and they counted us. “Mütze ab!” (caps off) shouted the sergeant, and he added: “Thank the Herr Obersturmbahnführer for the kind way he has treated you!” And obediently we shouted: “Danke schon, Herr Obersturmbahnführer,” without at first recognizing the handsome civilian who now waved his gloved hand to us. Obersturmbahnführer SS ..... (we never knew his name) and his staff graciously bowed out of our lives, disappearing like peaceful citizens among the other peaceful citizens of their country.

We were now officially handed over to the commandment of Dachau. For the time being this meant that we would sit around for most of the morning, in the pale sunshine of the late April day. Although we were desperately, overpoweringly hungry, it was given to us to observe a unique instant in history, the fast disintegration of an empire at its lowest, most degraded level. Nobody was quite sure any longer just how far he would be obeyed, how long he would be in charge of anything at all. Authority slowly escaped from German hands, and was assumed by the "intelligentsia" of the camp, those whom the long and agonizing years could not break, but had, rather, hardened into illusionless realists. They, the intellectual leaders of the camp, who had emerged in these last, all-important days, unknown and unseen by the mass of prisoners, knew perfectly well that the game was not over yet, that the Germans would set a high price for letting those who had survived for years, live through the last few days or perhaps hours. Everybody knew by now that by direct orders from Himmler the prisoners of all camps were to be liquidated before the Allies could reach them. We all knew about this order, although many preferred to consider it as mere rumor. What we did not know was that the camp commander had informed the clandestine leadership of the inmates about it, and had set his price for not executing the order: a written guarantee of being left, he and his family, unharmed after the Allies took over.


The day, the 27th of April, a Friday, was drawing to its end. We had been herded together again, counted by camp guards, and assigned some ground between two barracks to sit around and eat our “lunch”: one slice of bread. No wurst, no coffee. The camp kitchen functioned no longer. Some cooks had suddenly chosen a civilian career, and the prisoners were reluctant to go for food. One never knew; there might be a new order, the liquidation might start, and those exposing themselves become its first victims. The deadly race for time had begun.

At about 5 P.M. there was a roll call for our group on the main square. What should we do? Should we go or should we hide? The barracks, although the stench within was unbearable, and half-alive skeletons were literally heaped upon each other for lack of space, the barracks, we knew, offered some protection, and perhaps no German would venture among the tuberculous, dysenteric mass of rotting flesh to chase us out. But then, what would be the gain? Suppose they set fire to the barracks. How many could escape? And what good may one expect of Dachau, anyway? If we moved on (and we suspected that that was the purpose of the roll call), at least we would be in the open country.

We appeared at the roll call, were counted and given (each group of three) a loaf of bread and some cheese. Orders were to move on, toward southern Bavaria where, the order ran, we would help the Reich in its last stand. A piece of mad impertinence if ever there was any. But who cared about the Reich and its last mad orders; the fact that we had some bread and cheese blocked out everything else from our consideration. Before us, another group of two thousand prisoners had received the same ration and marched off happily. (They were found later on both sides of the highway, machine-gunned.) We envied them then, and now the same luck shone on us.

Except for a sudden downpour we would have followed them. As it was, we disappeared under all kinds of shelters, waiting for the storm to pass. It did, three hours later, and by then it was so dark that nobody undertook to count us. We went back to the barracks, and after being duly cursed by the unfortunates who had no room themselves, we found some patches of floor to rest our bodies on. One must say that we were robust in comparison with the original occupants, whom we now forced off the ground we needed for ourselves.

Saturday, the 28th. Nothing happened. But the race for time went on, and our life was the stake. Rumors ran that 1) the camp commander had fled during the night; 2) he was still here, but as prisoner of his staff, which wanted to defend the camp to the last man; 3) the Allies were only a few miles away; 4) the Allies had suffered great losses the day before and had withdrawn; 5) two of the camp's prisoner-leaders had left the camp with the commander's secret approval, and were now trying to contact the nearest Allied units. There were more rumors yet, and all entered, like little streams, the ocean of our anguish. We were absolutely without food, because the Germans would not venture among the barracks, and we would not show ourselves on the Appel-Platz that had to be crossed on the way to the kitchen. There were too many machine-guns around.

Pierre and I spent the day reconnoitering. The barracks were in horrible condition: dirt, mainly from human beings in the last phase of disintegration. As one walked among them, one could not avoid stepping on an outstretched hand or foot, but instead of a curse, however brutal yet reassuring, all one heard was a faint, whinnying sound, like that of an old and sick animal in which the spark of life is close to extinction. We witnessed bitter battles for a dish of warm water in which the morsels of yesterday's bread had been carefully dipped. And there were the emasculated, screaming voices shrieking oaths, flows of dreadful in suits, and the thud of fists falling on the bony surface of what used to be a flesh-covered body. Dante and Virgil had seen nothing worse in their voyage through the circles of Hell.


The Americans were here. We were happy. We could not cry to celebrate it. We were eating.

There were those on the other hand whom the moral force that an ideal had generated and kept alive made active to the point of restlessness. Some were going around collecting on shreds of paper the names and addresses of their colleagues-in-suffering whom they wanted to contact at home. Even telephone numbers were exchanged, although the Kafkaesque absurdity of this was obvious. But a telephone number dragged out from among buried pieces of memory meant a sudden irruption of civilization, of normal life among well-fed and well-housed human beings.

We went to bed that night more desperate than ever. Our excitement was now spent, and we had the impression that if the weekend were to pass without the decisive event taking place, Monday would see the Germans reestablished in their power and self-confidence. It was rather evident from what we could sense around us that our masters were momentarily stunned by the catastrophe submerging their country; but it was a hardy race, and once the effects of the first shock were over, they might devise a method whereby to finish off all of us.

On Sunday, the 29th, the camp reached the peak of discouragement. Few words were heard; all lay around in complete apathy. About noon an unexpected shipment of bread and cheese arrived from the kitchen, and hours were now spent in dividing up the food so that none might feel slighted. Even so, violent quarrels broke out over half a millimeter one way or the other, and the usual curses in Polish, French, German and Gipsy failed the air. Suddenly, it was around four o'clock, shots were heard. Orders came, nobody knew from where, from whom, to enter the barracks and not to leave them under any circumstances. The rooms, crowded far beyond capacity, were filled with supreme tension; one did not even hear the rattle of the dying. A few more shots, this time clearly near the barbed wires. And then a cry went up outside, super-human, hysterical: “The Americans! .... The Americans are here!”

I was standing in a corner with Pierre, Karl and some others, munching our cheese slowly, with motions that indicated a ritual rather than actual eating. The cheese was good, at least so it seemed to me, and I meant to enjoy every atom of it before swallowing. Of course we had heard the shots and the yell about the Americans, and we exchanged a quick, eye-filling glance. We knew it was true. The Americans were here. But why should one stop eating? Cheese and bread, cheese and bread; our minds could not concentrate on anything else. We ate solemnly, ceremoniously, cutting with the sharpened edge of a spoon one small piece of bread, one small piece of cheese. The Americans were here. We were happy. We could not cry to celebrate it. We were eating.

I remember it as a dream. We left the barracks and walked down the main avenue towards the Appel-Platz to see the Americans. Along with us came 35,000 happy, crazy, shouting, weeping men, the prisoners of Dachau. Everywhere were flags, French, Italian, Yugoslav, Polish, red flags, red stars, striped flags, emblems. Who had made them, where they had been hidden I don't know. But all converged, men and flags, on the big square in the middle of which, hoisted on shoulders, surrounded, fondled, adored were the seven Americans who had liberated us. “Some more are arriving tomorrow,” they explained happily, mixing English, German and French, but for the moment they were all that represented Uncle Sam, the West, civilization, freedom. And no more candy, no more cigarettes, no more chewing-gum. “Nix, nix. Sorry,” and with laughing seriousness they turned their pockets inside out to show that they had given away all they had. But who cared? Everybody laughed, cried, tried to get close to the Americans just to touch them. And then everybody stopped as if obeying orders; a song went skyward from all the parched lips, the lips of the thirty-five thousand Europeans and the seven Americans: the Marseillaise.

Darkness descended upon the camp, and we were lying in silence. Nobody wanted to speak, everybody was busy thinking of getting home, making plans, starting a second life. The angel of happiness ruled in each heart; tears that had been held back for months, for years, roiled down the emaciated cheeks. Outside the Americans stood guard.

Suddenly Pierre pushed me gently in the side: “Moi, quand je rentre,” he began. Pierre was a farmer, and owned a vineyard near Dijon. But before he could continue, Filo, the consumptive Italian boy who lay on my other side, interrupted him: “Si, si,” he said, and his weak voice gathered volume, “si, ritornar!” And we could tell from the tone of his voice that he was smiling.

Mr. Molnar, a regular contributor, is now a member of the faculty at the San Francisco College for Women.

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