Sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Dachau through the eyes of PFC Harold Porter

Posted on May 8, 2015. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , , |

It’s a horrible anniversary, but all the more necessary to keep because of the horror: 60 years ago in May 1945 U.S. soldiers led by General Dwight Eisenhower liberated the Dachau concentration camp. By the time they arrived, it had been emptied of the living and abandoned by the Nazis who ran it as they fled the approach of the U.S. forces. What was left was enough to permanently impact the soldiers who entered the camp.

The first camp Eisenhower’s men had liberated was Ohrdruf, in April 1945. This death camp is not well-known today like Dachau, but it lived in Eisenhower’s memory, and in General George Patton’s. Lt. Col. Lewis Weinstein, a member of Eisenhower’s staff, recorded the effect of seeing Ohrdruf’s victims on the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe:

I saw Eisenhower go to the opposite end of the road and vomit. From a distance I saw Patton bend over, holding his head with one hand and his abdomen with the other. And I soon became ill. I suggested to General Eisenhower that cables be sent immediately to President Roosevelt, Churchill, DeGaulle, urging people to come and see for themselves. The general nodded.

Eisenhower’s written account of his experience is well-known:

…the most interesting—although horrible—sight that I encountered during the trip was a visit to a German internment camp near Gotha. The things I saw beggar description. While I was touring the camp I encountered three men who had been inmates and by one ruse or another had made their escape. I interviewed them through an interpreter. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’

The evidence of the Holocaust was so unbelievably inhuman that the men looking at it simply could not fully take it in—and if they couldn’t, how could those at home who never saw it themselves believe it?

This is a problem PFC Porter addresses in his letter home to his parents, written May 8, 1945 on the stationery of the former camp commandant. His account is of course not famous at all like Eisenhower’s, but it is equally powerful. “It is easy to read about atrocities,” he wrote; “but they must be seen before they can be believed.” His letter is here, and of course it is almost unbearable to read, but even the sickeningly frank descriptions of what he and his fellow Americans saw at Dachau were weak and helpless shadows of the real thing, as he acknowledges on page 3 of his letter:

Although I stood there looking at it, I couldn’t believe it. The realness of this whole mess is just gradually dawning on me, and I doubt if it ever will on you.

Let’s remember this anniversary and let it remind us of the Americans who wanted to make sure that the whole world understood what the Holocaust was.

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