1945 letter details horrors of concentration camp

National Archives: Courtesy photo Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in a concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for “scientific” experiments. It was liberated by the 80th Division.

Editor’s note: Sixty-five years ago, the German-held concentration camp at Buchenwald was liberated by United States forces. Cpl. Hayley C. Dandridge, a Dora High School graduate, toured the facility less than two weeks after an estimated 21,000 prisoners were freed.

Dandridge wrote about the horrors he saw in a letter to friends, Alan and Freeda Burkett of Dora, dated April 22, 1945. The letter was printed in the May 9, 1945, issue of The Portales Daily News.

The 65th anniversary of the end of World War II seems a good time to publish it again, so that, as Dandridge wrote, we might all, “readily grasp the meaning of total war.”

Dear Alan and Freeda:

A few days ago I visited Camp Buchenwald near Wemar, Germany. It is one of the largest if not the largest camp in Germany or the world.

This will, no doubt, be old news by the time you receive this, for the camp has been publicized to a great extent since its liberation.

I visited this camp not to view it as one would a circus or to see its starved victims, but to see what the Nazis, whom we fight, have done to their conquered people. Since I have seen the camp I more readily understand why this war had to be fought and why there must be only “unconditional surrender.”

When the news reels of the scenes reach the States, I believe that you there can more readily grasp the meaning of total war.

A group of us from our battalion went down together to see this camp. We entered the gates which had once been guarded by SS men. All about the entrance there were the remains of what had been a huge factory used for the production of war materials.

Our air force had flattened the factory section of the camp and all that we could see was the twisted girders and the piles of rubble.

Less than 200 yards from the factories the concentration camp stood, its heavy iron gates now swung open and its victims walking in and out as if to prove themselves that they were free.

One of the former inmates still dressed in prison stripe trousers but with a dress coat offered to be our guide. He was from Belgium and spoke fair English. Since he had been there about three years he knew his way around the camp and knew the horrible things that had happened within its rusty barbed wire fences.

Our guide took us first to the prison of the camp where the most dangerous and most important prisoners of the Third Reich were kept. Its cells were empty except for a few SS guards who had been put there for safe keeping. These men whose souls had become hardened to crime and punishment now showed the fear that was within their hearts. Their arrogance and egotism was gone and was replaced by humbleness and quick submission to the officers and men who had conquered them.

Our guide then took us through the main court ward past the whipping blocks to the death house where some 900,000 men and boys have been put to death. The place was crude when we went down and there were women coming out with tears in their eyes after looking at the place.

We did not find out whether these women were Germans or relatives of some of the poor people who had been killed there.

As we went down into the cellar the first thing we saw was a huge wooden mallet and big hooks on the walls where the people were hung and tortured.

The procedure used in killing was to let the victim fall through a trap door into the cellar where a big SS man finished killing him with the mallet just as the butcher kills cattle in a slaughter house.

The bodies were stacked on an elevator and carried up to the crematorium. We were told that about 4,000 to 5,000 people were killed there each month.

In the crematorium above there were six furnaces and in them were still charred bones and skulls of its victims. We were told that the bodies were often thrown in the furnace half alive.

In a walled yard just outside of the crematorium there were stacks of bodies of the half-starved people which had died during the night. The bodies were awaiting burial. It was a hideous sight to me and one that I will always remember.

The next building to which we were taken was the pathological center where almost every part of the human body was preserved and on display.

There was a shrunken skull that we asked about. We were told that a Polish fellow had tried to escape and he had been publicly hanged. The skull had been removed and the flesh shrunken and dried and set up as a table ornament on the desk of one of the officials.

We were told that a former commandant’s wife had a hobby of collecting tattoos and when she saw one she liked she had the tattoo removed from the live person and from these pieces she had a lamp shade made. There were two such specimens on display in the laboratory.

We then went into the barracks where the prisoners had lived. It was as unbelievable as the rest of the camp, for in a building about large enough for 100 people there had been housed there about 1,700.

The beds were simple shelves built into the walls, no mattresses, no blankets or anything; the people had to depend upon the body to keep themselves from freezing.

The barracks had no toilet facilities whatsoever, and they were in terrible shape. Some of the former prisoners were still in the barracks. Many of them were dying.

The people imprisoned in this camp were chiefly Jews, Poles, Belgium, Yugoslavs and Russians. It is hard to try to describe to a person who has never seen such people just what they look like. I thought of “The walking dead” when I saw them and they are almost that.

There is almost every disease known to man in that camp. Allied medical authorities are doing their best to clean the place up and giving aid to the starved people who are too weak to eat. An average of 30 to 40 persons are dying there each day.

I made the mistake of offering a cigarette to one of them and before I could get the package in my pocket I was almost mobbed. The diet for the camp was a cup of ersatz coffee and a piece of dry black bread for breakfast and some broth for supper.

One of the prisoners told us that he worked an extra 3 hours overtime for just one piece of bread and by doing that he had managed to keep fairly healthy.

These people are broken in body and mind and I doubt that many of them will ever be able to regain their place in society.

I received your letter some few days ago but have been pretty well on the move and just haven’t taken time to write. If you will accept this as a substitute for a letter I will try to write a more personal one the next time.