The electrified fences that guarded the Dachau concentration camp - photo taken by American soldiers in 1945
During the Second World War, thousands of Christians, including many Orthodox Christians, were sent to the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Just over 65 years ago, the camp was liberated by American soldiers. Soon afterward, on April 29, 1945, the Orthodox former prisoners celebrated the Feast of Pascha. The inspiring story of this very special Pascha is recounted in an article entitled "Dachau 1945: The Souls of All Are Aflame" by Douglas Cramer. The article originally appeared in Again magazine. Over the next week or two, I thought I would share this inspiring story with you. Please enjoy the first part of the story.
Warning: being as it is a tale about a Nazi death camp, the story is quite graphic in parts. It is not suitable for children or people who are easily grossed out!
In 1945, a Paschal Liturgy like no other was performed. Just days after their liberation by the US military on April 29, 1945, hundreds of Orthodox Christian prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp gathered to celebrate the Resurrection service and to give thanks.
The Dachau concentration camp was opened in 1933 in a former gunpowder factory. The first prisoners interred there were political opponents of Adolf Hitler, who had become German chancellor that same year. During the twelve years of the camp's existence, over 200,000 prisoners were brought there. The majority of prisoners at Dachau were Christians, including Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox clergy and lay people.
Countless prisoners died at Dachau, and hundreds were forced to participate in the cruel medical experiments conducted by Dr. Sigmund Rascher. When prisoners arrived at the camp they were beaten, insulted, shorn of their hair, and had all their belongings taken from them. The SS guards could kill whenever they thought it was appropriate. Punishments included being hung on hooks for hours, high enough that heels did not touch the ground; being stretched on trestles; being whipped with soaked leather whips; and being placed in solitary confinement for days on end in rooms too small to lie down in.
The abuse of the prisoners reached its end in the spring of 1945. The events of that Holy Week were later recorded by one of the prisoners, Gleb Rahr. Rahr grew up in Latvia and fled with his family to Nazi Germany when the Russians invaded. He was arrested by the Gestapo because of his membership in an organization that opposed both fascism and communism. Originally imprisoned in Buchenwald, he was transported to Dachau near the end of the war.
In fact, Rahr was one of the survivors of the infamous “death trains,” as they were called by the American G.I.’s who discovered them. Thousands of prisoners from different camps had been sent to Dachau in open rail cars. The vast majority of them died horrific deaths from starvation, dehydration, exposure, sickness, and execution.
In a letter to his parents the day after the liberation, G.I. William Cowling wrote, “As we crossed the track and looked back into the cars the most horrible sight I have ever seen met my eyes. The cars were loaded with dead bodies. Most of them were naked and all of them skin and bones. Honest their legs and arms were only a couple of inches around and they had no buttocks at all. Many of the bodies had bullet holes in the back of their heads.”
Marcus Smith, one of the US Army personnel assigned to Dachau, also described the scene in his 1972 book, The Harrowing of Hell.
"Refuse and excrement are spread over the cars and grounds. More of the dead lie near piles of clothing, shoes, and trash. Apparently some had crawled or fallen out of the cars when the doors were opened, and died on the grounds. One of our men counts the boxcars and says that there are thirty-nine. Later I hear that there were fifty, that the train had arrived at the camp during the evening of April 27, by which time all of the passengers were supposed to be dead so that the bodies could be disposed of in the camp crematorium. But this could not be done because there was no more coal to stoke the furnaces. Mutilated bodies of German soldiers are also on the ground, and occasionally we see an inmate scream at the body of his former tormentor and kick it. Retribution!"