On April 29, 1945, James W. Garner from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, stepped through a freshly blasted hole in the wall of Dachau Concentration Camp. Garner, a provost marshal with the 42nd Infantry Rainbow Division, emotionally recalled it as, “the most searing moment of my life … you can’t imagine what humans can do to humans,” he said. Dachau was liberated 75 years ago this month when the U.S. Seventh Army’s 45th Infantry Division, the 42nd Infantry Rainbow Division, and the 20th Armored Division entered Dachau, rescuing 32,000 prisoners.
Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp and was established in 1933. Originally built to house a maximum of 10,000 political prisoners, the population of Dachau and its subcamps swelled to more than 60,000 as prisoners from other camps arrived on transports ahead of advancing Allied armies in 1944. Overcrowded conditions, lack of food and sanitation, and executions led to staggering death rates in the camp. Prisoners were subject to horrific torture and laboratory experiments.
As American soldiers neared the camp on April 29th, they came upon 40 railway cars filled with corpses in various stages of decomposition. The Nazi work of unloading the bodies and sending them to the crematory had been interrupted. Just days earlier as Allied soldiers neared, SS guards had received orders to evacuate the camp. Some 7,000 prisoners set out on a forced death march from Dachau to Tegernsee. Guards shot anyone that couldn’t keep up. When American soldiers arrived on April 29th, more than 30,000 prisoners remained in the camp. After passing the railway cars, American soldiers continued toward the gates.
Prisoner Arnold Shay, Dachau No. 135584, remembered seeing Garner appear through the blasted hole in the wall. He and other prisoners assembled in the compound yard waiting in line for their turn at the gas chambers. The arrival of the Americans brought a flood of relief to Shay and other prisoners, ending a nightmare that began when Nazi soldiers burst into his family’s home in the Jewish ghetto. The soldiers beat his father until Shay could, “hear the bones cracking,” and ran forward to help him. He was struck in the head with a rifle rendering him unconscious. When he awoke, he was en route to Dachau. The arrival of American forces meant his nightmare was finally over.
American soldiers began the process of interviewing survivors, caring for the critically ill, and documenting the atrocities in the camp. German soldiers destroyed many of the camp records three weeks before the arrival of the Americans, making an exact accounting difficult.
An estimated 188,000 prisoners were incarcerated in Dachau between 1933-1945, and approximately 28,000 prisoners died in the camp between 1940-1945. If you would like to learn more about Dachau Concentration Camp, see records from the Dachau Entry Registers, historical records from the U.S. Seventh Army, and an astounding secret diary kept by an inmate at Dachau and later recovered by American soldiers. Search these records and others including our Holocaust Collection on Fold3 today!