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Hundreds of Americans from military communities in Heidelberg, Mannheim, and Kaiserlsautern visited the concemtration camp in Dachau, Germany last week to remember the Holocaust.
Hundreds of Americans from military communities in Heidelberg, Mannheim, and Kaiserlsautern visited the concemtration camp in Dachau, Germany last week to remember the Holocaust. (Rick Scavetta / S&S)
Hundreds of Americans from military communities in Heidelberg, Mannheim, and Kaiserlsautern visited the concemtration camp in Dachau, Germany last week to remember the Holocaust.
Hundreds of Americans from military communities in Heidelberg, Mannheim, and Kaiserlsautern visited the concemtration camp in Dachau, Germany last week to remember the Holocaust. (Rick Scavetta / S&S)
Sgt. Arthur Phillips (left) and Spc. Curtis Brisbon stand beside the entrance to Dachau's concetration camp, where prisoners read the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" — German for "work sets you free."
Sgt. Arthur Phillips (left) and Spc. Curtis Brisbon stand beside the entrance to Dachau's concetration camp, where prisoners read the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" — German for "work sets you free." (Rick Scavetta / S&S)
Tour guide Diethard Bendlin shows a group of Americans how prisoners at Dachau slept cramped together in wooden bunk beds.
Tour guide Diethard Bendlin shows a group of Americans how prisoners at Dachau slept cramped together in wooden bunk beds. (Rick Scavetta / S&S)

DACHAU, Germany — Nearly six decades ago, on a chilly Sunday morning, U.S. troops liberated this Nazi concentration camp.

Last week, hundreds of U.S. soldiers and families visited the Dachau memorial to mark the Days of Remembrance, an annual program in April focusing on the Holocaust. Equal opportunity offices in Heidelberg, Kaiserslautern and Mannheim offered the free trip.

For many, the daylong excursion was a chance to “walk the ground and see for themselves,” said Sgt. 1st Class Sandra Short, an equal opportunity adviser from Kaiserslautern.

“They can see the hatred and what that can do to people,” she said.

It was 59 years ago — April 29, 1945 — that U.S. troops first laid eyes upon the human suffering at Dachau, where in 12 years roughly 43,000 people died at the hands of Hitler’s SS guards.

Convoys of buses left early Friday and soldiers slept through much of the five-hour trip through Bavaria’s hills. Outside Munich, as buses eased into a small village not far from the autobahn, baseball-capped soldiers craned their necks toward the windows.

But the town itself offers little insight into its dark past — it never has.

In fact, troops who liberated the camp even said that Dachau looked like any other German town. Visitors found pockets of neatly kept suburban homes interrupted by tracts of farmland.

No signs say “Nazi camp, where thousands suffered and died, this way.”

Instead, only the letters KZ for Konzentrationlager, German for concentration camp, mark the way.

“It’s probably not something they’re proud of,” said Sgt. 1st Class David Caldwell, 40, of Pensacola, Fla.

Slowly, the troops began to talk about what they were seeing — exactly the effect planners wanted. Each month, equal opportunity programs are offered to enlighten soldiers to accepting other races, genders and cultures, said Staff Sgt. Emilio Rivera, equal opportunity adviser for the Heidelberg-based 181st Signal Company. April’s trip targeted younger troops who might not have been taught about concentration camps, Rivera said.

Back home in Mineral Wells, Texas, Pfc. Jeremy Martin, 21, learned little about the Holocaust. He was one of about 100 Heidelberg soldiers who jumped at the chance to visit Dachau.

“It’s just to get away from work and do something new,” he said.

Both Martin and Pfc. Jody Sparks, 19, of Glen, Miss., said their schools never went into detail about the Nazi camps.

Soldiers their age were among the first U.S. troops at Dachau in April 1945. Thousands of emaciated prisoners greeted them. Troops found piles of dead bodies inside.

Most of the camp was torn down in the mid-1960s and replaced by memorial sites and chapels. Now, visitors watch a graphic film depicting Dachau, then walk through a museum of enlarged photos on billboard-sized panels.

The camp was built in 1933 and over 12 years held about 200,000 prisoners from all over Europe. While Jews made up the majority of prisoners, there were also Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and enemy prisoners.

Most were forced laborers. Others were subjected to horrific medical experiments.

Surprisingly, the American visitors appeared hardly affected, showing neither tears nor deep reflection during their tour. In fact, it was mostly smiles and cigarettes as the groups of Americans walked from the mock prisoners barracks to the crematorium.

With Hollywood filling American minds with graphic horrors in films, one Army officer suggested, “We may be harder to shock.”

Tour guide Diethard Bendlin touched a nerve when he brought up current events. He likened the Nazi’s prisoners held in Dachau without charges or access to legal representation to U.S.-held prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Americans frowned and grumbled about Bendlin’s comments, but moved on.

As the tour was nearly over, a group of soldiers began taking photos of a wrought iron gate with the words “Arbeit macht frei” — translated loosely as “work sets you free.”

For some, such as Sgt. Arthur Phillips, 26, of Forsyth, Ga., that drove things home.

“Imagine getting off that train and walking up in here,” Phillips began in a slow drawl. “Work makes you free on the sign and all you see is people hungry and diseased, a gun line to left and right.”

As soldiers listened, Phillips went on, “They’d take everything you own, your life. Each step you’d take you’d lose faith and hope.”

After the war, a GI allegedly took the original “Arbeit macht frei” sign home as a souvenir. Phillips and his comrades said they would take home feelings they will never forget.

“It was a wake-up call,” Phillips said. “It makes me appreciate the things I have.”

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