As the world pauses to mark Holocaust Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a letter from a U.S. soldier to his parents describes the horrors that took place in the Nazi concentration camps.
When the allied forces arrived to rescue Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz and other concentration camps in Germany and Poland, they couldn’t have imagined the horrors they were about to witness. Nothing could have prepared Harold Porter for what he found when he entered the Dachau death camp after the liberation of Europe.
The young man wrote letters to his mom and dad in Michigan, which are now in the archives of the Eisenhower Presidential Library. At the time, the Private First Class served as a medic with the 116th Evacuation Hospital, and as such, had already seen incredible human suffering.
However, as historian Robert Abzug relates in his book about American soldiers who liberated the concentration camps in 1945, “These witnesses were totally unprepared to register the magnitude of the atrocities of the Holocaust.”
As people all over the world take a moment to mark this 70th Holocaust Memorial Day, when the horrific events of World War II finally came to an end for millions of Jews and other minorities condemned by the Nazis, the letter Porter wrote stands as a testament to what took place in those chambers of torment and hate.
“It is difficult to know how to begin,” Porter writes in a letter head from Dachau. “The realness of the whole mess is just gradually dawning on me, and I doubt if it ever will on you.”
In a previous letter, the U.S. soldier had informed his parents that he was now stationed at what was the Dachau concentration camp. Porter explained that he was uncertain whether he could explain all the details of what he was witnessing while stationed at this camp in a way that others would be able to truly understand. The sights he saw were so far beyond the scope of normal human experience that words began to lose their power to describe what he saw with his own two eyes, smelled with his own nostrils and heard with his own ears. Cruelty and suffering beyond imagination or comprehension. Sobs of grief and pain that must surely echo down the corridors of time forever.
“By this time I have recovered from my first emotional shock and am able to write without seeming like a hysterical gibbering idiot. Yet, I know you will hesitate to believe me no matter how objective and focused I try to be. I even find myself trying to deny what I am looking at with my own eyes. Certainly, what I have seen in the past few days will affect my personality for the rest of my life.”
“It is easy to read about atrocities, but they must be seen before they can be believed.”
“…as we came to the center of the city, we met a train with a wrecked engine – about fifty cars long. Every car was loaded with bodies. There must have been thousands of them – all obviously starved to death. This was a shock of the first order, and the odor can best be immagined [sic]. But neither the sight nor the odor were anything when compared with what we were still to see.”
Porter goes on to describe in graphic detail what he witnessed when he was finally taken inside the crematory. The sight, the smell, the piles of dead bodies, bones, and clothes belonging to what he said were thousands of Holocaust victims killed at the camp.
Private Porter described the bodies he saw as “nothing but bones and skins” and stated that his friend Marc Coyle — who had arrived ahead of him — assisted in 10 autopsies while wearing a gas mask on the prior day.
According to Porter, all the victims — who were selected randomly for the procedure — suffered from advanced T.B. (Tuberculosis), all had typhus, and suffered from extreme malnutrition. It is clear from the words of this U.S. serviceman that, for them, the war was not over at all, even if the fighting had ended. They had many weeks of trying to deal with what the Nazis had done at Dachau.
“The realness of the whole mess is just gradually dawning on me, and I doubt if it ever will on you.” he tried to explain to his parents in his letter published in its entirety on Slate. On this Holocaust Memorial Day, this account is one of thousands of testimonials of what happened to the Jews and the social outcasts of Europe during World War II, and we must never forget.
The commanding General of this young American soldier, future President Dwight Eisenhower, warned us all just how important it is that we, as a people, as representatives of humanity, in the name of the six million murdered Jews and the 50 million who died to satisfy the blood-lust of Hitler and Tojo, NEVER FORGET the horrors of the Holocaust.
General Eisenhower warned the world with these all too prophetic words.
“Get it all on record now – get the films – get the witnesses – because somewhere down the track of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened.”
Let us also remember the words of a young Jewish girl who fought as a partisan against the Nazis. As she awaited her execution after 30 days of brutal torture, during which she gave the Gestapo no information, Hannah Szenes wrote these immortal words in testament to the human spirit.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.