“Dachau and My Father”

Juozas Bertulis

Juozas Bertulis' Story by Ina Bray

The Second World War was still unwinding somewhere in eastern Bavaria when my father Juozas Bertulis was recruited to help move prisoners out of the Dachau Concentration Camp.  

Dachau, the name of a medieval town northwest of Munich and of a concentration camp nearby, will symbolize the barbarity of Hitler’s Reich forever. The Nazi government had established the camp in 1933 for German political prisoners, but quickly it evolved into a camp that also housed political “undesirables” of some 30 nationalities and Jews, forced laborers of many backgrounds, and eventually German and Austrian common criminals.  Hundreds of thousands had died of hunger, disease or brutality, but by the time American forces freed the camp on April 29, 1945, some 30,000 prisoners were still alive.

My father never told us specifically how he became involved in this liberating operation, which for him lasted only several days.  But since at the War’s end the Allied Forces interviewed and registered all inhabitants of Germany, my father’s knowledge of languages – Lithuanian, Russian, Latvian, Polish, German, some Ukrainian, and Latin – no doubt played a role. When the gates of Dachau were opened and the defeated German guards and perpetrators removed, many of the emaciated and sick prisoners, including children, no longer had the strength to leave the barracks, or to receive food, or to climb onto truck beds to be taken to medical facilities.  To help with this and other tasks and to communicate with these former prisoners, the American forces brought in refugees from Eastern Europe – such as my father – and other foreigners from the west.  Germans from the immediate surroundings were forced to perform repellent work, for example dealing with the stacked remains of prisoners, or just cleaning the filthy facilities.   

I was ten years old, but how clearly I still see my father on those sunny now silent dawn mornings in early May, going to work.  On his rickety old bicycle, after a hug and a quick wave, he would take off to ride to the train station in Ismaning, where we lived, and then on to Dachau – a distance of some 20 miles. 

Then in late afternoon I would wait by the gate and watch as he dragged himself home, drained, devastated and crumbled, just like his old bicycle. The exuberance and the fragrance of the blossoms in the orchard around us wanted to cheer us and send a message that the season indeed was promising a new beginning both for nature and for us humans.  But my father’s hunched-over shoulders, his ashen-colored and suddenly aged face, each afternoon spoke of something else.

My five year old brother Alex, my mother and I, were barely able to greet him because he always evaded our hugs.  The laundry room had to come first.  That large cement-finished room, with a huge cauldron built into a wood-burning stove in one corner, and generous-sized tubs throughout, served as the laundry washing room for the adjoining farm.  It was my mother’s task to build a fire under the cauldron and get the water ready for my father. 

Particularly after his first day in the Camp, I remember how he came home and almost dove into that laundry room.  Perhaps the luxury of clean warm water – a healing for body and soul – and a good supply of lye soap would help him shed his day.  Could he then also scrub off the reality of what he had witnessed only a few hours ago?  

But there was also that practical aspect: lice, fleas, bedbugs and heavens only knows what invisible else had found a ride on his clothes, shoes, body and hair.  Vermin were part of the camp environment, and because of his close physical contact with these human beings, of course my father brought the pests home.  He needed to be rid of them.  He never could get them all, disinfecting chemicals were scarce, but in that stark, grey laundry room with the help of cascading almost-boiling hot water and strong soap, he tried. 

 So on that first day’s end, while my father soaked and cleaned, in the fading sunlight my mother, my brother and I sat on the stone steps to the house and quietly waited.  After what seemed an eternity, now dressed in fresh clothes, my father slowly emerged. And, like swallows perched on a telephone wire, we all four settled on the hard stoop.  Silence followed.  Finally, though barely audible, my father’s day came sliding out.

Like falling tears, drop by drop he described images, adding “niekad neuzmirsiu, niekad neuzmirsiu” (never will I forget). What he had seen that day was a sea of decrepit humanity, bodies barely moving as if suspended between life and death.  Hour after hour, he carried, he held and hugged, he cajoled and consoled, he accompanied prisoner after prisoner. He did this with all his strength – with all his heart, as was his nature.

At one point my father had walked into a barracks to help yet one more skeletal man to get off his bare pallet.  Trying to communicate with him in various languages, my father discovered the man was Lithuanian.  Very quickly they both realized they had known each other in their young years, although as my father said, the now yellowish face of his friend had withered and aged almost beyond recognition. Even in his friend’s feeble condition, overjoyed they grabbed each other and hugged and hugged.  But that could last only a moment.  Freedom and a new life were beckoning.  Quickly my father half-carried him to a food station for liquids and a snack.  After that, it would be hoisting him onto a truck for transportation to a hospital.

As my father relived with us the story, the food stations sounded like something out of fairy tales.  Mounds and platters of enticing provisions, some that were totally unfamiliar to him and others which he had barely tasted in years:  peanut butter, cheeses, jams, milk, bread, butter, meats, various fruit – some exotic, vegetables of all kinds, and more.  Apparently, out of a sense of good will, the American Army had provided a profusion of foodstuffs, not realizing that to a starved body such indiscriminate quantity and quality could be toxic.  

During the early part of the day my father had watched with sympathy as these walking skeletons descended on the abundance of available food.  And now Jonas, his feeble friend, was also zeroing in.  Holding back tears, my father described to us how with all his strength he had grabbed the protruding shoulders of his friend and pleaded:  “Jonai … Jonai …  palauk … susilaikyk!”  (Jonas, Jonas, wait, stop).  

But no amount of begging could hold Jonas back.  “For this moment I have waited an eternity,” he whispered.  “Even if I die, I need to be finally full.”  

Not too long after those moments of ecstasy, that same afternoon, cradled in the warmth and comfort of my father’s arms, Jonas indeed drew his last breath.  

But my father’s work went on, on that day and on the following ones as he helped more fading human beings on the way to becoming human again.  

Now seated on the stoop and surrounded by us his family, my father breathed the end of his story.  I can still see his face resting in his hands, his tears dropping into the dust between his feet, each burying a part of his story.  Even though all that was a life time ago, I can still hear his pleading voice. 

 All four of us continued to hold each other.  The birds in the flowered branches tweeted their lullaby.  The last rays of the sun stroked us.  So far our family had survived intact.  Perhaps the worst was over.  Perhaps we would make it.

Those first days after the closing stages of the War were tense and fearful for all, foreigners and Germans, in or out of camps.  There were many reasons for that.   For my family and many from Eastern Europe, the immediate dread came from the fact that the Allied Forces were vigorously implementing “Operation Keelhaul.”  That agreement with the Soviet Union obligated the Allies (America, Great Britain and France) to return forced laborers from Eastern Europe, particularly Russians and Ukrainians, to their home country. Americans in military uniform were a formidable presence throughout the camp, giving directions and shouting orders and had ultimate authority.  They could turn against the Eastern European helpers. 

Panic ran rampant through our communities.  Soviet agents hunted down their victims, including concentration camp survivors, and American soldiers forced these handcuffed and beaten young people at gunpoint unto trucks.  In those first days, from Dachau alone some 275 prisoners committed suicide rather than be shipped back and executed in the USSR.  My father was a potential target for similar deportation.  In the previous summer of 1944 he had been conscripted by the German Army to dig trenches on the Eastern front and thus he was considered “forced labor.”  Now his absence during the day and working under the direct supervision of the Americans only added to my mother’s constant anxiety.  

After the camp was emptied, Dachau became a U.S. Army internment camp and then the site of trials of German war criminals.  Several years later it was converted to a holding camp for East German refugees whom the Soviets had forced out of their homeland.  In time it was established as a US military post, the Eastman Barracks, and finally – the state headquarters for a section of the Bavarian police.  

For the rest of his life, my father never talked about his experience at Dachau.  

In later years he visited Germany, but never Dachau or Ismaning.

Ina Bray

May 2014