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U.S. Army Veterans, Survivors To Mark 70th Anniversary Of Dachau Liberation


American troops liberated Dachau, the concentration camp, 70 years ago today. To mark the anniversary, U.S. veterans, who were first to arrive at the camp, are gathering there again. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to Dachau and nearby Munich to meet two former infantrymen who vividly recall what they found that morning seven decades ago.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The steady rain beats down on 91-year-old Frank Burns as he walks around the Dachau memorial. But the retired engineer from Seattle says he doesn't mind. This is his first visit to the former camp in 70 years. Back then, he was a Private First Class in the 42nd Infantry Division, which was tasked with liberating tens of thousands of prisoners from the Nazi's oldest concentration camp. He points out various landmarks.

FRANK BURNS: The wall's the same (laughter). And the guard houses are the same.

NELSON: What were your thoughts and your feelings when you first approached? I mean, what did it feel like?

BURNS: Maybe a little apprehensive - wondering what it was going to be like and see if I could orient myself to where I was then.

NELSON: Not that soldiers knew what to expect in the predawn hours of April 29, 1945, when they approached Dachau for the first time. The scope of Nazi atrocities was just coming to light. And Burns says his unit didn't know whether to expect to fight.

BURNS: But we got to a place in the forest and it was after dark. They told us that they wanted a unit to come down and liberate the camp if the SS hadn't left yet. So we didn't get any sleep that night and then came down. And partway down, it was determined that the SS had left.

NELSON: German civilians they encountered insisted they had no idea what the concentration camp was for. Burns is incredulous, saying the Germans couldn't have missed the stench of the crematorium. But he says what he saw at Dachau didn't really sink in that first day either.

BURNS: You'd see dead people all over, and you'd see buildings that had been completely demolished. You know, all that's in your mind and you're just sort of taking it in. You're mainly looking around and everything to make sure you're not going to get killed.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Fellow 42nd Division veteran Hilbert Margol describes a similar numbness. The 91-year-old businessman from Dunwoody, Ga., arrived in Munich this morning and will attend Dachau's ceremonies in the coming days.

Like Burns, this is the first time Margol will see Dachau in 70 years. Back then, he says, he and his twin brother were with a unit that was firing rounds to rattle German troops when they noticed a pungent odor. Margol says it smelled like when their mother used to burn the pin feathers off freshly killed chicken. They left their unit to go find the source of the smell.

HILBERT MARGOL: The first thing we saw was a line of railroad boxcars. And apparently the infantry guys in front of us had opened some of the sliding doors. We looked in one of the boxcars and there were just bodies strewn around inside.

NELSON: Margol says they took pictures of the scene, and those images now hang in the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Soraya Sarhaddi Neslon, NPR News, Munich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.