Dachau: a lifesaving promise
c. March 1945 – April 27, 1945
In early 1945, Jack is selected for transfer to the main camp of Dachau. For the first time since the war began, he is separated from his father, who remains in Kaufering. Some thirteen miles northwest of Munich in Bavaria, Dachau is the longest-operating Nazi concentration camp, established in the first months of Nazi rule in early 1933.
The main Dachau camp is smaller and its prisoner population is much more diverse than the other camps Jack has seen. Coming from all over Europe, nearly every classification of prisoner is represented here. Each prisoner wears a colored triangular badge on their uniform indicating their status as determined by the Nazis. Jews, who make up only a small percentage of prisoners at Dachau, wear a yellow triangle, layered with another color as applicable to form a six-pointed star.
The gate to the camp at Dachau bears the inscription “Arbeit macht frei” [Work makes you free]. In the years since the war began, it has become clear that prisoners of the Nazi system are intended to work until their death rather than until their liberation.
View of the gated entrance to the Dachau concentration camp with the sign, “Arbeit macht frei” [Work makes you free]. Circa April 1945 – August 1945.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Norman Coulson
Jack Adler: So one day, the commanding officer, who was a colonel in the SS, and he was in charge of the construction site of his people, you know, and of all the guards, the SS guards. Called my Kapo, and he asked him to send some– a youngster to keep his office clean. And being the youngest in my group, I was chosen for that job, which was, by far, much easier.
And I remember, I would come in to perform my duty, the first thing I would do would empty out the ashes, so it doesn’t mess up the floor after I sweep. And I would find, neatly wrapped in the ashes, like in the wax paper– that’s before foil paper– pieces of bread, pieces of, like, bacon. He would wrap it up.
And I knew he did it– he wouldn’t have thrown it in if he wouldn’t want me to find it, for me to find. And that was like, you know, like a special gift. Every day, I would find something in there.
“And I would find, neatly wrapped in the ashes … pieces of bread, pieces of … bacon.”
USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, Interview 18433
Yet within this inhuman system, there are cracks of humanity. By a stroke of luck, Jack encounters one such anomaly in the form of an SS camp commandant. One day, he is randomly selected for a job working in the office of the commander in charge of the construction site.
Neither Jack nor the commandant acknowledges the food packages that Jack continues to find in the ashes of the stove every morning. Yet when Jack is cheated and beaten by a guard who promised him bread in exchange for sugar, the commandant reacts with compassion, even intervening on Jack’s behalf to force the guard to honor his promise to the young, Jewish prisoner.
Jack Adler: And I remember, about a month before the war was coming to an end– and of course the Germans realized that the end is coming– they allowed the Swiss Red Cross to come into the main camp of Dachau to distribute food packages similar to, like, a care package. So first they handed them out to the non-Jews. And they had some leftover, so they decided to give those to the young prisoners. And I received one of those packages.
And immediately, you opened it up, took out all of its contents, and put it around your waistband, so no one– because people would steal your food. And it had– it had sardines, crackers, a candy bar, I remember. That, I ate up immediately. It had all kinds of non-perishables.
And when we– we marched to work, five across. Approximately, I would say, about 2,000 people, to and from work. We marched for about an hour and marched for an hour back.
The daily routine, even before going to the main camp of Dachau was that we would wake up around 5:00 in the morning, clean up the barracks. We had to fall out in front for the appell, to be counted. And at 6:00, as we marched out to go to work, we were given a half of our daily food ration, which was a slice of bread. And we marched for an hour. 7 o’clock, we started work.
At noon, we got a bowl of soup. And at 7:00 at night, we marched back to work for another hour. And they always found in camp to do something, some– something ridiculous, so we don’t go to sleep till about, oh, before midnight. 5:00 in the morning, the same routine. They’ll–
Interviewer: What kind of soup? What was in the soup?
Jack Adler: Very thin. Water, sometimes vegetables, maybe potatoes in there. Sometimes meat. [PAUSES FOR 3 SECONDS] So and this was the daily routine. And of course, those who were too weak or got sick never got the food, because we got the ration. They had it so worked out that you got a ration as you left and at work. So, people who did not go to work died within a few days. [PAUSES FOR 3 SECONDS]
So, they distributed those packages as we were marching to work, five across. One of our SS guards approached me. And he asked me if I received a food package. I said, “Yes, I did.” He said, “Was there any sugar in it?” And there was a bag, maybe of about two, three pounds. I don’t recall exactly.
And so, he opened– he carried a little duffel bag. He opened it up. He took out what appeared to be like a half a loaf of bread. He said, “If you give me your sugar, every day, I’ll give you this much bread.” And boy, this was like Thanksgiving, Christmas, all the holidays. I gladly turned it over to him. And he gave me the bread.
So, the next day, as I said, we marched five across. I made sure I’m on the side that he was guarding us, so he could see me. So, as he passed me by, he looked at me. I looked at him. And he asked me in German, [NON-ENGLISH]. “What do you want?” I said, “You promised me bread every day. I gave you sugar yesterday.”
And he– instead, he took off the rifle he was carrying, and with the rifle butt, he hit me as hard as he could in my rib cage, and I collapsed. So, two people helped me get to work. And I– when I went to perform my duties in the commanding officer’s office, I bent down to empty out the ashes, and I was in such pain, I couldn’t get up. [PAUSES FOR 3 SECONDS]
And I started to cry. And the commanding officer got up from behind the desk, walked up to me. And he said in German, [NON-ENGLISH], “What’s wrong with you, young boy, my boy?” And that’s the first time in maybe five years that German would address me as a human being. And at that point, even though I realized what could happen to a Jew informing on an SS guard to a superior officer, I didn’t care about that. And I told him.
And he said, what? He said, when we fall in– we had fall in again into appell to be counted before we marched back to camp–he says, “Point the guard out to me.” So, I said to myself, it’s like signing my death certificate.
So, I hid to the rear of the group of the prisoners. And we were counted. Everything was in order, and we were ready to march. He said, “Halt.” ‘Hold it.’ And I– he went row by row, and he was looking for me. He spotted me. He called me out front.
He says, “Show me the guard. Point him out to me.” Reluctantly, I did so. So marching back to camp, I hid in the middle of the group, so the guard doesn’t see me. Nothing happened.
The next day, the same thing. I’m hiding in the middle there as we were marching. And I could see out of the corner of my eye this guard is looking, row after row. He spotted me. He called me out. I said, “Oh, boy. Here comes another beating or maybe even– even worse.” And instead, he opened his duffel bag and handed me like a half a loaf of bread. I couldn’t believe it.
And when I got to work, I was so happy. You know. I went into the commanding officer’s office. Before I even closed the door, he got up from behind the desk. He said, “Did you get any bread today from this guard?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “If you still have it, show me how much.” And I did. So I showed it to him.
He says, “Every day, he is to give you at least this much bread. If he fails to do so even one day, you tell me, and I’ll deal with him.”
And this is very important. Because you know, as you well know, I speak to so many children, thousands each year. I don’t want them to believe in collective guilt. There is good and bad in all of us. And he, in his small way, did what was right, as far as I was concerned. He saved my life. Because I would have– I would have never survived without his help.
“You promised me bread every day. I gave you sugar yesterday.”
USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, Interview 18433
For Jack, this kindness is the difference between life and death. It is the first time in years that Jack has experienced such kindness from someone other than his father, perhaps the first time since the war began that he is treated like a human being by one of his oppressors. Jack acknowledges that the commandant’s kindness saves his life, but Jack never learns his name.
Interviewer: The commandant of the camp–
Jack Adler: Commanding officer.
Interviewer: –who took you in and, and gave you extra bread and —
Jack Adler: Mm-hm, most definitely.
Interviewer: –pieces of bacon and–
Jack Adler: Uh-huh?
Interviewer: –what is your understanding about what was taking place, there?
Jack Adler: Well– well, you know, you have to– now, of course, 50-some years later, and I have learned a lot about that particular dark period. I think, you know, as I said, I don’t believe in collective guilt. I do not. And I don’t think anyone should, for that matter.
I think he was a decent human being who got caught in that murder machine. And when he found out what was going on, it was too late. And he did, in his own way, whatever he felt he could, even though it was just one individual– myself. And he saved my life. There’s no question of it. In the condition I was when I was liberated, had I not had the nourishment that was provided prior to that, I would not have made it.
Interviewer: Do you remember his name?
Jack Adler: No. I know he was a– you know, when I was hospitalized, I was thinking about him. But when I came out, I tried finding him. I– I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know anything about him, other than that he was the head of the guards at the– at work camp.
“I think he was a decent human being who got caught in that murder machine.”
USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, Interview 18433
Despite the depravity of his treatment by the Nazis, Jack does not believe in collective guilt. Each of us, he believes, has the capacity to do both good and evil. At this late stage of the war, the impossibility of a Nazi victory becomes clearer with every day. In Jack’s memoir, he speculates on the commandant’s actions. Had the commandant been motivated by his conscience alone, or by fear of the impending defeat of Nazi Germany and the threat of Allied retribution for Nazi transgressions? Perhaps the crushing totalitarianism of the Nazi state had forced him to abandon his awareness of right and wrong, and now the changing fate of Nazi Germany made a recalibration of his moral compass possible.
Excerpt from Jack’s memoir, Y? A Holocaust Narrative:
Even though he was a high-ranking Nazi officer, in the earlier years of 1942-1944, he wouldn’t have been brave enough to stick up for a Jewish boy over a Nazi guard concerning nothing more than a slice of bread. But it was near the end of the war—perhaps that was why he was no longer afraid to do the right thing. He was a decent human being caught up in the Nazi movement. This is hard for me, for many, to reconcile. But I am sure this happened to many Germans. They didn’t realize what they were getting into and by the time they did, it was too late to get out. To argue or protest meant death as assuredly as one’s Jewish heritage.
When the lieutenant colonel knew the war was coming to an end and he realized he could do something humane, he didn’t hesitate to do so.
He saved my life. A Nazi officer saved my life. A gesture as simple as a piece of bacon wrapped in wax paper, and an order to a guard to keep a promise.
I wonder what happened to that man. Perhaps he was executed for crimes against humanity like so many of his peers when the Russians and the Americans got their hands on them. Maybe he fled to South America, as others did following the war… to hide in the jungles for the rest of their lives. Or maybe he was reabsorbed into the German populace, hiding all evidence of his former profession. I don’t remember his name.
I will never know.
Had I the opportunity, I would not have hesitated to testify on his behalf. Imagine… a Jewish Holocaust survivor speaking up for a member of the SS.
Jack Adler's Timeline
The first concentration camp at Kaufering is established with the arrival of 1,000 Jewish Hungarian men from Auschwitz. Kaufering will eventually become the largest subcamp complex in the Dachau system, with eleven camps located near Landsberg am Lech in Bavaria. It is also one of the most deadly Nazi labor camps: around half of the c. 30,000 prisoners sent to the Kaufering camps between June 1944 and April 1945 will die there. Prisoners in the Kaufering camps supply labor for the construction of underground aircraft production sites for the German airline industry, which has suffered heavy damage from Allied bombs.