Dachau: a lifesaving promise

c. March 1945 – April 27, 1945

Henry Lowenstein

Jack Adler

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.

Old, black and white photograph of an iron gate that bears the inscription, "Arbeit Macht Frei" or "Work will set you free."

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

Chart showing markings used at Dachau concentration camp to indicate different prisoner types. Markings are colored triangles affixed to uniforms.

A chart of prisoner markings used in German concentration camps. Dachau, Germany, c. 1938–1942. 

KZ Gedenkstaette Dachau (from USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia) [permission pending]

Transcript

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.

Transcript

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.

Transcript

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

V
Events Related to Current Page
  • Jack Adler is born in Pabianice, Poland

    Yakuv Szlama [or Szlomo] Adler (later: Jack Adler) is born to Cemach and Faiga Adler in Pabianice, a small city on the outskirts of Lodz in western Poland.

  • Europe’s Jewish population is c. 9.5 million

    This number represents 1.7% of the total population of Europe, and accounts for >60% of the world's Jewish population. Most Jews are in eastern Europe: Poland is home to 3.3 million Jews, some 2.5 million Jews live in the USSR, and around 756,000 Jews live in Romania. The Jewish population of the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia numbers c. 255,000. In central Europe, Germany is home to c. 523,000. Some 445,000 Jews live in Hungary, 357,000 in Czechoslovakia, and 191,000 in Austria. There are also large Jewish communities in Great Britain (300,000), France (250,000, and the Netherlands (156,000). Some 60,000 Jews live in Belgium. The Scandinavian countries are home to c. 16,000 Jews. In the South, the Jewish community in Greece numbers c. 73,000. Yugoslavian Jews number c. 68,000, Italy and Bulgaria each have communities of c. 48,000.

  • Dachau concentration camp established

    Hitler's paramilitary SS (Schutzstaffel) establish the first concentration camp near Dachau for political opponents of the regime. Dachau remains in operation from 1933-1945. Over 200,000 people are imprisoned and estimated 41,500 are murdered during this period.

  • Polish Jews number c. 3.3 million

    Jews have been living in Poland for 800 years. On the eve of World War II, Polish Jews constitute the largest Jewish community in Europe, accounting for 10% of the country's total population.

  • U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany agree to non-aggression pact

    Germany and the Soviet Union negotiate a non-aggression pact. This agreement, often called the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact after its chief negotiators, divides eastern Europe between the Nazi and Soviet powers and results in the partition of Poland.

  • Nazi Germany invades Poland, sparking World War II

    Nazi forces invade and swiftly defeat Polish forces using the "Blitzkrieg"--a rapid and combined forces attack. Within days, Great Britain and France declare war on Germany, marking the beginning of World War II.

  • Nazi forces occupy Lodz and Pabianice, Poland

    Invading German troops reach the city of Lodz and nearby Pabianice. They immediately introduce strict measures restricting the freedom of the Jewish population, in particular.

  • U.S.S.R. invades Poland

    The Soviet military occupies eastern Poland, as secretly agreed with Germany in the non-aggression pact signed by the two countries on August 23, 1939 (Molotov-Ribbentrop pact).

  • Concentration of Polish Jews into ghettos ordered

    Nazi officials order the concentration of Polish Jews in designated, often enclosed districts in major population centers in preparation for their deportation and murder. Ghettos are established throughout Nazi-occupied Poland.

  • Annexation of western Poland

    Following the Nazi occupation of Poland, territories in the western part of Poland are annexed to Germany. Danzig-West Prussia and Warthegau are incorporated as new provinces of the Reich; the provinces of East Prussia and Silesia are expanded to incorporate newly gained Polish lands.

  • Generalgouvernement established in Nazi-occupied Poland

    Nazis establish civilian administration over areas of Poland under German control that are not annexed to the Reich. The "Generalgouvernement" under the autocratic rule of Governor General Hans Frank encompasses four districts: Warsaw, Lublin, Krakow, and Radom.

  • Pabianice Ghetto established

    Beginning in November 1939, Jews residing in wealthier areas of Pabianice are ordered to leave their homes, which are intended for Germans. In February 1940, the Jewish population is condensed into a designated area of the town. Jews are not permitted to leave the ghetto, the perimeter of which is indicated by signs.

  • Germanization of names in incorporated Poland

    In areas of Poland under German administration, the names of Polish cities in the newly annexed territories are Germanized. Lodz is therefore also known as "Litzmannstadt."

  • Lodz ghetto established

    Approximately 164,000 Jews are concentrated in a ghetto in the Polish industrial city of Lodz. They perform forced labor for the Nazi war effort, living under squalid conditions of severe overcrowding and insufficient sanitation, food and water.

  • Lodz ghetto sealed

    The Lodz ghetto is sealed off from the rest of the city with barbed wire and fencing. Passage by Jews between ghetto and outside world is strictly controlled. Inside the ghetto, residents are forced to work in factories producing goods for the Nazi war effort. Many die of starvation and disease.

  • Jews deported from Lodz ghetto to Chelmno

    Nazi forces and collaborators begin the deportation of Jews from the Lodz ghetto to the Chelmno killing center, where deportees are gassed in vans. Approximately 65,000 Jews are ultimately deported and murdered.

  • Wannsee Conference on the “Final Solution”

    Leading Nazi officials convene at Wannsee to plan and implement the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question." At this meeting, operational preparations for the extermination of European Jewry are outlined.

  • Deadline for “Final Solution” in occupied Poland

    Heinrich Himmler orders that by December 31, 1942 there should be no Jews remaining in the Generalgouvernement, calling for a "total purge" to secure the German Reich.

  • Nazi surrender at Stalingrad

    After months of bitter fighting, the Soviet army is finally able to surround and trap German forces besieging the city. Of the nearly 250,000 troops that attacked the city in August 1942, some 90,000 surrender to the Soviets. The German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad marks a turning point in the war; Soviet forces will now advance and push the Axis to retreat.

  • First prisoners arrive in Kaufering concentration camp

    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.

  • Liberation of Majdanek

    Advancing Soviet troops reach the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp. They find gas chambers and other evidence of genocide. Approximately 2,500 survivors provide details of the camp to their liberators, who document the horrors. Majdanek is the first concentration camp to be liberated by the Allies.

  • Liquidation of Lodz ghetto

    Nazi forces liquidate the Lodz ghetto and deport between 60,000-75,000 Jews, as well as an unknown number of Roma, to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

  • American forces liberate Dachau

    American troops reach Dachau and find approximately 32,000 inmates still alive, as well as 30 railroad cars with the corpses of prisoners who died in transport to the camp.

  • Unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany

    Nazi Germany's High Command unconditionally surrenders on 7 May to the Allies and 9 May to the Soviets. May 8 is proclaimed "Victory in Europe Day."

  • US military opens hearings in Dachau trials

    Between November 1945 and August 1948, the United States military holds hearings of camp guards, SS officials, and other personnel from the camps at Dachau, Flossenburg, Mauthausen, Nordhausen, Buchenwald, and Mühldorf. Of the 1,672 individuals tried before a military panel rather than a jury, some 1,400 are convicted. 297 are sentenced to death and nearly the same number to life imprisonment. Jack Adler provides testimony in advance of the trials.

  • Truman Directive prioritizes displaced persons for U.S. visas

    President Harry S. Truman issues an executive order granting priority to displaced persons (DPs) for visas to enter the U.S. The order is expressly intended to help orphaned children. While it does not expand the restrictive U.S. immigration quotas, it enables some 41,000 DPs from Central and Eastern Europe – many of them Jewish – to enter the country between December 1945-July 1948.

  • Attacks on Jewish survivors in Poland

    Attackers kill more than 40 Jewish survivors in Kielce, Poland. The attack spurs returning Jews to once again flee. Many find sanctuary in Allied displaced persons (DP) camps.

  • Jack Adler sails from Bremen to New York

    Sailing on the SS Marine Marlin from northern Germany, Jack is one of 928 passengers on one of the first post-war transports of refugees from Europe to the United States. They arrive in New York harbor during the night of December 22 and disembark at Ellis Island the next day.

  • Jack Adler leaves New York for Chicago

    After nearly a year and a half in New York, Jack learns that he has been placed with a foster family in Chicago and travels by train to meet them.

  • Korean War begins

    After World War II, Korea is partitioned at the 38th parallel, creating a socialist state under Soviet influence in the North and a Western-style democracy in the South. In June 1950, North Korea invades South Korea, armed by the Soviet Union. Under the banner of fighting the spread of communism, the United States leads a UN coalition in the conflict against North Korea, which is backed by communist Russia and China. An armistice agreement in July 1953 puts an end to the military conflict, but the division of Korea persists until today.

  • U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Village of Skokie v. National Socialist Party of America

    When a request by the National Socialist Party of America (NSPA) to hold a White Power rally in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, IL, is denied at the insistence of the town’s large Jewish community, which includes many Holocaust survivors, the NSPA files a claim for infringement of their right to free speech under the 2nd Amendment. The NSPA is represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, who successfully argue in favor of the universality of free speech under the Constitution, maintaining that the government does not have the authority to selectively suppress voices, no matter how unpopular the opinion.

View the Main Timeline »