Part 2: Vail’s Tom Steinberg describes liberation of Dachau
This is the second in a series commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, near the end of World War II. Tom Steinberg, who became Vail’s first full-time physician, was a private in the Army’s 42nd Division that liberated Dachau.
VAIL — As World War II wound down, Nazis troops abandoned most of their death camps, some killed prisoners as they fled, until they ran out of ammunition.
Allied troops had to fight their way into Dachau.
Dachau’s south gate had been opened by U.S. Army’s 42nd Division, the north gate by the 45th Division.
To be accurate, those gates weren’t opened. American and Allied troops broke them down.
Dr. Tom Steinberg, Vail’s first full-time physician, was a private in the U.S. Army, and one of the troops who liberated Dachau.
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“Our troops had to fight to take Dachau. Our division had one guy killed taking the place. I have no idea how many were wounded,” Steinberg said.
LIVE AND LET LIVE
After a dumbstruck walk through the camp, Steinberg and his buddies were ordered to sweep the area, looking for Germans who had fled.
Across the road was a farm complex, a house and other buildings surrounded by a big brick wall.
“Ten of us went into the house. We pushed the door, our guns ready to fight and shoot if necessary. Around a table we saw four or five women and two or three old men,” Steinberg said.
One of the women walked up to Steinberg, spoke to him in English and handed him an American passport. She was originally from that small German community, and had immigrated to the U.S. and become a U.S. citizen. She went to Europe for a visit and got stuck there through the war.
“Here she was, an American citizen living 100 yards from Dachau, with all that starvation and death,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg went into the barn by himself, ready to shoot, and found a German soldier hiding in the hay.
“I was ready to shoot him, but he got his hands up just in time,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg put him in a line of German prisoners being sent to the rear.
“By this point in the war, most of these Germans were just happy to be alive,” Steinberg said.
LIVE AND LET DIE
When Dachau fell, several German SS troopers remained behind to continue the fight. Some were executed on the spot.
Others weren’t that fortunate.
Besides razor wire and machine gun towers, Dachau was surrounded by a moat, 25 yards wide and about that deep.
Enraged U.S. solders and some prisoners threw two SS troopers in the moat. When the SS troopers tried to swim out, the prisoners and soldiers used long poles to push them back in until they drown.
Three of Steinberg’s partners and friends searched the rest of the barn and found three SS troopers hiding in the barn without weapons. They marched those Nazis into the woods about 500 yards and blew their brains out.
“These men were prisoners of war, technically,” Steinberg said. “Those guys knew they were doing wrong. They were prisoners and they killed them anyway. I don’t blame our guys. They were very upset with what they had seen.”
“The Army had not told us what we were getting into,” Steinberg said.
LIFE AND DEATH
The Germans, possibly fearful about being blamed for all they’d done, shipped big railroad cars full of dead bodies to Dachau from other camps to be cremated – literally burn the evidence. The Germans made civilians move and load all those bodies.
“The crematorium wasn’t working any more because the Germans ran out of coal,” Steinberg said.
In all that death they found a miracle of life.
“We found one guy still alive. He was buried under all these bodies, so the snow did not freeze him,” Steinberg said.
General Eisenhower visited Dachau a couple days later after Steinberg’s unit left.
“The medics moved in behind us, but there were so many more who died after the camps were liberated,” Steinberg said.
Ironically, Dachau eventually became an Allied field hospital.
They were ordered to leave Dachau. There was still a war on and they had Nazis to chase.
“It didn’t register what we’d seen until later. It didn’t effect our ability to job we needed to do,” Steinberg said. “When we left we went to the next job. We were privates and there were going to be more firefights. The war was not over.”
THE SMELL OF DEATH
Years later, one of Steinberg’s Vail neighbors, Ann Repetti, had an uncle in the Office of Strategic Services, the original American intelligence service put together by President Franklin Roosevelt. That uncle arrived in Dachau a day after Steinberg left. He interviewed hundreds of prisoners, and catalogued everything they said.
Repetti had all those interviews, and one day brought them over for Steinberg to read … if he wanted.
He hesitated, then read every terrible and wonderful word.
“You can’t get the total feel of it because you can’t smell it,” Steinberg said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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