During the twelve years of the Third Reich (1933–45), the Nazi regime and its dreaded SS established and operated a system of concentration camps to imprison those groups of people whom its leaders perceived to represent a “racial” or political threat to Nazi authority. Nazi leaders identified the European Jews as the priority enemy of Germany and sought to physically annihilate them. The Germans and their Axis partners murdered approximately six million Jews, as well as millions of other innocent men, women, and children during the era of the Holocaust.
Dachau was the first concentration camp established under the authority of the SS. More than 28,000 people died at Dachau between 1940 and 1945, but the total number of deaths at the camp is not known. By April 1945 the water, sewage, and electrical systems had all failed; 32,000 sick and starving prisoners had been jammed into a space intended for one-third that number; and more than 39 railroad boxcars filled with dead people had been transported there for disposal. The U.S. Army’s 116th Evacuation Hospital was one of the first medical units to enter the camp after its liberation.
As the 116th labored to restore civility and order to a world that had descended into barbarism and chaos, a young American medic, writing home to Michigan, struggled to describe a scene that lay beyond his worst imaginings.