In Issue 20 | From the Battlefront, we explored many of the devastating consequences of the Second World War—from unjust Japanese internment to the destructive impact of the atomic bomb. Nazi Germany's concentration camp system is a well-known horror of the war that can be difficult to discuss with younger kids. Beginning in 1944, Allied soldiers uncovered these prisons and were shocked by the unspeakable devastation they witnessed. One of our writers, Grace MaGee, wrote a story about this tragic moment in history, and we saved it for a special purpose. We wanted to share it here, on this public platform, for parents and teachers to read first and discuss with their children. This is a story about the longest-operating camp in Nazi Germany and the liberation of its prisoners.
The First Nazi Concentration Camp
Harold Porter hesitated, then put the tip of his pen on a sheet of paper. The words came slowly: “I even find myself trying to deny what I am looking at with my own eyes. Certainly, what I have seen in the past few days will affect my personality for the rest of my life.”
The paper was a letter to his parents back in Michigan. He was trying to describe his life as a medic with the U.S. Army. World War II had been filled with violence; he had seen it firsthand as he bandaged the wounded and the dying. But this?
This was horror beyond anything he had ever known.
Letter from Harold Porter, a medic with the 116th Evacuation Hospital, to his parents, May 7, 1945, page 1. Image credit: National Archives/Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library.
He was writing from Dachau. It had once been a small German town full of artists but, under Adolf Hitler, it had become the site of one of the first Nazi concentration camps.
When it was built in 1933, six years before World War II began, the new prison at Dachau would have been almost unrecognizable to Harold Porter. At first, most of its inmates were political opponents of the Nazi regime. There were 5,000 of them—Dachau’s full capacity—and although the food was watery and scarce, there was usually enough for everyone to get at least something to eat.
Despite this, the seeds of brutality were already growing. The man in charge of Dachau was Theodor Eicke, and just a few months after the prison opened, he made changes to the way it was run. His men, members of the SS, began starving and hurting the prisoners. The SS woke them every day at sunrise for a roll call. The prisoners stood outside for hours, in the freezing cold, while the SS counted. They were not permitted to move; even bad posture was punished.
When roll call finally ended, prisoners were marched off for days of forced-labor. They cut rocks and built buildings to expand the camp. They followed every order, using whatever flimsy tools they were given—or worse, no tools at all. If guards barked at them to haul sand, and there weren’t any wheelbarrows, they had to carry it in their shirts.
Railroad cars at Dachau, 1945. Image credit: National Archives.
From his office, Eicke called this the “doctrine of dehumanization.”
As conditions grew harsher in Dachau, many prisoners began to dream of escape. After all, beyond the barbed, electric fence lay freedom. But Eicke saw it coming. Under his instructions, The SS silenced the sound of fleeing footsteps with gunshots.
Eicke’s doctrine took root in Dachau. It was so effective that Dachau became the template for concentration camps across Nazi Germany—and the number of those camps was growing. In 1939, World War II had officially begun. Before it ended, the Nazi party’s antisemitism would send millions of Jewish people to camps like Dachau. Today, the systematic persecution of the Jewish population by the Nazi regime is known as the Holocaust.
When Harold Porter sat down to write his letter, Dachau had been freed from Nazi control for just a few days. He and his fellow medics had reached the camp and helped the people trapped inside. Along the way, they had found the bodies of many who had not survived.
U.S. Soldiers at the entrance of Dachau after liberation. Image credit: National Archives.
Dachau’s maximum capacity had once been 5,000 people. By the time Porter’s unit arrived, it held around 32,000 prisoners. Many of the people were starving and dangerously sick with typhus. They were using all the energy they had left to fight off a disease that had taken their friends.
Although Harold Porter didn’t know it yet, over six million Jews—and millions of other political prisoners—had died in concentration camps like Dachau. Romani people, Polish and other Slavic peoples, members of the LGBTQ community, and Jehovah's Witnesses had also been sent to these prisons. As he crouched among the victims, working to heal what he could, his face was likely one of the first kind faces they had seen in years. And that was a gift like none other. For the survivors, there was still a long and difficult road to recovery ahead.
Polish prisoners celebrating liberation from Dachau in 1945. Image credit: National Archives / The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Resources for Parents and Teachers
The Nazi concentration camps is a difficult topic to discuss with kids. It requires sensitivity and a firm grasp of the complex history surrounding the subject. We wanted to share some helpful resources to guide parents and teachers as they navigate this topic:
- Take a look at the Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
- Children’s books can help introduce the topic in an approachable way. We recommend looking at Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued (age 6+), The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs (age 9+), and White Bird: A Wonder Story (age 10+).
- For general help about discussing difficult topics, we had a conversation with Dr. Kelly Fradin. You can find our key takeaways from this conversation here.