70 years ago, Dr. Tom Steinberg was among troops who liberated Dachau
This is the first part of a series marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of death camps toward the end of World War II. Tom Steinberg was among the American and Allied troops who liberated Dachau. Steinberg eventually became Vail’s first full-time physician.
VAIL — Young Tom Steinberg was 21 years old and fighting his way through Bavaria with the U.S. Army that snowy spring in 1945. He and his buddies had been shot at, bombed on, rained on and snowed on. They were cold, hungry and exhausted.
They were tough and battle tested.
Nothing, though, could have prepared them for that day’s mission on April 28, 1945.
They slept in the open and awoke that morning covered in 3 inches of snow.
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“We were so exhausted we didn’t even wake up when it snowed on us,” Steinberg recalled.
The U.S. Army’s 42nd Division, the Rainbow Division, and Steinberg’s 222nd regiment were ordered to storm a heavily guarded German position. A short while later, they fought their way through Dachau’s south gate.
Once inside, they could not believe that human beings could be so inhuman to one another.
“For the rest of your lives, you didn’t always remember all those days, but you sure remember Dachau,” Steinberg said.
WHY BREAK THE SILENCE?
He didn’t talk about this with anyone, not his wife or kids, for 40 years. It was too painful and too ugly to tell anyone about.
After 70 years, though, Steinberg is outspoken for two reasons.
First, he still disagrees with the Army’s decision to keep them in the dark about what they were about to experience.
“The Army knew what we were getting into, and they told us nothing,” Steinberg said. “We were given no warning that anything like this could happen.”
Second, Holocaust deniers must be silenced.
“Thirty years ago, the revisionists started saying the Holocaust did not happen. I had to stand up and say, ‘Dammit! It did happen. I was there!’” he said. “I’m talking about this because I feel the need to help young people understand what war was like.”
DEATH LIKE YOU’VE NEVER SMELLED IT
Dachau was not the first Nazi concentration camp discovered and liberated.
The Allies had liberated Bergen-Belsen more than a week before. Camps in Poland and other areas had also been liberated.
Yet, the United States Army told its soldiers nothing about horrors they were about to experience.
The soldiers were stunned by what they saw, but not stunned to inaction.
“We were hard nosed by that time. A regular civilian would have been nauseated. We were used to death and dying. We were angry, terribly angry. We were ready to fight and kill,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg and his comrades walked slowly through the gate and gaped at hundreds of skeletal forms — some alive, most dead — dressed in rags that looked like striped pajamas.
“Dead bodies laying around and it smelled horrible, like death and dying,” Steinberg said. “We had no idea if they were prisoners of war. It didn’t matter who it was.”
Dachau was the first concentration camp set up by Hitler’s group, in about 1933.
There, the Nazis parked Jews, gypsies, Russians, homosexuals, clergy, Catholic priests and anyone else who disagreed with what they were doing.
BREAKING THE SILENCE
For decades Steinberg and others could not bring themselves to talk about it. He was not alone.
Local legend Frank Doll was at Dachau’s liberation. Doll was a professional storyteller, but he didn’t talk much about that.
Steinberg talks of a former Edwards resident who was in his division and drove a tank through Dachau’s gate as Allied troops were liberating the camp. The man’s name escapes Steinberg, for now.
No one knew he’d done it, including Steinberg, until after the man had died a few years ago. He didn’t want to talk about it, so he didn’t.
“I got out of it with no long term effect. Some others suffered with it their entire lives,” Steinberg said.
FINALLY, A HAPPY ENDING
Three decades ago, Steinberg and some others convinced the Vail town council to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day. He and a couple others who were active in the war went to the Vail Chapel to begin to tell their stories.
“I was so intense and upset that I cried, but I had to do it anyway,” Steinberg said.
All that death. All that destruction and despair. And yet Steinberg smiles as he recalls one more story.
This story — it ends happily.
After Steinberg and the others finished talking on that first Holocaust Remembrance Day, an allergist from Denver, Dr. Bill Silvers, walked up and said he had no idea Steinberg had been at Dachau.
“Both his parents were prisoners at Dachau,” Steinberg said.
Silvers’ parents, Leo and Helena, were deported from Poland to Auschwitz in 1944 and immediately separated. Leo was transferred to two other camps before landing in Dachau.
“Had the Americans not arrived at Dachau in time, I don’t know if my father would have made it,” Silvers said.
A few days before the war ended, the Germans forced all the able-bodied men on a death march from Dachau toward the Alps, with the intention of killing all who survived, including Dr. Silvers’ father, Leo.
As they trudged across a bridge, Leo dove in a river. The Germans shot and shot, and finally moved on, apparently thinking they’d killed him under the water, or that he’d died from hypothermia.
“It was April and the water was coming off the Alps. It was colder than hell,” Steinberg said.
Once the Nazis moved on, Leo quietly crawled out of the water and onto the river bank. He walked about a mile to the nearest farm. Those people took him in, gave him some clothes and something to eat.
“It would have been a death sentence for those people if the Nazis had found out about it,” Steinberg said.
He walked hundreds of miles from Dachau back to Poland, looking for his wife. He got no help from the Germans, of course, or any of the relief workers.
You have to remember, Steinberg said, Europe was chaos and everyone was looking everywhere for everyone.
Leo kept looking, and finally walked back to Dachau.
By then, the Allies had a list of survivors, and his wife Helena was on it. She had been liberated from Auschwitz, Dr. Silvers said.
Men and women were kept separated in the camps, and they had not seen each other since they were taken, and neither knew the other was alive.
After the war, Leo and Helena moved to the United States and opened a successful business. They retired to Florida, where they’re doing fine.
“They’re still alive,” Steinberg said smiling.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.