Ten miles northwest of Munich, Germany exists a place where the dreams of mothers and fathers are buried alongside their children. Where the souls of tens of thousands are forever present, united in the pain and brutality they endured during their last days and years on earth.
The Dachau Concentration Camp was the first camp established by the Nazis in 1933, and became the training ground, and model, for concentration camps throughout Germany, Austria and Poland during World War II. Nearly 190,000 people, mostly Jewish men and societal outcasts, were held in Dachau between the years 1933-1945, until its liberation by the 42nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Seventh Army on April 29, 1945.
Holocaust museums and memorials across the globe tell the stories of survivors, of those who saw and lived a horror beyond imagination, whose lives were shattered and never again returned to normal. These recollections have largely shaped the way historians and global citizens view, and have learned from, the atrocities of the Holocaust. Few stories, however, are recorded of those who were part of the American liberation, and who helped shape the course of history through their heroism and sacrifice.
Ninety-year-old First Sergeant Marvin Hall, U.S. Army, is part of a diminishing group of veterans who share an experience “beyond description.” Sitting in the Joan B. Kroc School for Peace & Justice, Hall speaks slowly, trying to describe the images he sees in his mind as clearly as if it were yesterday. “I’ll always remember. Never want to see it again,” he says, his eyes glassy.
Hall began his military career like so many of the “Greatest Generation,” joining the cause after a cousin heard a preacher’s sermon at a Sunday Mass in Hemp, Texas. “He drove us to Dallas and we enlisted. Didn’t come home again for two years,” he said. Hall spent three years being trained as a medic at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he met his future wife.
Hall and his girlfriend were sitting in the famous Majestic Theater in San Antonio watching “Gone With the Wind” when the film stopped and the lights came back on. An announcer told all those stationed at Ft. Sam Houston to report back to base immediately. “We didn’t know why at the time, but we found out when we got back to the barracks,” he recalls. “So I put my wife in a taxi. Well, she was my girlfriend then.”
First Sgt. Hall was immediately sent to Germany. World War II had begun.
Upon arriving in Europe, Hall, part of the 42nd Infantry Rainbow Division, marched through France and Germany. He recalls traveling through Germany’s Black Mountains and helping his commanding officer, Major Shelk, when he was hit with shrapnel. Little did he know then, the atrocities he would soon see.
In April 1945, with snow still on the ground, Hall, Shelk and two other soldiers were sent to Dachau by jeep. Not knowing what to expect, Hall recalls the water that surrounded the camp, meant to trap and kill prisoners who tried to escape. “First thing I saw was water, 100 feet wide. Several men in the water had been shot.” Some were prisoners and some were U.S. soldiers, killed by German soldiers during the liberation, Hall explains. German soldiers had tried to retaliate by killing U.S. soldiers and taking their uniforms, posing as American soldiers until turning on their comrades. “That didn’t last long,” Hall says defiantly.
As a medic, he joined Shelk, a doctor, in touring the camp and looking for prisoners who were still alive and needed medical attention. Walking through the barracks housing women, Hall recalls the dead bodies, and those near death, all naked, and wondering how anyone could survive such conditions. Bodies were piled 50 deep in the crematorium, and women in the gas chamber, still alive, were rescued when American soldiers came through.
Toward the end of the war, train cars filled with dead bodies were sent from other concentration camps to Dachau for disposal. Several of these cars were evident on the day Dachau was liberated. Hall explains that 500 bodies were in a single train car, and one of the majors nearby made sure that all 500 were deceased, in case anyone needed help. “He found one man,” Hall says proudly.
Hall also describes the chaos of the camp post liberation, with confusion and desperation thick in the air. “People were running around everywhere,” he says. They were looking for family members who may still be alive.
Upon leaving the camp that day, the soldiers saw two emaciated men walking slowly toward the camp. They had managed the impossible and escaped. Starving and ill, the Americans offered the prisoners a ride and brought them to base where the ration wagon was being set up. Upon arrival, Hall and Shelk asked their superiors if the two men could sit and have some food. The men were hired and worked in the kitchen on the makeshift base. Three months later, Hall saw them again, healthy and thriving.
Sixty-five years later, in San Diego, on a gloomy afternoon, First Sgt. Hall is done reflecting on a time in his life that he doesn’t like to talk about. He has recalled more than he would seem to like, images burned into his memory he’d rather forget. But soon, his words will join those of survivors and other liberators at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Israel when his son, University of San Diego anthropology professor Jerome Hall, delivers his recollections to the museum later this month.
There, his words and his heroism will live on forever.
— Melissa Wagoner
Photo: U.S. Army First Sgt. Marvin Hall, front, and his son, Jerome, a USD anthropology professor.
Photo credit: Barbara Ferguson