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GIs Remember - Eli Bohnen - Dachau

Rabbi Eli A. Bohnen entered the Army in 1943 after graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He was a chaplain with the 42nd (Rainbow) Infantry Division during the liberation of Dachau on April 29, 1945. The following is a description of his experiences taken from a letter written to his wife, Eleanor, May 1, 1945.

"Nothing you can put in words would adequately describe what I saw there. The human mind refuses to believe what the eyes see. All the stories of Nazi horrors are underestimated rather than exaggerated. We saw freight cars with bodies in them. The people had been transported from one camp to another, and it had taken about a month for the train to make the trip. In all that time they had not been fed. They were lying in grotesque positions, just as they had died. Many were naked, others in thin clothing. But all were horrible to see.

We entered the camp itself and saw the living. The Jews were the worst off. Many of them looked worse than the dead. They cried as they saw us. I spoke to a large group of Jews. I don't remember what I said, I was under such mental strain, but Heimberg (my assistant) tells me that they cried as I spoke. Some of the people were crying all the time we were there. They were emaciated, diseased, beaten, miserable caricatures of human beings. I don't know how they didn't all go mad. There were thousands and thousands of prisoners in the camp. Some of them didn't look too bad but most looked terrible. And as I said, the Jews were the worst. Even the other prisoners who suffered miseries themselves couldn't get over the horrible treatment meted out to the Jews.

I shall never forget what I saw, and in my nightmares the scenes recur. When I got back I couldn't eat and I couldn't even muster up enough energy to write you. No possible punishment would ever repay the ones who were responsible ......"

Chaplain Bohnen later served as an advisor to the U.S. military regarding displaced persons. He worked with Jewish displaced persons in Salzburg and Bad Gastein, Austria, helping them to regain a semblance of normalcy, and assisting in their resettlement.

GIs RememberNational Museum of American Jewish Military History