“It Is Difficult to Know How to Begin”

HaroldPorterLetterNationalArchives

The title is a line from a 1945 letter, from Harold Porter to his mother and father in Michigan, describing the situation at the Dachau concentration camp after liberation. The letters that Pfc. Porter, who served as a medic with the 116th Evacuation Hospital, wrote to his parents are now archived at the Eisenhower Presidential Library.

When I did research on Harold Potter it could not find anything aside from the letters and the unit he served with. I did however get a lot of links to Harry Potter

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The irony here is that although JK Rowlings tales of the young wizard are totally fictional, it’s the accounts of Harold Porter which are completely unfathomable and incomprehensible because his words are true and tell a story which no one should have to witness.

Using stationery found in the abandoned office of the camp commandant, Porter found himself at a loss to convey the horrors he encountered at the Dachau concentration camp: boxcars filled with thousands of decomposing bodies, the crematorium surrounded by stacks of nude corpses, and the stacks of carefully sorted clothing belonging to the victims.

RetrieveAsset

His account is unsparing and graphic, with descriptions of what the bodies looked like, the sounds they made as they were being moved, and their odor. Days after entering the camp, he was still trying to grasp the reality of what he saw.

This is the full contents of the letter. It is a long read but it is just so important that it gets read to ensure no other soldier will ever have to write a letter like that to his parents.

“Dear Mother and Father,

You have, by this time, received a letter mentioning that I am quartered in the concentration camp at Dachau. It is still undecided whether we will be permitted to describe the conditions here, but I’m writing this now to tell you a little, and will mail it later when we are told we can.

page 1

It is difficult to know how to begin. By this time I have recovered from my first emotional shock and am able to write without seeming like a hysterical gibbering idiot. Yet, I know you will hesitate to believe me no matter how objective and factual I try to be. 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.

We knew a day or two before we moved that we were going to operate in Dachau, and that it was the location of one of the most notorious concentration camps, but while we expected things to be grizzly, I’m sure none of us knew what was coming. It is easy to read about atrocities, but they must be seen before they can be believed. To think that I once scoffed at Valtin’s “Out of the Night” as being preposterous! I’ve seen worse.

sights than any he described.

page 2

The trip south from Ottengen was pleasant enough. We passed through Donauworth and Aichach and as we entered Dachau, the country, with the cottages, river, country estates and Alps in the distance, was almost like a tourist resort. BUt as we came to the center of the city, we met a train with a wrecked engine – about fifty cars long. Every car was loaded with bodies. There must have been thousands of them – all obviously starved to death. This was a shock of the first order, and the odor can best be immagined. But neither the sight nor the odor were anything when compared with what we were still to see.

Marc Coyle reached the camp two days before I did and was a guard so as soon as I got there I looked him up and he took me to the crematory.

sscorpses1

Dead SS troops were scattered around the grounds, but when we reached the furnace house we cam upon a huge stack of corpses piled up like kindling, all nude so that their clothes wouldn’t be wasted by the burning. There were furnaces for burning six bodies at once and on each side of them was a room twenty feet square crammed to the ceiling with more bodies – one big stinking rotten mess. Their faces

purple, their eyes popping, and with a ludicrous grin on each one.

page 3They were nothing but bones & skin.  Coyle had assisted at ten autopsies the day before (wearing a gas mask) on ten bodies selected at random.  Eight of them had advanced T.B., all had Typhus and extreme malnutrition symptoms.  There were both women and children in the stack in addition to the men.

While we were inspecting the place, freed prisoners drove up with wagon loads of corpses removed from the compound proper.  Watching the unloading was horrible.  The bodies squooshed and gurgled as they hit the pile and the odor could almost be seen.

Behind the furnace was the execution chamber, a windowless cell twenty feet square with gas nozzles every few feet across the ceiling.  Outside, in addition to the huge mound of charred bone fragments, were the carefully sorted and stacked clothes of the victims – which obviously numbered in the thousands.  Although I stood there looking at it, I couldn’t believe it.  The realness of the whole mess is just gradually dawning on me, and I doubt if it will ever on you.

There is a rumor circulating with says that the war is over.  It probably is as much as it ever will be.  We’ve all been expecting the end for several days, but were not too excited about it because we know that it does not mean too much as far as our immediate situation is concerned.  There was no celebrating – it’s difficult to celebrate anything with the morbid state we’re in.

page 4

The Pacific theater will not come immediately for this unit; we have around 36,000 potential and eventual patients here.  The end of the work for everyone else is going to be just the beginning for us.

Today was a scorching hot day after several raining cold ones.  The result of the heat on the corpses is impossible to describe, and the situation will probably get worse because their disposal will certainly take time.

My arms are sore from the typhus shot so I’m ending here for the present.  More will follow later.  I have lots to write about now.

 

Love, Harold.”

There were pictures of the camp included with his letter but I believe the letter is compelling enough, I did include 1 picture of the corpses of the SS guards.

The reason why I included that one is because there was a debate and indeed that debate is still ongoing whether the killing of the SS guards could be considered a war crime or not. I don’t think it was, given what the liberators witnessed when they freed the camp, but that is my opinion.

References:

https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/eyewitness/html.php?section=7

https://www.fold3.com/page/1597-letter-from-harold-porter-to-his-parents-describing-dachau-concentration-camp/stories

 

 

 

 

 

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