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Remembering the Horrors of Dachau

Seventy-five years ago, Nazi police chief Heinrich Himmler announced the opening of the first Nazi concentration camp for political prisoners, ushering in one of the most tragic chapters in modern history.

Dachau, located about 10 miles northwest of Munich, opened in March 1933, weeks after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Initially, most prisoners were opponents of the Nazi government, including Communists, trade unionists and Social Democrats.

But by 1938, there were about 10,000 Jewish prisoners at Dachau. It eventually would hold as many as 188,000 prisoners, and the Nazis used Dachau as a model and training center for its other concentration camps.

As at other Nazi camps, the conditions at Dachau were deplorable. Prisoners were used not only for forced labor, but for medical experiments by German doctors. Dachau was divided into two areas — the living quarters and the crematoria. An electrified barbed-wire fence, a ditch and a wall with seven guard towers surrounded the camp.

When American forces liberated Dachau and its subcamps on April 29, 1945, at least 28,000 prisoners had perished, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But many more unregistered prisoners were unaccounted for, and it is likely that the total number of victims will never be known.

James Shiels, then a 19-year-old soldier with the 14th Armored Division, was one of the Americans who helped free thousands of Dachau prisoners. Shiels' unit took part in liberating Dauchau subcamps, and he spoke with Liane Hansen about what he saw there — and why he went back in 2006 with two generations of his family.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 20, 2008 at 9:00 PM PDT
James Shiels' Army unit was not part of the forces that liberated the main Dachau concentration camp. His unit helped liberate Dachau subcamps.