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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Seventy-five years ago this month, March 1933, Heinrich Himmler announced the opening of the first concentration camp for political prisoners in the town of Dachau, Germany. It was the beginning of one of the most tragic chapters in modern history.

At first, the prisoners were mostly opponents of the Nazi government. But by 1938, some 10,000 Jews were interned at Dachau.

(Soundbite of song "Dachau Song")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HANSEN: This is "Dachau Song," composed by Viennese conductor, Herbert Zipper, and written by playwright Jura Soyfer. Both were held at Dachau where they organized secret concerts on Sundays. As in other Nazi concentration camps, the conditions were deplorable. Prisoners not only were used for forced labor but for medical experiments by German doctors.

Dachau was divided into two areas: the living quarters and the crematorium.

(Soundbite of song "Dachau Song")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Speaking in foreign language)

HANSEN: "Dachau Song" spread from camp to camp and became a symbol of Nazi resistance. Between 1933 and 1945, more than 188,000 prisoners were held at Dachau. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, at least 28,000 died there, but many more unregistered prisoners were unaccounted for.

(Soundbite of song "Dachau Song")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Speaking in foreign language)

HANSEN: On April 29, 1945, American forces liberated Dachau and its sub-camps. One of the American soldiers was 19-year-old Jim Shiels. He was with the 14th Armored Division, 19th Armored Infantry Battalion Combat Command C. The division became known as the liberators. They and several other units helped to free thousands of prisoners. Mr. Shiels joins us from his home in Walpole, Massachusetts. Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. JIM SHIELS (U.S. Army Veteran): Thank you.

HANSEN: What rank were you? Nineteen years old?

Mr. SHIELS: Yes, I was.

HANSEN: What was your rank?

Mr. SHIELS: Private. I was a private. I was a runner for my company, my commander, my outfit.

HANSEN: Can you take us back to that day? First of all, did you know what your orders were? What were your orders that day?

Mr. SHIELS: Well, we were just - if I remember correctly - we were told to just keep going 'til we reached Dachau. And when we reached Dachau we had tanks with us, and they were there before us and had knocked down the fences to the gate, to the building going into Dachau. So we were, like, following right behind them. And we just got out and went onto the grounds. And saw nothing but dead bodies and people that were very run down and ill-fed and sick and everything.

And then when you went way down back there was, we also so where all the bodies were. There was bodies outside a bunch of ovens, just waiting to be thrown into the ovens. And that was very - you can't imagine what went on inside that, in the compound there.

HANSEN: Were you freeing male prisoners, female prisoners, Jewish prisoners?

Mr. SHIELS: Yeah, they were mostly all Jewish people in there.

HANSEN: And men and women?

Mr. SHIELS: Yes, there was men and women. And there were the most deplorable conditions you ever want to see. And the smell was something that you would never forget. The smell was just of bodies burning and decaying and everything else.

HANSEN: You lived in the town for two months after the liberation…

Mr. SHIELS: Yes…

HANSEN: …of the camps.

Mr. SHIELS: …after the war was over I would talk to the people there and they would say, they'd never realize that Dachau existed, which was only two miles away from the town. And all I could ask them is how could you not know it because it smells so bad all the way into town. And they always acknowledged they did not know it was there and they never wanted to acknowledge it also.

HANSEN: You went back in 2006.

Mr. SHIELS: Yes.

HANSEN: And you…

Mr. SHIELS: My son and I and his son, my grandson.

HANSEN: We're going to speak to your son in just a minute. But I wanted to know for your own reasons for going back and why you wanted to go back and bring your son and grandson with you.

Mr. SHIELS: Well, actually my son is really, he was the one that got me going. We never talked about my affiliations during the war. It was never discussed. And then all of the sudden he asked me one day if I'd like to go back there. And the more I thought of it I thought it was the greatest idea. And we found a tour and actually we went to Paris where I had gone after the war on a three-day pass. Then we went to Bastogne, where the Battle of the Bulge was fought, and I was in that also.

And then we went down to Dachau. That was a separate part of the tour we were on. We went there because I had been there. And so I thought it was a great idea. And after I went there, I'm telling you, I had been talking about that place. I probably will 'til I die. It was a wonderful trip, all together different.

HANSEN: Yeah. Jim, let me talk to your son…

Mr. SHIELS: Yes.

HANSEN: …Jim, Jr.

Mr. JIM SHIELS, JR. (Son of Mr. Shiels): How you doing?

HANSEN: Hey, I'm doing well. How are you doing, Jim Shiels, Jr.?

Mr. J. SHIELS: I'm doing great. How are you doing?

HANSEN: Very well. Listen, tell us how you got your dad, first of all, talk about his experiences?

Mr. J. SHIELS: Well, I'd say about, you know, ever since he retired, you know, he's been reading a lot about World War II and, you know, involved with the Legion and gets magazines and everything. And about four years ago, he, you know, he was talking about Europe and he goes, oh, I'd like to go back there some day. So, you know, about a year or two later I arranged something. I said, hey, you want to go back and take a trip over there and go on a tour. You know, and he was, you know, definitely up for it and we did that. And it turned out to be one of the best trips we've ever done, you know.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit about what it was like for you to go through the gates at Dachau.

Mr. J. SHIELS: Well, going over there is a very moving experience. You know, you're going to park in the parking lot and you're going to walk about a couple hundred yards to get to this gate. And it's, you know, there's all kinds of signs and history. And when you get in there there's this memorial all over the place. And it's just a very quiet place. There's hundreds of people in there -you could hear a pin drop.

It's a large compound. All the old barracks are not there anymore but just the foundations exist. And they have a couple of replica barracks that were there just to give you the idea of what it looked like. It was hard to see all that stuff and just imagine what's going on there 60-something years ago.

HANSEN: Yeah. You didn't have to imagine. Your dad told you what he saw.

Mr. J. SHIELS: Yeah, well, yeah. You know, it's, you know, knowing that he was there was pretty neat.

HANSEN: Yeah. Jim, put your dad back on the phone for a sec.

Mr. J. SHIELS: Sure.

Mr. SHIELS: (Unintelligible)

HANSEN: Hey there. Jim, hang on a second, because I want to introduce you to someone I'm going to talk to for just a bit because…

Mr. SHIELS: Okay.

HANSEN: …we're going to move forward in time after American forces liberated the camps. It took many years but those responsible for the atrocities at Dachau were eventually brought to trial. Both the defense team and the prosecution were American lawyers.

In our New York bureau, we're joined by writer and producer Joshua Greene. He's the author of "Justice at Dachau." Welcome to the program, first of all.

Mr. JOSHUA GREENE (Producer; Author, "Justice at Dachau"): Thank you.

HANSEN: And tell us a little bit about the American lawyers that brought this case.

Mr. GREENE: These were, for the most part, second tier in the sense that the celebrity lawyers had all been sent to Nuremburg. The Nuremburg trials opened just a week prior to the Dachau trials in November of 1945. They were, for the most part, the chief prosecutors and defense counsel were southern gentlemen. They wore their flag and their religion proudly - God-fearing men who saw what they were doing as quite a mission on both sides.

It's quite a drama if you can think about what it was like to be told by the judge advocates that you fellows, you're going to have to defend Nazis, because they're entitled to counsel, and you, you have to prosecute them.

HANSEN: What happened at the end?

Mr. GREENE: Well, it was predictable that an American tribunal would not find the people who ran Hitler's camps innocent of any of the alleged crimes. So there was a 100 percent conviction rate. However, the upshot of the Dachau trials is that their convictions were overturned in the following couple of years in a series of reversals and dismissal of sentences as a kind of olive branch to the then-nascent new German republic.

America's priorities were changing. We no longer needed to punish the Germans but rather win their allegiance in our common enemy, which was now the Soviet Union.

HANSEN: Amazing stories from both of you. I hope I have the chance to talk to you some time in the future.

Jim Shiels, I want to thank you very much for your time and let people know that in 1945 he was a 19-year-old soldier with the 14th Armored Division. His division was one of the units that helped to free thousands of prisoners at Dachau. We also spoke to his son, Jim Shields, Jr. and to Joshua Greene. He's the author of the book "Justice at Dachau." And he joined us from New York.

Jim, thank you.

Mr. SHIELS: Thank you very much for having me.

HANSEN: And, Joshua, thank you.

Mr. GREEN: A pleasure, Liane.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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