It was just a soggy cigarette stub. But when a Dachau concentration camp inmate offered it to Pfc. Jim Dorris on April 29, 1945, to thank him for freedom, Dorris had to gulp down his tears.
“I had just come into the camp. This fellow in striped prisoners’ clothes asked me if I had any cigarettes. I said no,” recalled Dorris, now 70.
The inmate came back with a rusty tin container, opened it and handed Dorris a wet cigarette butt from inside.
“He had kept it buried somewhere. It was all he had. It must have meant a lot to him to give it to me,” said Dorris, of Chattanooga, Tenn.
Five decades later, the survivors are once again saying thanks. Dorris was one of about 170 American veterans and 2,000 former inmates who have returned to Dachau to commemorate the 50th anniversary Sunday of the camp’s liberation.
The camp, liberated by American GIs, was the first concentration camp built by the Nazis and the model for 500 others.
About 36,000 inmates - including Jews, Gypsies, POWs, homosexuals, handicapped people and leftists - were murdered by SS guards or died from hunger and epidemics caused by inhuman living conditions.
There were about 32,000 survivors when the Americans marched in.
At a Friday lunch arranged for the veterans by Dachau town authorities, a speech by Daniel Fischer, a Hungarian Jew, had old warriors digging for their handkerchiefs.
Fischer lost his parents and other relatives in Auschwitz and was nearly gassed there himself. Fischer recalled that at Auschwitz, his mother “clasped my face in her hands and said, ‘You are going to survive this.”’
Fischer was transported in a cattle car to Dachau in the spring of 1945. At less than 60 pounds and wretchedly sick, he was at death’s doorstep. But he held on until the Americans arrived.
“I thank you for giving my mother and some other mothers a future,” said the 66-year-old Fischer, who moved to the United States after liberation and became a doctor in New Haven, Conn.
Bill Donahue was one of the first Americans to set foot inside the camp 50 years ago. He was a private first class and bodyguard for Brig. Gen. Henning Linden, to whom the camp was surrendered by an SS officer.
Wearing a helmet and gripping a carbine on that overcast day in 1945, the 19-year-old Donahue saw the camp’s guard towers, followed the concrete outer wall and came upon an electrified barbed-wire fence.
“I saw thousands of inmates. They had smiles, but of a different kind. They looked both happy and sad,” recalled Donahue, of Racine, Wis.
In a moment of exultation, many of them rushed toward Donahue, who was still on the other side of the fence, and he waved them back for fear they would be electrocuted. A few paid no heed, grabbing hold of the fence. Donahue said none died at that spot, but other veterans say prisoners did perish when the same thing happened at other locations.
The scene replayed itself in Donahue’s head on Saturday, as he strolled through the former camp site.
He encountered survivor Stanislaus Hantz, 72, of Zgorzelec, Poland. With the help of a young German, Hantz and Donahue tried to converse, without much luck. But no words were needed. The two old men clasped each other’s hands for a long time, looked into each other’s eyes and saw each other’s tears.