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March 20, 2015

Dachau 70 years later: The nexus of revulsion and revenge

By John Deem

In advance of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, a wrenching account of a U.S. soldier's internal conflict over his own actions there on April 29, 1945.


Dachau [D], 2013, Campo di concentramento.
Dachau [D], 2013, Campo di concentramento.
(Image by Fiore S. Barbato)
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Some of the most wrenching moments of our lives are triggered by the inevitable collision of humanity and human nature.

I had long suspected that my grandfather, Don Ritzenthaler, who was among the American soldiers who liberated the infamous Dachau concentration camp during World War II, was a victim of that kind of emotional conflict.

For more than 67 years after his experience there, Grandpa Ritz had never been able to talk about Dachau, other than to say he was there, and that what he saw was horrible. After reading about the place and what the Germans did to their mostly Jewish prisoners, I wasn't surprised that the mention of Dachau rendered my typically effusive grandfather mute.

But there always was something in Grandpa's reaction that made me wonder: Was he haunted by more than just the ghosts of what he'd seen on April 29, 1945?

In May of 2012, aware that my grandparent's health was failing fast, I traveled from my North Carolina home back to my native Ohio to spend some time with them. Grandpa had turned 91 a week earlier, a day after he and my grandmother, Mary Ritzenthaler, celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary. He'd had multiple bouts with pneumonia over the previous few months, each leaving him weaker than the one before.

Over the course of five days, I, my mom, and my aunts and uncles visited with Grandma and Grandpa in the assisted living center they now called home.

Age had robbed both of my grandparents of much of their short-term memory but, cruelly, had left the experience of Dachau firmly implanted in Grandpa Ritz's consciousness. He couldn't remember where I lived, when I'd arrived in Ohio or when I was headed back home, but he could still picture Dachau's gates to hell, smell the stench of scorched flesh, see the corpses so tightly packed into rail cars that they were still standing upright like commuters to hell.

On my final visit before heading back to North Carolina, my grandparents, warmed by the afternoon sun as they sat outside, seemed to share a long spell of lucidity. They told old stories -- about how Grandpa first introduced himself to Grandma in math class at the same high school I would graduate from decades later; about Grandma's long trip from Ohio to Texas to visit Grandpa during his Army training; about Grandpa nearly ruining the reunion by failing inspection and being restricted to the base.

Grandpa's stories eventually shifted across the Atlantic, to his landing in France, progress through Austria and finally into Germany.

Then came the unexpected. A reference to Dachau.

"We were some of the first ones in," he recalled. "It was a terrible place."

We'd heard that much before, and nothing more. But I always sensed that there was something more. I even had a pretty good idea just what that something was.

"After what we saw, we shot any German guards we saw on sight," Grandpa continued.

He grew quiet then. Tears welled in his eyes as he stared blankly toward the brick wall of the building, but I knew he was really seeing the Germans he and his buddies had mowed down in an explosion of rage.

And that was it. As was his custom, Grandpa quickly shifted to a funny story to lighten the mood, but I don't remember what it was about. I was still processing what he'd revealed minutes earlier.

I now knew that for 67 years, the uncharacteristically violent actions of this uncommonly gentle man had only multiplied the horror of what he'd seen, because he had become a participant in it.

Of course, most of us would have done the same thing. But leaving hell with Satan's blood on our hands makes us the Devil's kin, even if it's as distant cousins. It means we've surrendered to the very hate that so repulsed us in the first place.

While he never said so, I can't help but believe that this nexus of revulsion and revenge triggered something unrecognizable, something uncontrollable, in Grandpa, and it frightened him still.

Grandpa Ritz died last February, mostly from a broken heart after the death of Grandma Ritz four months earlier. What I pray is that he died knowing he was nothing like the Germans who acted as Satan's lackeys at Dachau. If he had been like them, he wouldn't have shot them, because he wouldn't have given a damn.

Grandpa Ritz always gave a damn. It's why I loved him so much.

It's also why he was, and always will be, my hero.

Authors Bio:
John Deem is currently a freelance writer and editor living in Mooresville, NC. He is a published author of two books and has 30 years of experience in all facets of communication and writing, from PR to branding/marketing, and of course, journalism. Despite winning dozens of journalism awards, the Pulitzer Prize still eludes him at the moment.