Memorial Day 2024 – Remembering The Jews of Dachau

A letter to his children by Col. E. Rusteberg dated 28 September, 1989

There it was, on his cap, the “Death Head” of the SS Toten Kopf, the dreaded and most feared of Hitler’s ruthless legions.

He had been killed by the inmates, along with other guards there, at the infamous concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich, as the liberation armies of the allies approached.

I reached down and removed the cap from the head of the handsome young blonde German soldier, as he and the others who had guarded the camp lay dead in crumpled heaps nearby. I removed the “Death Head Patch” and put it in my pocket, and replaced the cap upon his head.

An Italian inmate escorted my assistant and I through the camp as it was liberated, and we saw first hand all the atrocities committed there. There were thousands of inmates, alive in the tiers of their bunks, with skeletonized bodies and bobbing shaved heads, struggling to get a glimpse of their liberators. Nearby, in heaps, helter skelter, corpses, stacked like matchsticks, lay forlornly before the open door of the incinerator.

Stunned by the experience, I sent the death head patch to Mom in California with a description of the horrors I had just witnessed. Recently I found the patch in a box of her mementos at Kasaloha, and relived the experience once again.

The SS Toten Kopf insignia, The Death Head, was witness to the scene of horror long before I retrieved it on 29 April, 1945, as Dachau was being liberated by our troops. It appears on the next page along with a typical scene of the camp on the day it was liberated.

In itself, the symbol of death, as depicted by its gruesome patch, is related to the story of its mission of extermination of races considered inferior to his, by Adolph Hitler.

(I visited Dachau with my family and sister in 1997, a moving experience I’ll never forget. I have the Death Head Patch passed on to me by my father who retrieved it from the dead German soldier so many years ago. Memorial Day is a time to pause and think about the past and the lessons we can learn from it – Bill Rusteberg)