By Rebekah K. Bohannon Beeler
On April 29, 1945, the main camp of Dachau Concentration Camp was liberated by U.S. forces. Arthur Pais and his brother, detained at one of more than 30 Dachau sub camps, were on the march of their lives, unaware of how closely their liberation leapt at their backs.
As Allied Forces neared, Nazi officials ordered the evacuation of concentration camps on the front lines. Prisoners were forced to walk extreme distances exposed to the brutal elements on what was later coined as “death marches.”
Salvation followed him, but Pais did not know it. What he did know was that prisoners who could not keep up, who were hobbled by exhaustion, who were dying from disease and severe malnutrition, were shot and left behind. Pais marched for his life, for his brother’s life, for his disabled father’s life. Pais marched for what he hoped, for what he feared, for what he could.
April 29, on the 69th anniversary of the U.S. liberation of Dachau Main, the Fairfield Glade Rotary Club hosted Pais to guest speak at the club’s meeting at Legends of Druid Hills. Pais recounted his experiences of discrimination, destitution, fear, captivity, starvation, loss and liberation on the front lines of the Holocaust.
Pais was born in Ukmerge, Lithuania. In 1941, at almost 14 years of age, Pais, his parents, his brother, his sister, and more than 25,000 other Jews were forced into the ghetto. They lived in slums surrounded by barbed wire with Lithuanian guards at each post and Germans policing the walls and gates.
Pais can recall very little about his first months in the ghetto except that of a young boy, about 11 years old, who talked back to a Lithuanian guard and was shot as Pais stood by watching. This was the first murder in a long line of many Pais witnessed.
The Nazis wanted 500 people to apply for clerical positions. Pais’ father and brother were interested in the easier work and were set to apply, but Pais’ mother made them wait because she wanted to make them a sandwich. They were not among the 510 people who showed up to apply, were surrounded by guards and their machine gun fire. Lithuanian guards went from house to house assembling families to the left or the right. Pais’ family was on the right. Some 10,000 people in the group on the left were gunned down. These and many other incidents somehow happened around Pais’ family.
Pais said they could hear machine guns for days and days. The guards would take groups to the nearby fort just outside the ghetto and kill them. The numbers of Jews who remained in the ghetto declined, as did the conditions and rations.
“It is almost unbelievable that most of our immediate family survived,” said Pais. “Sheer luck.”
In July 1944, Pais and his family were given empty promises and sent to a new camp. By then, there were only about 5,000 people left. Pais’ parents and siblings were loaded into cattle cars, standing room only, with a single bucket of water and single bucket for sanitation. They rode like that for three days and several died along the way. When they arrived at their destination, he could see through the rails of the cattle car at the station where they were ― the camp made famous for labor and exterminations.
The men were told to get out of the car and the women were going to be taken to another camp where the men would rejoin them later after working. Pais’ mother began to cry. Pais asked why she was crying because he would see her in a little while.
“I never saw my mother again,” said Pais.
Eventually, the Soviet Union liberated this camp and Pais’ mother and sister were returned to Lithuania. He later learned that his mother had passed away in Lithuania.
“The consolation was that she was in an actual grave at home and not in a mass grave.”
Meanwhile, the Pais men were taken to a brand new camp; one of more than 30 outer lying sub camps that made up Dachau. They were immediately stripped of any possessions, their heads were shaven and they issued striped shirts and pants. The Germans needed workers for their underground airplane factory. The prisoners were assembled every day and given a cup of “brown water” (coffee) and worked nonstop for 12 hours. Upon returning, they were given a crust of bread with sawdust in it and one ladle of watered down soup. Working to death, the 250 calories per day did next to nothing to maintain the prisoners.
“It didn’t take long before we had about 30 people dying every day,” Pais recalled.
As the American forces neared, the sub camp which held Pais was evacuated and its prisoners were marched to Dachau Main. His father was left there with the sick and dying as, by this point, he could no longer walk. Pais and his brother were sent on the “death march” to the south. Within days of Pais’ departure, American troops arrived at Dachau Main. The day after Dachau was liberated, Adolf Hitler committed suicide.
The spring of 1945 still lingered in the wake of a harsh winter and conditions did not improve as they proceeded along the brink of the Bavarian Alps. After walking for what he remembers to be five days, Pais recalls, “I remember I woke up to a foot or two of snow. The guards were gone. There were prisoners roaming and scrounging around. And that’s how we were liberated.”
Pais and his brother were taken by the Americans to a UN camp and, shortly thereafter, Pais was reunited with his father. He worked for the army for food and came to the U.S. on the second boat leaving from Germany bringing civilians to the States.
From there, Arthur Pais found work, went to school, got his GED, started college, met a girl, fell in love, married her, told her parents, married her again (this time with her parents’ permission), started a business with his father-in-law, and had four children.
Pais graciously accepted audience members’ questions after his presentation. After answering a few questions, a man chimed in, asking, “Do you think the Holocaust will ever happen again?” Pais simply returned, “Only if you let it.”