Holocaust Remembrance Day: Herb Plambeck Remembers Dachau

Note: images and descriptions in the following may be distressing to readers.

Holocaust Remembrance Day – or Yom HaShoah – was just this week (April 16th). Every year, it is commemorated on the 27th day of the month of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, which correlates to sometime in April or May in the Gregorian calendar, depending on the year. Another remembrance day, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is held on January 27th and commemorates the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yom HaShoah is largely observed in Israel and in Jewish communities throughout the world and marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Considering the tragedy that was the Holocaust and the lessons that were learned from it, more than one recognized day of observance seems justified.

It might be a surprise to learn that we in the Special Collections Department at ISU have materials related to the Holocaust. Admittedly, there’s not much, but what we do have is certainly interesting.

Herb Plambeck, an ISU alumnus (Agriculture, 1936) and best known for his work in agricultural journalism, worked during World War II as a war correspondent in Europe for WHO radio in Des Moines and the International News Service. Working with the 42nd (Rainbow) Division of the 7th Army when they liberated Dachau, Plambeck was one of the first to see the concentration camp post-liberation on April 29, 1945. In a 1985 recounting, he vividly describes the horrific scene:

At Dachau, we first came upon the Train of Death – 39 box cars filled with the tortured bodies of concentration-camp victims…

My camera film preserved the scene, but I had to turn away. The sight of the emaciated corpses of prisoners starved or frozen to death, skeleton-like arms and legs askew, their twisted hollow faces bespeaking the agony of cruel death, was more than I could take. (unidentified newspaper, April 18, 1985)

Photograph of bodies on the "Train of Death," from unknown newspaper, 1985. RS 21/7/42, Box 41, Folder 64

Photograph of bodies on the “Train of Death,” from unknown newspaper, 1985. RS 21/7/42, Box 41, Folder 64.

Following this grisly sight, Plambeck and the men with him entered the camp through a narrow gate, where they saw “26 Nazi guards, their heads pummeled beyond recognition. Dachau inmates, sensing liberation, had revenged themselves with clubs and stones.” (unidentified newspaper, April 18, 1985). They then entered the gas chamber, “amazingly clean, with its deadly jets overhead. I opened the heavy door of an adjacent large room, and was driven back by the ghastly scene: Hundreds of bodies, neatly stacked like cord-wood. Several of the furnaces were still warm.” (unidentified newspaper, April 18, 1985).

Within the camp, Plambeck and his companions experienced the following:

Some relatively able bodied inmates moved toward us. Within a minute the half crazed, louse infected, unbathed and starved prisoners, mistaking us for liberators, were grabbing, hugging, and kissing us and nearly smothering us. (manuscript, “Memories of the WW II March to Munich and the Horrors of Dachau,” undated)

Upon entering the barracks, where 32,000 inmates had been held and where by that time most of them had left, they saw that many severely ill were still inside. Plambeck recalls:

Although pitifully weak, some raised themselves on an elbow to accept a cigarette, and offer a faint smile — fully aware that for them, liberation had come too late. Outside, thousands of others were aimlessly walking around bewildered at what was happening, crying for food. (manuscript, “Memories of the WW II March to Munich and the Horrors of Dachau,” undated)

Meanwhile, Allied medical and Red Cross teams were “feverishly at work to save as many of the newly liberated as possible.” (manuscript, “Memories of the WW II March to Munich and the Horrors of Dachau,” undated). He went on to describe the emotional toll of all of this:

Silently our hearts cried out for the Holocaust victims we had seen — a small part of the 6 million Jews and 5 million others whose lives had been snuffed out in the worst atrocities in mankind’s history. (manuscript, “Memories of the WW II March to Munich and the Horrors of Dachau,” undated)

In a letter to the Committee on Days of Remembrance at the Office of Governor Branstad, dated April 11, 1985, Plambeck summed up his experience with the statement, “I saw man’s inhumanity to man in its totality.” The committee was planning a ceremony dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims, which was held at the Capitol Rotunda on April 17th, 40 years after the liberation of many Nazi concentration camps.

Correspondent's dispatch from Plambeck, April 30, 1945. RS 21/7/42, Box 41, Folder 64

Correspondent’s dispatch from Plambeck, April 30, 1945. RS 21/7/42, Box 41, Folder 64 (click to enlarge).

These materials and others related to Herb Plambeck’s years as a WWII correspondent can be found in Herbert Plambeck Papers, RS 21/7/42, as well as some educational materials on the Holocaust. We also have materials on Jewish student organizations at Iowa State, in Student Organizations, Religious Organizations, General File, RS 22/8/0/2 (finding aid available in the department).

Maus I (1986) and Maus II (1991), by Art Spiegelman. D810 J4 S643 1986 c.2 and D804.3 S66 1991 c.2, respectively.

Maus I (1986) and Maus II (1991), by Art Spiegelman. D810 J4 S643 1986 c.2 and D804.3 S66 1991 c.2, respectively.

Also of note are two books in our Rare Books Collection: Maus I and Maus II, two graphic novels by Art Spiegelman about a man (Spiegelman) who speaks with his father and Holocaust survivor, Vladek Spiegelman, and records of the story of his father’s and mother’s experience during WWII, which includes their incarceration in Auschwitz. The conversations he and his father have in the books are in fact the conversations they had in real life while creating the books. They are fascinating and difficult to put down. Anyone with any interest in Holocaust history would find them incredibly engaging, whether a fan of graphic novels or not.

It’s been almost 70 years since VE Day, and the memory of the Holocaust is still alive, hopefully to never be forgotten. For more information on the Holocaust, visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website (I also highly recommend visiting the museum in Washington, DC, if you get the chance), the Parks Library General Collection, your local library, and of course come in and see our materials in the Special Collections Department.

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