Guy Prestia wasn’t prepared for what he saw.
“It was terrible,” recalled Prestia, a resident of Ellwood City. “There were all these flat cars. Before we got to the cars there on the railroad tracks, we saw what looked like logs, like cord wood, just stored down there. When we got closer, we saw that it was human bodies.”
Prestia was already combat-hardened. The then-23-year-old sergeant had worked his way across the European theater beginning in North Africa, then on to Italy, France and Germany. His unit was part of the 45th Infantry Division marching toward Munich when his commanders received orders to instead “swing down to Dachau and see what was going on down there.”
Germany was just days away from surrendering when Prestia and his unit liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945. Most of the camp’s commanding officers had already abandoned the concentration camp leaving only the guards and prisoners.
“It was a mess,” Prestia recounted. “People were scattered all over the place. We saw a lot of people on the ground that were dead.”
Those still alive were so malnourished that the American soldiers were given strict orders not to feed anyone.
“We weren’t allowed — the medics told us not to give them any food. They were so undernourished that it would have just killed them. The only two things we were allowed to give them were cigarettes and hard candy.”
Now 97, Prestia had celebrated his birthday just days before entering the camp. He was the lone Pittsburgher on an infantry team that manned a large Browning Automatic Rifle.
“I was the gunner,” he explained. “We had an assistant gunner, Roy Zuber from Petersburg, West Virginia, and we had an ammo carrier, Clarence McKay, who was from Hannibal, Missouri.”
Before entering Dachau, Prestia and his fellow soldiers were not aware that they were marching into a concentration camp.
“We didn’t know what kind of compound it was. We just had orders to go there and see what was going on,” he said. “We didn’t know what was there until we got there. We had heard about other camps. We heard about Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but those were different.”
Like Dachau, Auschwitz and Buchenwald were both liberated 75 years ago. Troops from the Soviet Union entered Auschwitz, the largest concentration camp, on Jan. 27, 1945. The date is now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, said the anniversary was remembered during the center’s annual Yom HaShoah commemoration on Tuesday, April 21. The annual service was changed to a virtual program this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to the six candles lit in commemoration of the Holocaust’s six million Jewish victims, Bairnsfather said additional candles were lit remembering concentration camp “liberators, veterans and the Righteous Among the Nations.”
While Prestia isn’t Jewish, many of those involved with liberating the concentration camps were. Bairnsfather recalled a story her father told her about growing up with an immigrant in McKeesport who served in the Army during World War II and assisted in liberating the concentration camp where his own father was held a prisoner.
Prestia was one of 120 liberators honored at a ceremony at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2010.
The infantry soldier still finds it difficult to comprehend the sheer enormity of the Holocaust.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but at the ceremony, they told us in Germany alone there were over 300 camps. Dachau was built first, and it was the biggest camp, but Hitler had them built in every country he took.”
Prestia’s unit only stayed one day before leaving and heading to Munich. In spite of the short stay, the nonagenarian can still recall what he saw.
“We saw a lot. The gas chambers and the coal yards. There was this big building for showers. When people were going to be executed, they took them there to take a shower. Himmler gave one of his soldiers a medal for making some kind of device that would turn off the water and gas would come through. He executed a lot of people that way.
“People got tortured and killed other places, too,” Prestia continued. “They had coal-fired furnaces and a lot of them were just burnt in that place. It was a terrible, terrible place.”
Prestia recalled capturing many of the guards left behind after the officers running the concentration camp left. Unfortunately, the biggest prize, Heinrich Himmler, evaded capture.
“Himmler took all of the SS troops with him when he escaped,” Prestia said. “He would never go to trial because right after that he took a cyanide tablet and killed himself.”
Because of a language barrier, Prestia said communication with the Jewish prisoners was difficult.
“The people talked with some of their own nationality and stuck together,” he said. “The Polish people talked with the Polish people, for instance. We could understand some of the things they were saying, though mostly they wanted to get out of that camp.”
Prestia recounted that he was told no one had ever escaped. “There were walls and they had fences with electricity running through them. If they didn’t get electrocuted there were these vicious dogs they kept half-starved that would chew people to death. There were towers on the walls with machine guns. If you got outside the camp, there was a moat with water 12 feet wide.”
By the time Prestia and his unit arrived, many of the prisoners had already been forced to leave the camp by the commandant and guards. Between 6,000 and 7,000 inmates were taken on a death march, never to return.
Despite the large number of inmates taken from the camp, Prestia and his fellow soldiers still encountered “over 2,000 dead. We got out over 31,000 people. They were just skin and bones. They were all different nationalities. They were starving.”
The veteran said that Himmler’s intention was to leave no prisoner alive.
“I don’t know how true this is, but we heard from our medics that they had big pots of poisoned soup on their stoves. They were going to feed them all a big bowl of soup.”
Bairnsfather said that often liberators don’t talk of their experiences during the war. “The liberators who did talk and will talk are very special,” she said.
Bairnsfather remembered a quote from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, highlighting the importance of capturing their stories: “Get it all on record now, get the films, get the witnesses, because somewhere down the road of history, some bastard will get up and say that this never happened.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.