The monks, the Dachau survivors and the concert that heralded freedom
The monastery of St Ottilien rises above the green Bavarian pastures of southern Germany. It is an unlikely setting for the story of an extraordinary Jewish renaissance in the weeks following the 1945 liberation of Dachau, which is being commemorated this week.
It is a bright but chilly Saturday afternoon and the large baroque complex is packed with visitors enjoying a drink in the beer garden after a hike in the countryside. As he tucks into a large plate of wiener schnitzel and downs a lager, Father Cyrill, who is presiding over memorial events that will take place in the monastery, expresses his sadness that most of the people who come to St Ottilien have no idea of what took place here.
Father Cyrill’s day job is running the monastery’s Benedictine publishing house, but in his spare time he is busy collating information about a key, but forgotten, moment in both the monastery’s and Jewish history. He hopes that remembering how Holocaust survivors found shelter in the monastery after Dachau’s liberation will help Germans care about the thousands of refugees who have arrived in their country in recent years.
In late April 1945, as the American army advanced deep into Germany, 3,500 mostly Jewish prisoners were moved from Kaufering, a sub-camp of Dachau. They were loaded on to a train heading for the South Tyrol on the Italian/Austrian border, where they were to build the defences for the Nazis’ last stand. In the village of Schwabhausen, not far from St Ottilien, the train was strafed by US fighter planes. Ammunition in the sidings blew up, and in the confusion the SS who were guarding the prisoners fled.
Among the 800 people left alive on the train was Zalman Grinberg, a 33-year-old physician from Kovno in Lithuania. He knew the prisoners had little chance of survival if they stayed in the open, so quickly gathered them together and, with the help of an American colonel, led them to safety in the monastery.
Father Cyrill explains: “The monastery had been closed by the Nazis and the monks sent to the eastern front, or set to work as slave labourers on the monastery farm and in the military hospital that was set up here.”
Grinberg, posing as a Red Cross official, commandeered part of the monastery and it became the only Jewish hospital in Bavaria. Father Cyrill and I walk into the heart of the 19th-century complex and stand in the shadow of the abbey with its grey steeple. The setting is idyllic. Orchards lead down the hill to the pastures. “The young doctor was not just setting out to heal his patients’ bodies but their minds as well,” says Father Cyrill. “He wanted to instil in them a desire to move forward and rebuild their lives.”
One of the things Grinberg did was hold a concert on the monastery lawn, where they “played music that the Nazis had banned”. On 27 May 1945, 19-year-old US private Bob Hilliard, from Brooklyn, attended the concert thinking it would make a light-hearted feature for the army newspaper he edited.
“Rows of wooden chairs were set in front of the stage. In the aisles, and on the chairs and on the grass, standing, sitting, walking, leaning, lying, were hundreds of stick figures, emaciated, pale, skeletal, expressionless, all dressed in the black-and-white striped uniforms of the concentration camps,” he reported.
The audience barely moved, and “when they did it was in the flickering slow motion of early silent films”. When the concert ended no one applauded. It was “a liberation concert at which most of the liberated people were too weak to stand. A liberation concert at which most of the people could not believe that they were free.”
That was all about to change. Grinberg stepped on to the stage and delivered a speech in which he described the odyssey he had taken. It was a chronicle of tragedy that linked all the survivors together; each had taken a different “road of torture” that formed “one common red thread of blood, torture, torment, humiliation – and violent death”.
His speech moulded them into a community, giving the survivors back their self-confidence, and began a Jewish renaissance fuelled by a burning desire to build a new life in Palestine. “He gave the people a will to live. It was important and should not be forgotten,” says Father Cyrill. The orchestra became a symbol of this renaissance and soon became known as the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra. It went on to play across Germany.
The country now has a large immigrant and refugee population. “People think the war ended and everything was over but it was not the case,” says Father Cyrill. “It is the will to build a new life that we see here, and it is our obligation and our mission to commemorate what happened as a lesson for the present. This is not just a story of cruelty but one of hope.” To this end, the energetic 50-year-old, along with many local volunteers, has organised a series of commemorative events that will begin with a concert next month.
The “liberation concert” of 1945 was followed by the formation of the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews in Bavaria, which was the first meeting of its kind since the Holocaust. At the meeting survivors discussed their future and the way forward. Father Cyrill explains there was no talk of revenge: “Grinberg thought only of rebuilding lives.”
The thoughtful Benedictine is fearful that the story of what happened here will be forgotten. The monastery buried the last of the fathers who remembered the postwar years last year. “The new information centre is important for Germany. When I was young growing up in Freiburg, my father believed that an international Jewish conspiracy existed. Keeping memories alive is important educationally.”
What really fires up Father Cyrill is that the monastery was home to a maternity hospital in which 427 babies were born. He points to a small cream-coloured building with a pointed roof. “It was a symbol of hope for the Jewish people and some of the children who were born here visit us.”
Grinberg gave the survivors a sense of pride and self-worth, and Father Cyrill would like to see that this is a key part in the way they are remembered. “They must be remembered with dignity and respect,” he says.
We walk through the gardens to the cemetery, although in St Ottilien there are two, one Catholic and one Jewish. The latter has small metal gates adorned with the Star of David. I explain that it is the Jewish tradition to put a pebble on a gravestone that is visited. As Father Cyrill helps me find one, he explains there are fewer graves than there once were as some families have moved their relatives’ remains.
He poses for a picture beside a new noticeboard that explains why the monastery has a neatly tended Jewish graveyard. “It is a start, but I have a long way to go.” He is working with the Jewish community in Munich and believes “this is not something that the Church must do alone. We must do it together, Catholics and Jews”.
As we walk back up the hill, through farm buildings decorated with Banksy-style murals, the conversation moves on to another reason why the history of St Ottilien’s Jews is important. Conditions in the hospital in the summer of 1945 were dire; there were no blankets, no medicine, no food and little help from outside.
Bob Hilliard was so appalled by the conditions that he began a letter-writing campaign in the US that would change American policy on caring for refugees. “It was an important step in changing how we see refugees,” Father Cyrill says. On the day I visit, there are 15 African refugees being cared for in the monastery.
Rosie Whitehouse is researching a book on Holocaust survivors, 1944-1948