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COPENHAGEN, winter 1945: Peter Jorgensen, 18, is a Danish boy scout and Resistance worker whom the Gestapo arrests along with other members of his cell. After days of torture, their captors stuff the Danes into cattle cars and send them to an unknown destination—revealed, after two weeks of meandering through devastated Germany in winter cold, as Dachau concentration camp. “You had to keep your sense of humor,” Jorgensen recalls. “It’s all you had left.”

You faced multiple interrogations.

The first, they handcuffed me in a chair covered with blood and pounded my face. The second, they put me in a straitjacket and repeated the face-pounding until I was more dead than alive; then they took off the straitjacket, and an agent built like a bear beat me unconscious. The third, I had interrogators who looked like Laurel and Hardy but weren’t nearly as funny. One said, “We want a confession, so I’ll spare you further beatings and read you your file.” It was pretty complete from my birth on. I expressed my admiration and signed three copies. He told me I was up for the death penalty; I said I wasn’t eager to die at my tender age. He promised to reduce my sentence to a trip to Germany. On February 19, I celebrated my 19th birth day in Copenhagen’s Vestre prison with a spoonful of gravy and two potatoes.

When did your journey begin?

At four the next morning, 106 prisoners were loaded into buses. Passing through Copenhagen, we saw family and friends through the windows. We waited for the ferry at Gedser, where a sympathetic butcher distributed cigarettes, liver paste, and buckets of milk—our last solid meal. The ferry took us to Warnemünde—the first city we saw in ruins. We were loaded into two small French cattle cars, 53 men per car. The cars stank. We opened the small hatches and saw devastation along the harbor, came up with a system for dealing with our waste, and spent the night in Hamburg’s rail yards.

You thought you were going to a town a day away.

So we ate the last of our provisions. But once we passed Lüneburg, we had no idea where we were headed. Nothing to drink for two days; nothing to eat for one. Finally, a German corporal gave us a bucket of water from the engine tender, full of oil and dirt; it tasted like champagne. We took turns sitting in the increasingly filthy cars, and sang patriotic songs as we passed locomotives shot to smithereens, burnt-out box cars, fallow fields, bombed-out cities. At noon on February 22, we rolled into Northeim in central Germany. They parked us amid military trains with antiaircraft guns. We smelled the food the Hitlerjugend had.

Then air-raid sirens wailed.

The heroic Hitler boys took off like all the demons in hell were after them, slid into a ditch, and cocked their machine pistols—at us. We were very glad they didn’t fire at the planes; we would have been the recipients of retaliation. I spotted a dozen RAF bombers headed our way, and saw the first dot falling. The car rocked violently. We dived onto the floor in a tangle. I hid my head under a fat businessman’s belly. The car jumped on the tracks; soil and rocks pelted the roof; shrapnel whizzed through about a meter off the floor. The next wave lasted much longer. Afterward, the yard was pockmarked with craters, full of twisted rails and damaged trains. The Hitlerjugend crew came back—carefully. We were switched to a remote area of the yard, and sat for three days. Our hunger and thirst and the stench got much worse. They refused us anything: “You were provisioned for the trip.” Germans! But we did learn that the RAF hadn’t killed any civilians, and that our destination was Bavaria, several hundred kilometers away.

What about those provisions?

No food for four days, no water for two. The senior prisoner on our car, Captain Berg, persuaded the guard commander to let him meet the mayor. Berg had all our German currency; off he and the senior prisoner from the other car went, under heavy guard. We stood amid the filth. Our friends in the next car were trying to clean up, but an ex-war correspondent among us said not to: the bacteria would get air borne and we’d suffer epidemics. Later, they did, and we didn’t. We joked about Berg returning with fine wines and steaks, but despair was gnawing underneath. He brought 110 loaves of rye bread, sausages, ersatz honey—a feast! We stayed alive on 200 grams of bread and half a cup of dirty water per day.

While you continued your weird tour of Germany.

It was a relief to see intact buildings in Weimar. We left Halle just before it got plastered by bombs. After Leipzig, we kept gaining altitude. Despite hunger and thirst, I couldn’t help enjoying the beautiful landscape. But the stench got steadily worse. We used up our paper; our bucket’s bottom fell out. So, two men would lift the “victim” up to the hatch to stick his rear end out—the perfect, if unintended, way to show our contempt for the Third Reich. The springlike weather turned back to winter at Regensburg. We were leaving Ingolstadt in snow when air raid alarms sounded; we witnessed the intensive bombardment from the out skirts. Once more saved by a hair!

Then you arrived at Dachau.

At 9:30 p.m. on March 2, during snowfall whipped by winds. The doors slid open, and the leader barked, in true Prussian fashion, “If anybody tries to escape, you’ll all be shot immediately!” That was probably the best joke of his life. We tum bled out like cow plop; none of us could run even 10 steps. We marched—and dragged our sick—two kilometers to Dachau’s gates, and were prodded and kicked inside. We passed trenches, stone watchtowers, electrified fences. Some of us scooped up snow—we’d had no water for three days—but were warned it was contaminated. We entered the barracks for new prisoners, deposited the sick at one end, and enjoyed stretching out flat on the floor. We were each given a 200- gram hunk of “rye” bread, made of flour, sawdust, and cellulose. I discovered my teeth were so loose I couldn’t chew it.

What was daily life like?

During our three-week quarantine, we got coffee in the morning, soup at noon, and at night, coffee and 200 grams of bread. The first dawn we saw our future: emaciated prisoners 10 to 80 years old, barefoot in thin uniforms, coughing and wheezing. They were marched into the bathhouse, which was also the gas chamber. We never saw them again.

What happened to you Danes?

In an antechamber of the bath-cum gashouse, we stripped and handed over clothes and valuables like wedding rings, then were herded naked into a room with large vats. There, haircutting was in full swing, so we knew we wouldn’t be gassed. A prisoner with a bucket of disinfectant applied it liberally to all body parts where hair had been. We got hot showers with a towel apiece—it was almost luxurious. We were given clothes and instructions, and marched to Block 19. We could see Block 21, for typhoid victims; emaciated corpses were stacked outside each morning. Our nerves were shredded. We settled into routines: delousing each other, dreaming of ham and eggs, watching people die. Each morning a Kapo kicked the corpses’ mouths open and pulled out their gold teeth with pliers. Dysentery spread: I cured myself by eating old toothpaste and charcoal for three days.

After three weeks, you heard rumors that the Red Cross was intervening.

No one dared believe it. One day, our barracks was suddenly all Danes and Norwegians; we each got Red Cross parcels and an eight-pound loaf of rye bread! A week later, we were called to the bath house for baths and new clothes from the Danish Red Cross. At 7 a.m., we were marched from camp. A big white Swedish bus popped out, followed by a bus caravan with supply and repair and tanker trucks, manned by Swedish soldiers, all volunteers. This was thanks to Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, who rescued 15,000 prisoners, including several thousand Jews. We had a circuitous ride through Germany. One night, we read by the fires burning Hamburg. We met Bernadotte there; he insisted on speaking to us. When we reached Sweden, we were quartered in summer cottages and ate in luxury hotels. On May 17, 1945, we went home.


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.