Stories of Dachau Survivors
Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1925, John Steiner was the product of an upper-middle class family with cultured and well-educated parents. Under Hitler's definition of a Jew in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, the Steiner family was classified as Jewish, although they had converted to Christianity.
Steiner said in an interview with Jennifer Upshaw of the Marin Independent Journal on April 29, 2005 that life in central Europe before the war was "an ideal place to be raised." Steiner said the country at that time was, in his view, a true democracy.
"I was very happy to have that background," he said. "It supported me in the camps to survive. I had an important background to help me with that... an ideal of democracy and humanity and morality."
On Aug. 10, 1942, the family was sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in what is now the Czech Republic and later transferred to the Auschwitz death camp, where Steiner's mother perished, but his father and sister survived. Steiner survived the selection for the gas chamber and was registered to work at Auschwitz. He was tattooed with a six-digit prisoner number on his left forearm. He was then sent to the Blechhammer labor camp where the prisoners worked in the production of synthetic gasoline from coal.
When the evacuation of the camps near Auschwitz began in the fall of 1944, Steiner was sent on a death march to the Gross-Rosen camp which was then in Germany. On the march through the snow, he suffered from severe frostbite which caused him to lose all the toes on his right foot and some of the toes on his left foot. The prisoners who were unable to walk were put into open train cars and taken to Prague. Eventually, he arrived in Dachau in January 1945.
The Jews who had been evacuated from Auschwitz were sent to the factories in the sub-camps of Dachau after a brief stay in the main camp, but John Steiner was in no condition to work after his ordeal on the death march. His feet were infected and he had to be confined in the camp's infirmary, where he remained until the camp was liberated.
In his interview with Jennifer Upshaw, Steiner said that his upbringing helped him to survive. He spoke fluent German which gave him an advantage because he could communicate with the SS officers at Dachau. He said that he spoke with an SS captain, demanding that the prisoners either be given food or be shot; the officer ordered more food.
During his stay at Dachau, Steiner said that he befriended a Russian prisoner of war, who told him that there was more food in the Soviet gulags than in Dachau. This man was later beaten to death by the Dachau inmates in front of Steiner, after he was caught stealing food from his fellow prisoners.
After the war, Steiner enrolled at the University of Missouri on a scholarship given to him by Czech-Americans. He was awarded an MA degree from the University in 1955.
In an article in the Magazine of the Mizzou Alumni Association in the Spring of 2007, Amy Spindler wrote about Steiner's imprisonment at Dachau in 1945. The following quote is from her article:
As a prisoner in Dachau in 1945, John Steiner was starving to death. He was barely conscious and going blind when a fellow inmate, a young German whom he didn't know, was empathetic and gave him money to buy tinned sausages.
(The Dachau prisoners were allowed to receive money from relatives and friends, which they could use to buy extra food from the camp canteen.)
Steiner, MA '55, credits the compassion and empathy of the other prisoners in helping him survive until later that year when American soldiers liberated the camp. He was 19 years old and weighed about 60 pounds.
As of April 2007, Steiner was a senior scholar-in-residence at Sonoma State University. He is the founding director of Sonoma State University's Holocaust Studies Center in Rohnert Park, CA.