Friday, June 18

A Secret Diary Chronicled the ‘Satanic World’ That Was Dachau

After a typhoid epidemic swept through Dachau, Edgar and the other workers were ordered to sleep at the factory to limit their exposure to the sick and dying back at the main camp. This new living arrangement afforded Edgar the opportunity to sneak back into his tiny closetlike office and write while his fellow inmates slept. To avoid detection by the guards, Edgar sealed the cracks around the door so that no light would escape. He would write until 2 or 3 in the morning, exhausted, in constant fear of discovery, near collapse in the airless room.

“I often believed that I couldn’t go on,” Edgar confessed once. “It was agony, a double one, mental as well as physical.” There were times, in fact, that he thought of destroying his diary, so that he could finally stop worrying about it, stop giving up his precious sleep for it.

By October 1944, the diary had become so large that it was no longer easy to hide — and such a valuable testament that Edgar was anxious for its safety. One of his co-workers, a man named Otto Höfer, whom Edgar described as “a thousand percent safe,” offered to dig a hole in the concrete floor in another part of the factory, where the diary could be buried for posterity. To help preserve it from damp and decay, Edgar wrapped the manuscript in layers of oil paper, followed by aluminum foil and fabric. Otto lowered the bundle into the floor and sealed the hole with fresh concrete, in a spot where it was hidden under a rack of hundredweight iron bars. “The manuscripts,” Edgar wrote after liberation, “were hidden in the womb of the earth.”

American troops liberated the prisoners of Dachau on April 29, 1945. A week later, in the presence of an American officer, Edgar helped dig out his manuscript. His heart beat in anticipation as he uncovered the parcel. What shape would the diary be in after all that time? “Thousands of our comrades were dead who were alive when we buried it,” Edgar wrote. Had the elements destroyed the memorial he had worked so hard to create?

“The fabric cover fell off,” he observed, “the oil paper had decomposed, and the foil too. The manuscripts themselves had become heavy wet bales of paper.” For the next month, Edgar used several rooms in the camp, guarded by the Americans, to dry out the hundreds of wet pages. “It required a lot of art and patience,” Edgar wrote, “because the paper was half-decayed and threatened to turn to dust.”

Finally the results were clear: “Almost everything is saved,” he rejoiced. More than a record of his time at Dachau, Edgar’s diary was ready to be used to convict those who had persecuted him and had beaten, starved, tortured and killed his fellow prisoners.

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