Bringing Out the Horrors of the Dachau Death Camp

Donald Burdick was a pre-med student at the University of Scranton when the Army drafted him during World War II. In July 1944, the private first class landed in northern France with a field artillery observation battalion. Five months later, on Dec. 16, his unit was in Luxembourg when the Germans attacked and the Battle of the Bulge began. At 84, Don shared his experiences holding out during the siege of Bastogne with the Morning Call readers in a column in my series,  War Stories: In Their Own Words.
US Army jeep at the gates of Dachau, 1945

US Army jeep at the gates of Dachau, 1945

In that interview Don also showed me some photographs he had taken when his unit was sent to Dachau in the spring to liberate that concentration camp from the Nazis. He had had these pictures for more than sixty years and had never shown them to a soul. On my final interview, Morning Call photographer Harry Fisher not only photographed and videoed Don, he also photographed Don’s Dachau photos so we could post them on The Morning Call website and run them in the paper.

Back in the newsroom, the executive editor examined the photos in her office with a deputy managing editor, who told me we could run the pictures but not with the Bastogne story. That would be forcing them into the paper, she said, without the proper context. She didn’t want them “shoehorned” into a story about Bastogne that only mentioned Dachau in passing. The executive editor suggested that the following April, about the time of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I write a separate story about Don’s experience at Dachau, and it would run with some of the photos.

That was the plan, and it worked out exactly like that. Harry Fisher and I spent more time with Don at his home in the spring of 2009. The executive editor reviewed the grisly photos and OK’d the use of several inside the paper, with the story’s runover.

Prisoners wave at troops at the liberation of Dachau, 1945

Prisoners wave at troops during the liberation of Dachau, 1945

And that’s the way it went. The story ran on Page 1 on Sunday, April 19, 2009, with the pictures inside. The story featured a box telling readers that April 20 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley holds a program at the Jewish Community Center in Allentown to commemorate the event each year. Not only were the photos in the paper, they were also online at The Morning Call with a two-minute video Harry had shot of Don talking about his day at Dachau.

Response to the story was electric. A year went by. Shari Spark, head of the Holocaust Resource Center at the Jewish Federation, called me looking for Don. She wanted to contact him to see if he’d speak at the 2010 Holocaust Remembrance Day program. I gave her Don’s phone number.

Two weeks later, she called me again with an idea. She had been impressed with how articulate Don was when they had spoken together in his living room. I knew what she was talking about: Don is a natural raconteur and from decades of teaching high school science could get the point across concisely.  Shari wondered if Don’s presentation would be more effective if it would take the form of a casual interview. The interviewer would have to be someone Don felt comfortable with.

I could see it coming. Shari asked me: Would you consider doing it? I had to get permission from my supervisor, who had no problem with my participation in the event. Shari spent three hours with Don and me one day, going over the material. The interview during the ceremony could last only a half-hour and I had to cover everything we discussed over many hours of interviews. I used a notebook to record the important points and listed them in order. I brought them to the ceremony to be sure my questions structured Don’s story. I kept my questions open-ended, giving him room for spontaneity and illumination. I never interrupted him, waiting until it was clear he had said what he wanted to say. Sure enough, Don sustained a powerful, emotional delivery. The audience gave him a standing ovation.

After the ceremony, people lingered and talked. They shared their own stories and asked Don more questions. Just as Shari predicted, he had connected with them.

3 responses to “Bringing Out the Horrors of the Dachau Death Camp

  1. Intersting to see how much work goes into a “spontaneous” interview!


  2. Excellent story David – I thoroughly enjoyed our collaboration! Thank you, thank you, thank you!


  3. Monica Lemelman

    You made it a very moving program, thanks.


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