Survivors gather on May 3, 1945, to salute the Allies and to remember people who perished in Dachau.Credit...United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

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

The New York Times
By David Chrisinger
04 Sep 20

For two years, a prisoner in the German concentration camp kept a journal that would later be used to convict those who had persecuted him and killed his fellow prisoners.

The final article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series by The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war, remembers Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, a prisoner at Dachau who secretly documented everything he observed in the concentration camp in a diary, which he then buried until the American liberation.

His cheekbones stuck out like mountaintops from a barren valley. Gnawing hunger had tortured him for months. Day and night, his thoughts vacillated between fantasies of his favorite foods — of chewing even — to how he might take his own life. A prisoner’s existence in Neuengamme concentration camp, in the wet and the cold near the German port city of Hamburg, he later explained, was like walking a tightrope. The only way to keep from falling was to focus on yourself and avert your eyes from the unimaginable misery all around you.

Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz wasn’t Jewish or a Communist — categories of people who were incarcerated mercilessly in Nazi Germany — but in November 1940 he was sent to the concentration camp at Dachau, apparently for the crime of being a pacifist. When he was transferred to Neuengamme, he thought there was no place on Earth worse than Dachau. He was wrong. In four months of crushing labor and near-starvation rations at Neuengamme, he lost nearly 100 pounds. When he was sent back to Dachau, in late April, with about 500 other sick prisoners, the comrades he knew there just a few months previously no longer recognized him. He no longer recognized himself.

Just over a year and a half later, Edgar was assigned to work as an office manager in a screw factory just outside where most of Dachau’s inmates were housed. This new position spared him from some of the arbitrary violence that befell other prisoners, and it also provided him clandestine opportunities to keep a secret diary.

“Some comrades spoke to me about writing yesterday evening,” he wrote on Feb. 12, 1943. “They expect a book from me about Dachau, a book that says everything, that illuminates everything correctly and does not hide anything.” By the time Dachau was liberated by American forces, in April 1945, Edgar had written more than 1,800 pages.

David Chrisinger, via Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

David Chrisinger, via Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

“…first with isolated shots, then stronger firing of small artillery pieces, then furious firing, larger artillery pieces start in, also becoming increasingly violent, with rifle and machine gun salvos in between. Then volleys of small counter-artillery guns. It goes on all night long, increasing in intensity. It seems to me to come from the direction of Dachau, but I could be wrong, sound is often deceptive. It must be a serious fight, and the direction of the battle is the Dachau camp. I lie awake all night.”


Part of what makes Edgar’s diary so astonishing — other than its sheer size and scope — is that it survived the war at all. While the number of postwar memoirs written by survivors of the Holocaust is enormous, the number of testimonies that were actually written inside German concentration camps is far smaller. The ones that do exist are often fragmentary, and almost none show Edgar’s extraordinary powers of observation in analyzing the unique and hellish universe that was the Nazi concentration camp.

Edgar was born near Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1906. After he graduated from secondary school, he started writing poems and short articles for newspapers and magazines. In 1934, a year after the Nazis came to power, he fled to Paris and made a modest living as a weaver until 1937, when he found work for a German tourism company and moved to the Italian island of Ischia. In September 1940, with World War II underway and fascist Italy firmly allied with Hitler, Edgar was detained and handed over to the Germans, for having “made disparaging comments about the local regime and the German one.” He was shuttled north to a Gestapo prison in Innsbruck, Austria, and on Nov. 11, 1940, he was put on a train to Dachau.

Edgar began keeping his diary in November 1942, soon after he had been assigned the job in the screw factory. “It was well known that I was useless for work,” Edgar wrote early on, but he was a good writer, and that saved his life. “They shook their heads, smiled meaningfully and left me alone, because each of them would come to me sooner or later needing a poem.”

Taking advantage of his sheltered position, Edgar wrote down nearly everything he saw, heard, and thought, amassing precise descriptions of the sealed universe of the camp, “a world in itself, a satanic world.”

No detail was too small or too cruel for him to preserve. Thanks to Edgar we know that the SS liked to have the camp orchestra play during roll call and sometimes made the exhausted prisoners sing. The music sounded like “a waltz at a funeral,” Edgar wrote. He described the SS doctor in the hospital at Dachau who forced sick inmates, many close to death, to lay with their hands rigidly at their sides, as if they were standing at attention.

He recorded what would happen when a prisoner got too close to the camp’s barbed wire. “Seven towers stand around the camp,” Edgar wrote in a poem, “on each of them two machine guns/gaze down with sinister barrels.” There was no point in trying to flee: “The shots come down, so dull and heavy/and they bark over the camp/when anyone approaches the wire.”

Edgar also composed a poem about the torture device they called “the Tree.” “The victim hangs helplessly,” Edgar wrote, “his arms strung up behind, for greater agony,” When the torture finally ended and the prisoner was untied, the man’s hands fell useless “as if they had died/not as if they had been saved.”

Prisoners observe a moment of silence on April 29, 1945, following the liberation by Allied troops of Dachau.Credit...Eric Schwab/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prisoners observe a moment of silence on April 29, 1945, following the liberation by Allied troops of Dachau.Credit…Eric Schwab/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Edgar hid his diary balanced atop a curtain rod in the factory where he worked — a place he considered “too obvious” for prying eyes to bother with. When the pages grew too bulky for their perch, he used his position as office manager to have a wooden box made, and he fitted it with a false bottom to conceal the diary. He stashed his box under cartons of office supplies.

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.

David Chrisinger, via Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

David Chrisinger, via Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

“As long as Munich has not fallen, I will not consider myself free, even more so as long as the whole Munich zone is not free. One can wage war and calculate moves, but there is always the possibility of something unexpected, and thus a reversal, even if it only lasts for a moment. And even if we really do have a free zone here, I will always consider the liberation to be only 99 percent until the war has stopped completely.”


The 465 trials that collectively came to be known as the Dachau Trials began in November 1945. By the time the court permanently adjourned two years later, it had tried some 1,200 defendants for war crimes and convicted nearly three-quarters of them. With Edgar’s diary as evidence, a number of former Dachau guards were punished for their part in a pattern of horrific crimes.

Edgar immigrated to the United States in 1953. Over the course of about seven years, he worked as a bellhop in a hotel, night watchman in a department store, dishwasher, a professional Santa Claus and a doorman at a cinema. In 1960, he returned to Europe and retired to the island of Sardinia.

By the time he died at age 85 in 1991, Edgar was back in Germany and nearly penniless. He never achieved the sort of recognition that came to other chroniclers of the Holocaust.

But he could do one thing he hadn’t been able to when he first returned to Dachau from Neuengamme: He could look in the mirror and recognize the face staring back at him. He could know, in the deepest part of his being, that he had not only done all he could to survive the terror and utter hopelessness of life inside a concentration camp; he had not averted his eyes to the suffering of his comrades. He had focused his attention on their agony, recorded it, and in the process he had resisted the Nazis by bearing witness to their atrocious crimes. With the sleepless nights he spent recording the stories of those who had vanished without a trace inside the walls of Dachau, Edgar helped to give a second life to all those who suffered and died there, to push them up from the bottomless and bulging earth, back into the light of day.

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