Told  /  Discovery

Long-Forgotten Cables Reveal What TIME's Correspondent Saw at the Liberation of Dachau

Two copies of the first-person account were tucked away, largely untouched until after his death. Now, his family is sharing his story.

Olson’s account of the horrific conditions at Dachau was part of the most graphic coverage of the war to date. Journalists had received reports about the existence of concentration camps and of the massacre of millions of predominantly Jewish people, but reports of these statistics still seemed abstract to many at home. In 1945, the vast majority of Americans believed reports about concentration camps, but seriously underestimated the number of people killed in them. (Interestingly, a separate survey that year revealed that most Americans thought it was important for the public in the U.S. as well as in Germany to be confronted with photos of the atrocities.)

The camps seemed abstract to many of the journalists on the front lines too — until they saw for themselves. Correspondents were often mistaken for liberators; in some cases, they had in fact beat the liberators to Nazi-occupied areas. In a second cable, Olson said he heard a German tried to surrender to New York Herald Tribune correspondent Marguerite Higgins, and that the Nazis raised a white flag when she arrived.

Correspondents’ bosses back in the U.S. couldn’t quite believe the stories either. In many cases, they excised details they thought must have been exaggerations, explains Ray Moseley in Reporting War: How Foreign Correspondents Risked Capture, Torture and Death to Cover World War II.

The May 7, 1945, cover of TIME

The final edit of Olson’s account that appeared at roughly 800 words in the May 7, 1945, issue of TIME was mostly celebratory — with Olson’s desired cover image of Hitler, his face crossed out with a red X. The story starts with Olson entering to the sight of dead bodies, then transitions to the celebrations of the inmates. “There is nothing you can do when a lot of hysterical, unshaven, lice-bitten, half-drunk, typhus-infected men want to kiss you,” he explained. “It is no good trying to explain that you are only a correspondent.” The piece ends on a heartwarming note: “One giant Russian held me for at least 30 seconds while he kissed all over the U.S. insignia on my coat.”

This arc is no coincidence, says Barbie Zelizer, director of the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye. Though it was normal for correspondents’ cables to be edited before appearing in print and there is no record of the editors’ decision-making process, the framing of this particular example was part of a trend, reflecting an effort to stay on that idea that the war is over. It leaves out paragraphs from the original cable about skirmishes and fighting that was still taking place at the camp — details that, as Zelizer puts it, could have been a whole other story.

“There is a kind of urge to deliver a false absoluteness that the battles are behind you,” says Zelizer, who reviewed Olson’s files, “at a moment in time when certainty was just about the last thing anyone could imagine.”