Camp Survivor Stayed in Dachau so Memory’s Flame Won’t be Snuffed
DACHAU, Germany (AP) _ Although U.S. troops freed him five decades ago from the Dachau concentration camp, Nikolas Lehner is still here, confronting Dachau citizens with the crimes they tried to ignore in their own backyard.
``I have sometimes thought about leaving this place. But some people would say, `Thank God, the last Jew is gone,‴ said Lehner. ``I don’t want to give them that satisfaction.″
Lehner, born in Romania, has a building supply business just around the corner from the barbed-wire fences and watchtowers of the former concentration camp, where at least 36,000 people died.
He was among about 32,000 inmates rescued by American GIs who overran the camp at Dachau’s doorstep on April 29, 1945. Survivors and GIs were reuniting on Sunday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
When GIs stormed into the camp 50 years ago, Lehner was a 20-year-old fighting off death in a filthy building crammed with typhus victims like himself.
After he recovered, he had no intention of spending his remaining days in Dachau. In 1946, he married a Jewish woman freed from a boxcar by American troops in a nearby town.
They moved into an apartment in Dachau and applied for visas to the United States. By 1956, the Lehners had a thriving business, two children and still no visas. So they stayed.
Since then, he has become Dachau’s conscience, a man who repeatedly reminds the town’s 38,000 residents that ``the shadow of Dachau spread across Europe″ during the Nazis’ tyranny.
In 1980, Lehner talked to students at a local high school at the invitation of the school director, Johann Waltenberger. He could not believe how little the students knew about what had gone on under the noses of their elders.
``One kid said to me, `We have known of you and of your business. But we never knew you were a Jew. We have had a different idea of what a Jew looks like,‴ said Lehner.
Another student asked, ``Why do our parents try to cover up the past?″
Lehner was also told by a student that the Dachau camp _ now a memorial to its dead inmates _ should be torn down to make way for new homes. Some adults in Dachau hold the same view, Lehner said.
``I said to this boy, `How would you feel if houses were built on the city cemetery?‴
In 1980, Lehner and Waltenberger proposed to town authorities that a meeting house be built where youths could be taught about the Holocaust.
After a battle that dragged Dachau’s image through the mud, officials approved the project four years ago. But the house still hasn’t been built, partly because of opposition from townspeople who live near the proposed site.