As American soldiers roll into the German town, a boy dressed in a striped prison uniform emerges from the shadows. Having escaped the clutches of the Nazis, he now faces an uncertain future. But one of the U.S. soldiers takes him under his wing – and, in doing so, forms an unlikely friendship fated to last for over 70 years.
Marcel Levy was just a teenager when he found himself imprisoned at Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp not far from Munich in south Germany. Tragically, Levy’s entire family perished at the camp, leaving him to fend for himself.
Yet somehow, Levy managed to escape the camp and went into hiding in the area around Dachau. There he remained until April 1945, when troops from the United States Army 42nd Infantry Division – known as the “Rainbow Division” – arrived.
And among the soldiers who drove into Dachau on that day was 24-year-old Sidney Shafner from Denver, Colorado. Shafner had originally been a student of engineering at Denver’s Regis University. However, as World War II continued to escalate, he was later drafted into the U.S. Army.
Now, when Shafner and his fellow soldiers arrived in Dachau, their first move was to open fire. Indeed, they aimed their bullets at a church tower in the town, hoping to drive out any snipers that might be hiding there.
Instead, however, their shots drew a very different crowd. “Strange looking people in strange-looking clothes came from nowhere,” Shafner explained in a 2011 interview for the Library of Congress.
Hauntingly, the people Shafner mentioned were likely to be prisoners who had escaped the inhumane conditions in the nearby death camp. What’s more, the strange clothing that they wore would have been the blue and gray-striped uniform that camp inmates were issued with.
Levy, a boy of just 19, approached Shafner with a heartfelt plea. Yes, he told the soldier about the concentration camp nearby and asked Shafner to accompany him there. As Shafner remembered to the Library of Congress, Levy’s words were chillingly simple: “They’re killing people up there.”
Dachau opened on March 22, 1933, as the first of the Nazi state’s horrific concentration camps to operate within Germany itself. And though it was initially meant to incarcerate political subversives, it soon became the prison of anyone who fell foul of Hitler’s regime in any way.
Conditions in Dachau were bleak. Flogging and torture were common practices, with around 32,000 people recorded as dying during their internment at the camp. However, it’s believed that thousands more perished there whose deaths went unrecorded.
So, as the Allied forces began to close in, the Nazi guards evacuated Dachau. During the operation, some 10,000 prisoners exited the camp. Some were subsequently forced to march for days on end, while others were crammed into train cars and left to die.
For those that remained, however, liberation finally came. Indeed, on April 29, 1945, with Germany all but defeated, U.S. forces entered the camp and freed over 30,000 prisoners from the hell of Dachau.
Among the soldiers who liberated Dachau, meanwhile, was Shafner, whom Levy had previously alerted to the camp’s whereabouts. By then, Shafner had taken a liking to the orphaned boy. And so, he invited him to tag along.
And although Levy felt too traumatized to enter the camp, he remained with the division. In fact, he even helped with the soldiers’ cooking in return for food. Together, then, they traveled to Austria, eventually settling in Vienna for several months.
Over this time, moreover, Levy and Shafner actually became good friends. Shafner even put Levy in touch with a group that helped him to trace his relatives in Israel. Eventually, Levy decided to join them there. Meanwhile, Shafner returned to Denver, and the two men consequently parted company. Before they went their separate ways, however, Shafner left Levy with his address in the United States.
So, despite the distance, Shafner and Levy kept up correspondence over the years. They exchanged letters and, later, emails, and Shafner’s family even visited Levy in Israel. Then, 25 years after they had left each other in Vienna, Shafner himself traveled to Israel to see his old friend.
And, apparently, it was like they had never left each other. What’s more, they finally met each other’s wives for the first time, and the two families began a friendship that would endure over the years. Amazingly, both Shafner and Levy were even able to attend the bar mitzvahs of each other’s sons.
But on May 10, 2016, the two men got together for what would be the final time. Then, as the last living soldier of his army unit, Shafner was on a tour of Poland and Israel. He was, in fact, giving talks on the Holocaust. And, at an air force base in Israel, Shafner and Levy reunited once again – more than 70 years after they met in Dachau.
At the meeting, the two men were understandably overcome with emotion. Indeed, Levy was open about the effect that Shafner has had on his life. According to ABC News, he told Shafner, “Everything I have today, all of my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, is due to you, Sid.”
And, to mark the occasion, Levy gave Shafner a plaque in honor of his bravery. Sadly, however, this was their final goodbye. On December 26, 2016, Shafner passed away – the last of a band of heroes who helped to save thousands of lives.