‘We wandered around a bit, and then we saw the ovens. And we realized where that smell was coming from.’

Hilbert Margol, U.S. Army veteran

Robert Lyall, National Geographic Studios
Robert Lyall, National Geographic Studios

‘We wandered around a bit, and then we saw the ovens. And we realized where that smell was coming from.’

Hilbert Margol, U.S. Army veteran

Hilbert and Howard Margol were identical twin brothers from Jacksonville, Florida, who did everything together. They worked at their father’s store together. They played high school football together.

And on April 29, 1945, they walked through the gates of hell together.

“Our convoy was headed for Munich—we knew the war was just about over,” says 96-year-old Hilbert, known to friends and family as Hibby, with a gentle Southern lilt. Spread across the dining room table of his home in Dunwoody, Georgia, were photos and mementoes of his time with the Army’s legendary 42nd Rainbow Division.

Granted special permission by President Franklin Roosevelt to serve together in the same unit, he and Howard manned a pair of Howitzer guns in a series of battles ranging from Marseilles, France, to the heart of Nazi Germany.

“Around noon that day our convoy was pulled over to the side along a narrow stretch of road, between two tall stands of trees. We noticed a strange smell in the air.

“Some of the guys said it smelled like a chemical plant. But I didn’t think so. The smell reminded me of when we were kids, and our mother would bring a raw chicken home from the butcher.

“She’d put the chicken over the flame of a gas stove to burn off the remaining pin feathers. The feathers and skin and some of the chicken’s fat would burn. That’s what this smelled like.

“Howard and I went to our sergeant and asked if we could go explore a little bit, to see where the smell was coming from. He said, ‘Okay, but don’t be gone too long.’

“We walked off through the woods for about five minutes, and when we came out on the other side, all we could see was this long line of boxcars.

“We climbed between two railroad cars and out the other side. In front of us was a camp of some kind. It was surrounded by barbed wire. There was a gate, and above the gate, in wrought iron, were the words: Arbeit Macht Frei—Work Makes Free.”

The mystified brothers took a few steps toward the barbed wire fence, then turned around. What they saw is still burned in Margol’s memory.

“A few of the box cars were open,” he recalls. “And we could see bodies. We couldn’t count all the bodies. Some of them were stacked like cordwood. Others were all tangled up in each other. I’ll never forget—one man’s leg was just hanging there, over the side of a boxcar.

“The gate under the sign was wide open. So we figured, ‘Let’s go inside.’

“We walked in there together. The whole place seemed empty. Silent. It looked like some kind of movie set. We saw two men, squatting, leaning against what looked like a barracks. They seemed a little emaciated. They didn’t look up at us, and we didn’t disturb them.

“We wandered around a bit, and then we saw the ovens. And we realized where that smell was coming from.

“The convoy was just about to leave when we got back. We’d been gone barely 45 minutes.

“Along the road we read the name of the town we were near: Dachau.”

Margol is Jewish. He’d heard the Nazis were persecuting Jews. But he had no idea that he’d just visited one of Germany’s most notorious concentration camps, where nearly a half-million people are estimated to have been murdered.

Had the twins looked in the barracks, they would have found thousands of prisoners, most too weak to move.

Later that afternoon, Dachau’s commandant surrendered to Allied troops.

A few months after the German surrender, Margol—temporarily separated from his brother—was stationed in a German resort village. The Allies had placed many former Jewish concentration camp victims in the town’s luxurious hotels.

“One day my roommate and I were walking down the street, and I saw some of the survivors walking towards us,” he says. “As we walked away from them, my roommate said, ‘Well, I guess Hitler didn’t get 'em all.’ ”

“I looked at him, and I said, ‘Apparently you didn’t know I’m Jewish. You offended me!”

Several days of chilly relations resulted between the two, but Margol’s roommate finally explained himself.

He said that "he’d been born and raised on a farm in Nebraska,” says Margol. “Occasionally his father would hitch up the wagon, and they would go to a clothing store owned by a Jewish family. Every time on the way back to the farm his father would tell him, ‘These Jews make a lot of money off the poor farmers, and their life is so easy. It just isn’t fair.’”

Margol sits in silence, watching the trees sway in the park beyond his patio doors, remembering the words of a fellow American that were more than faint echoes of the slander that helped spark the very regime he fought so hard to vanquish. He sighs, and decides to look on the bright side.

“That was the only time I experienced an anti-Semitism moment the three years I was in the Army.”

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This article has been updated to reflect the following: The liberation of Dachau occurred on April 29, 1945, not April 16.