“Unforgotten“ - A Memoir of Dachau by Franz Thaler


Probably the best first-person survivor accounts that I have ever read. Even more so than the seminal book by Frankl. Unforgotten charts Thaler’s incredible survival through the tail end of the WW2 and out the other side.

As an Italian, and growing up in the Tyrol, the part of the Alps which is all German speaking but passes right through into the north of Italy, Franz Thaler’s father voted for their family to remain Italian citizens and not to become members of Hitler's Reich. In June of 1939 Hitler and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy had begun the resettlement of the South Tyroleans, forcing them to either accept German citizenship and move to Germany, or remain Italian with little to no rights whatsoever.

By September 1943 and after the Italian capitulation, the German Army ends up occupying Italy, as well as the Tyrol. The 19 year old Franz refuses to serve in the German army and is forced to go on the run and ends up living higher up in the mountains sleeping rough for many months, surviving on plants, berries and the occasional hand-outs from friendly farmers and shepherds. After a law was passed by the Nazi’s to punish the families of deserters Franz is forced to give himself up, and subsequently ends up in the Dachau KZ.

After his first initial days in the Dachau Bunker he was eventually moved around several camps before being transferred back to Dachau where he was liberated on the 29th April 1945.

What makes this book so interesting is the narrative. The details in his stories are fascinating, from descriptions of his unbearable hunger, to describing the behaviour of the S.S.

"I noticed that the tips of some (of his) toes had turned black and blue, in other words were frostbitten. Many of us suffered from frostbite. And this was not surprising because we had to walk around the whole day in the snow, barefoot, in extremely poor shoes with holes in them at ten to fifteen degrees below zero… …If you were lucky and the shoes were a bit too big you could wrap a cloth rag or a piece of cement cloth around your feet. Toilet paper was greatly in demand for this purpose. It was also used mainly to bandage wounds. Each one of us received one metre of it a week. It was needed least of all for its real purpose."

One thing that is illustrated well (which can also be seen in Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl) is the elements of chance that greatly aided survival. Just by being in the right place at the time, or more so not being in the wrong place could substantially increase the odds of survival.

After his transfer back to Dachau for the final month of the war he was in the camp on the day of liberation. He, and a few other prisoners noticed the guards had already fled and he made his way to the gate of the Jourhaus and through into the S.S. training camp that bordered the concentration camp, and there Thaler was found by the American soldiers who treated him unbelievably not as a prisoner, but as a guard! He, and quite a few other prisoners were mistaken for members of the S.S. and eventually sent to a POW camp in France before finally being set free.

He finally makes it home, back to the South Tyrol at the end of August 1945. In other words his suffering, this time at the hands of the Americans meant his war and imprisonment didn't finish until many months after the war had ended in Europe.

Whilst in an American camp between Dachau and Munich , and after not being fed for 6 days he tells of his first food…

"When I opened the tins I heard and saw nothing around me any more. One tin contained green beans in oil, the other three biscuits, a small piece of chocolate and four sweets. Before I started eating I broke out in tears. I had not seen delicacies like this for a long time. After months of starvation and the last six days without food and without water, I began to eat. Tears kept on running down my face and I swallowed many a tear. According to a wise saying, you have to eat bread mixed with tears once in your life in order to be able to appreciate its true value."

2011 by Kiener Press (originally published 1988)