The first time Joshua Kaufman met Daniel Gillespie was April 29, 1945, when American liberators marched into the notorious Dachau concentration camp 12 miles outside Munich, Germany and smashed in the prison doors.
Gillespie, a gunner with the 42nd Rainbow Division, was deeply shocked—and emotionally devastated—by what he saw there. Just outside the camp, the Americans found several dozen railroad cars packed with rotting bodies. Inside, they found more bodies and some 30,000 survivors, most emaciated to the point of being skeletal. Many had been transferred to Dachau from other camps as Germans realized that Allied forces were advancing.
When Gillespie and his fellow G.I.s arrived, Joshua Kaufman was cooped in a cattle wagon outside the camp, not knowing if he was going to be killed at any minute.
“Through a little hole in the wall I saw American soldiers coming with their tanks and I saw the German running away. To me the American soldiers were a proof that God exists and they were sent down from the sky.”
Seven decades later, a German documentary film crew arranged a poignant reunion between Kaufman and Gillespie for the HISTORY documentary The Liberators: Why They Fought, written and directed by Emanuel Rotstein. “I don't forget the day when you opened the cattle wagon and you freed me,” Kaufman told Gillespie as he got on the ground to kiss the latter’s feet in gratitude. “I have wanted to do this for 70 years. I love you, I love you so much.”
Kaufman, who had lost his mother and siblings in the Auschwitz concentration camp, had been transported to Dachau, where he toiled as a slave laborer, forced to work at a nearby ammunition plant. He was one of the more than 200,000 prisoners brought to the camp over the course of the war. Tens of thousands of inmates perished at Dachau, victims of gassing, starvation, beatings and cruel medical experiments.
Gillespie called what he saw in Dachau “the most profound shock of my life,” and his participation in its liberation changed his life forever. "When I first saw those people and how they were treated is the first time I thought being a soldier is a definite something that is good."
After the war, Kaufman became a soldier in Israel, then later emigrated to America where he married, raised three daughters and worked as a self-employed plumber. Gillespie also married, fathered eight children and worked as a salesman. Neither knew that they lived within an hour's drive of the other until their moving reunion on the shore at Huntington Beach, California.
In the film, they are among seven survivors and liberators seen returning to Dachau to commemorate the anniversary of liberation. The film shows how such a potentially painful journey became something cathartic and healing for all involved.
“I came out of hell into the light,” said Kaufman. “For that, and to [Gillespie], I am eternally grateful.”