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Philip Drell and Winnie Drell oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (13 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (8 p.)
Concentration camp liberators oral history project
This interview was conducted as research for The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust / Michael Hirsch (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).
Interview conducted June 18, 2008.
The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust (New York: Bantam Books, 2010) and Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project, University of South Florida Libraries, 2010 Michael Hirsh.
Transcripts, excerpts, or any component of this interview may be used without the author's express written permission only for educational or research purposes. No portion of the interview audio or text may be broadcast, cablecast, webcast, or distributed without the author's express written permission.
This is an oral history interview with Philip Drell, a photographer with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. Drell was part of a unit with film director George Stevens, the Special Motion Pictures Coverage Unit (SPECOU). This unit documented D-Day and other events from the war, including the Dachau concentration camp. Drell, who joined the group after D-Day, took photographs at Dachau and at another camp, Thekla. He describes the group, his reactions to the camps, and some of his photographs. Also present is his wife, Winifred Drell, who provides additional information.
v Personal narratives.
Dachau (Concentration camp)
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
Personal narratives, American.
World War, 1939-1945
Crimes against humanity.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center.
University of South Florida.
Special & Digital Collections.
Oral History Program.
Holocaust & genocide studies oral history projects.
Concentration camp liberators oral history project.
y USF ONLINE ACCESS
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Michael Hirsh: Can you give me his name and spell it?
Winnie Drell: Its Philip with one L.
WD: And the last name is D-r-e-l-l.
MH: And the address?
MH: And the phone number is.
MH: And his date of birth is?
WD: March 19, 1919.
MH: Okay, all right.
WD: Okay, hold on a minute.
MH: Thank you.
WD: Okay, do you want to pick up the other phone in there?
Philip Drell: Whats going on?
WD: He wants to talk to you. Do you want me to listen?
WD: Okay, hes going to pick up another phone and Im going to listen.
WD: His hearing is very bad, so if you could talk loud?
WD: That would be better.
MH: I can do that.
MH: Hi, how are you?
PD: Good, whats going on?
MH: Uh, Im writing a book about the liberators of the concentration camps.
MH: And I understand you were at Dachau?
PD: Youre right.
MH: And Id just like to talk with you about your experience there.
PD: You know what, that was about six or sevenIm tryin to remember. Quite a long time ago.
MH: Its sixty-three years.
PD: Oh, thats good enough. (both laugh)
MH: April 29, 1945.
PD: Okay. So, what am I supposed to tell you?
MH: First of all, tell me what were you doing in the army? What was your job?
PD: What diddo what?
MH: What was your job in the army?
PD: Well, anything I wanted to do. I sort of had a (inaudible) thing to do and I did it. I, um, I dont know; for some reason or the other they let me do whatever I wanted.
WD: Phil, go back to who did youwho you were with, kind of an outfit were you in. I think thats what he wants to know.
MH: (murmurs in agreement)
PD: Well, I wasshes a little off on that. I was at aI was with General [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, and I practiced anything I wanted.
MH: Okay, so did you see camps besides Dachau?
PD: Did I what?
MH: Did you see concentration camps besides Dachau?
PD: Well, I saw concentration camps.
WD: He was at a slave labor camp that the Nazis burnt to the ground with all of the
MH: The people inside?
WD: The prisoners inside.
MH: Do you remember the name of that camp?
PD: Oh, God, there was so many I couldnt tell you which one is which.
WD: You know what, I could look it up. I just dontit started with a T.
WD: Thekla. Yes.
WD: Yes, thats what it was.
MH: And do you remember anything about that occasion?
PD: One was like the other.
WD: He has pictures of it, Michael.
PD: Wait a minute, whatIm not sure what I got.
WD: Yes, youve got picture of the prisoners who got out of the burning building and ran to the electrified wire and were killed.
PD: That was not it.
WD: That was Thekla.
PD: That was the, uh, that was thethat was with the people they had. Im thein the variouswhen the (inaudible) they were doing things. Then they were slaves, as a matter of fact.
WD: Yeah, he has pictures of that.
PD: Well, not really. When I got there, they were all burnt to death. Ive got corpses and things of that nature.
MH: How long after the American troops got there did you get there? Was it immediately, or was it a day later or several days later?
PD: Oh, I have no way of knowing. We got there pretty early, Im sure; you could still smell the smoke and everything.
MH: Do you remember being at Dachau?
PD: Do I remember being at Dachau?
PD: You know, one concentration camp was like any other concentration camp. When you went through a dozen of them and all that, you didnt know if youre coming or going.
MH: Right. What memories do you have of these places?
PD: Well, they werent exactly (inaudible) parties. They were killers.
WD: He has pictures of feeding the prisoners; he has pictures of a religious ceremony. Do you remember that, Phil?
PD: Winnie, youre going to have to help find all of these, if we ever do find them.
WD: You will find them. You have them.
MH: The religious ceremony was at Dachau a couple of days after liberation, I think.
WD: Correct. He has some pictures of the prisonersformer prisonersand the flags that they were flying. So, he has a lot of stuff. I told you yesterday he has pictures of the guard lineup. And he has quite a few pictures.
MH: Do you
WD: I think if he was looking at the pictures, he might remember more.
PD: Winnie, then you have to find them.
WD: Yes, I could find them.
MH: Do you remember how you felt seeing those places?
PD: How I started what?
MH: How did you feel when you saw the first of those camps?
PD: Well, I wasnt happy about it. But in one campthe first camp I saw was pretty angry, and I wanted to shoot the camps, but if I did, I wouldnt have any film to turn over to the guys I was working for. So, I didnt get a chance. Everybody else shot them.
MH: Shot the guards, you mean?
PD: The GIs who were coming in had a
PD: At a pretty quick pace. Its a terrible thing there. Its all coming and going and all that sort of thing.
MH: Right. Did these memories come back to you later in life?
PD: It didnt go away.
MH: It didnt go away. Were you able to talk about them with your wife or your family?
PD: Did I talk about it, Win?
WD: Uh, yes, he did. I told you he made a slideshow withhad, which was about his experiences before he got to Dachau, when they first went into Germany. So, he has a slideshow that has, what, about 280 pictures he took. Which he showed to schools and had exhibitions and so forth.
Some of Mr. Drells photos can be seen at http://www.holocaustchronicle.org/DrellShow/DrellIntro.html
PD: Yeah, but I havent been to that for a long time.
WD: I know; it is a while. Youve done it, but you did have one at thehe had one exhibition at Roosevelt College in Chicago, both at the main campus and the other campus. He hadwe have a community college. He had pictures on both of their campuses. So, he did a lot.
MH: How did you happen to become a photographer in the Army?
PD: I was a photographer in life, before the Army.
MH: So, actually you were one of the lucky ones, then, who got to do what they did instead of being handed a rifle.
PD: Well, you could say I was one of the unlucky that did it. (laughs)
WD: I can tell you that story, too.
WD: He was in Sacramento, California and he had been a counselor at a boys camp in Chicago for quite a few years before the war. And he had some of his favorite pictures with him. They put out a call for photographers, and I told you yesterday he had all these Hollywood people that he worked with, and he went in and he showed the officers his portraits of the camp and (inaudible) and pictures. And they picked him and sent him to the Signal Corps Photo School in Long Island [New York], and then he was trained toeventually he went up (inaudible) until he was trained to be a motion picture photographer.
PD: Youre pretty good, Winifred.
WD: I remember everything, Phil.
PD: Yeah, well
WD: You better be careful.
MH: (laughs) Ill stay out of that.
WD: I think youre wise. But thats how he got into that group, which was Colonel [George] Stevens group.
MH: Right. When did you land in Europe?
PD: Oh, boy. All right, Win, when did I land in Europe?
WD: He was in England before D-Day.
MH: Okay, so it was in 1944 sometime?
MH: Okay, were you in the D-Day invasion?
WD: Well, he went over a couple of days later.
PD: They wouldnt let me go.
MH: Okay, and were you part of any infantry division or armored division?
PD: Not that I know of.
WD: No. No, he had this little group of four people. I told you yesterday. Two photographersIrwin Shaw was the writer and the driver, and they had a jeep and they would meet up with the larger group at times, but otherwise they were on their own. And they found stories.
PD: You left Pinky out.
WD: I said he was a photographer.
MH: Okay, um
WD: So, it was not like any other group that Ive ever heard about in the Army, because they just had a lot of autonomy.
PD: Look, Im reallywhen the war ended, I forgot practically everything. Now, what was that thing called, Win?
WD: Your group?
PD: My groupmy relationship?
WD: You know what, Ive been trying to think of it, and I dont really remember. If I saw some of the pictures then I would know, cause you have everything well documented, but thatI couldnt remember the name of your group.
Mr. Drells unit was the SPECOU group (Special Motion Picture Coverage Unit--Allied Expeditionary Force). Other members included Colonel George Stevens, Irwin Shaw, William Saroyan, and Lester Hemingway. His particular group consisted of himself, Angie, the driver, Irwin Shaw, the writer, and Pinky, another motion picture photographer.
MH: Okay. Do you remember if Thekla was one of the earliest camps you went to?
WD: That was just before Dachau was.
MH: Just before Dachau, okay. Okay, all right. I guess what Id like to be able to do is look at the photos. Im going to have to figure out when Im coming to Chicago next.
WD: Were around, so just give us a heads up and wed be happy to have you come over.
MH: Id like that. Do you haveare you able to put your hands on the Thekla photos?
WD: You know, I have a lot of things in my computer, because Ive been trying to make copies of it, so we have it. Im sure I have some of them. You want to hold on? Ill go look and see what I have.
MH: Oh, I can do that. Sure. Or I can call you back. Okay.
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