Diana Nyad often tells the story of meeting a Holocaust survivor who, beginning when she was three years old, underwent horrific sexual abuse at the Dachau concentration camp. Nyad fabricated the whole thing.
Nandor Glid’s International Monument at Dachau. Photo: Wolfgang Manousek. License: CC BY 2.0.
“[S]he was made…into the SS officer’s little concubine. For the next two-and-a-half years…she, every day, had oral sex, anal sex, intercourse, you name it, with these grown men. She was three!”
—Diana Nyad, Big Questions podcast, 21 Aug 2018
(story begins at 20:03)
The following paragraph summarizes Nyad’s story. It includes details common to most or all of the six versions I’m familiar with:
At dinner after one of her talks, Nyad meets an elderly woman (never named) who is originally from Krakow, Poland. Nyad identifies the woman as a survivor because she has numbers tattooed on her arm. The woman tells Nyad her story: When she was three years old, the Gestapo came to her home in Krakow, killed her father, and forced her, her mother, and her six-year-old sister onto a train to Dachau, Germany. At Dachau, they were separated. The mother and sister went to the right, the three-year-old went to the left and never saw her family again. The Nazis then sent the three-year-old girl to serve as a sex slave to the camp’s SS officers. When the war ended, a French family adopted the little girl. She went on to live a life seemingly unaffected by her trauma.
(This table provides links to all six versions.)
I asked Dr. Sybille Steinbacher about Nyad’s tale. Dr. Steinbacher directs Frankfurt’s Fritz Bauer Institute and holds its Chair for Research on the History and Impact of the Holocaust. She kindly forwarded my question to Dr. Barbara Distel, who directed Dachau’s memorial site from 1975 until she retired in 2008. With Dr. Distel’s permission, here are the pertinent parts of her response (lightly edited for readability):
- Dachau was a concentration camp for men only. There were never families or mothers with children. Jewish families in Poland were sent to Ghettos and from there to the death camps, or directly to the death camps in Poland, never to Germany. The description [Nyad gives] refers to Auschwitz. The way she tells it is completely fictional. [my emphasis]
- There were no three-year-old children in Dachau. [Unlike] Buchenwald concentration camp, there were no children’s barracks in Dachau. I have never heard of sexual abuse of children in Dachau concentration camp.
(Complete email exchange here.)
Nyad cobbles together her Holocaust tale from familiar details that few would think to dispute. Here are three of those elements and how they expose Nyad’s story as fraudulent:
- The tattoo
Nyad always identifies the woman as a survivor by the tattoo she ostensibly received at Dachau—or, in one version, at Treblinka. But the Nazis only tattooed people at Auschwitz. See Tattoos and Numbers… at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
- The survivor’s gender
The Nazis imprisoned many women and children, but none at Dachau until the end of the war. Nyad, however, says this woman arrived at Dachau when she was three and remained there until it was liberated 2½
- The train from Krakow to Dachau
In two versions, Nyad says the survivor went from Krakow to Dachau around the time the Nazis liquidated the Krakow ghetto. For geographic reasons that the map below makes evident, when the Nazis emptied the ghetto, they sent people to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Plaskow, not Dachau. See Dr. Distel’s message and the Krakow (Cracow) entry at the USHMM.
Extermination and concentration camps near Krakow and in or near Germany. When the Nazis liquidated the Krakow ghetto, they wouldn’t have sent people to Dachau because Auschwitz-Birkenau and Plaskow were much closer. Adapted from the map “Main Nazi Camps and Killing Sites” at “Facing History and Ourselves.”
In another version of Nyad’s story, she sends the family over 300 miles in the opposite direction (Germany to Treblinka, Poland). But most deportees to Treblinka arrived from surrounding areas. See this map on the USHMM’s “Deportations” page.
Nyad, Nabokov, and the “Little Concubine”
Many parts of Nyad’s story change from telling to telling, but certain elements remain constant. The little girl is always three. She always has a mother, a father, and a six-year-old sister. The Nazis always murder the parents and the sibling while forcing the three-year-old into sexual slavery. And Nyad always refers to the girl as the SS officers’ “little concubine.”
Nyad wasn’t the first to use that term. Vladimir Nabokov beat her to it in his 1955 classic, Lolita. The story’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, kidnaps Dolores Haze, a.k.a. Lolita, and rapes her every day for two years. As the novel proceeds, Humbert calls her “a tiny concubine,” “my pubescent concubine,” and, finally, “my little concubine” (The Annotated Lolita, pp. 84, 148, 208).
Nyad studied literature during her one year of graduate school. Whether she read Lolita then or at some other time, Nabokov’s literary masterpiece may have inspired Nyad’s Holocaust tale. If so, it’s fitting that a monumental work of fiction provides the foundation for Nyad’s monumentally horrific fabrication.
Excerpt from the Everyman’s Library edition of Nabokov’s Lolita, p. 220.
For more on sexual abuse during the Holocaust and on Nyad’s delusion that a brief pep talk could negate the effects of two-and-a-half years of constant sexual abuse: