Nikolai Choprenko’s first trip to the Dachau concentration camp was in February 1943, though to his captors he was just prisoner No. 44249 “R.” The “R” was for “Russian,” as Choprenko was from the small village of Petrovka in the Ukraine. He was 17 years old.
Fast forward 70 years, and a couple of weeks ago Choprenko returned to Dachau with his son George. Only, now he is not known by his prison number, nor by his Ukrainian birth name. Instead, the Calistogan is known as Nick Hope. And though he is 90 years old, his memories of that first journey to Dachau are as sharp today as they were more than 70 years ago.
“The car that I was in headed towards Dachau. The weather was beautiful and we could feel it while driving in the open car,” Hope recalled in his memoir titled “My Experience – Forgiven.”
“There were eight of us including a gypsy boy of 12 or 13. He was singing and the words of his song just burnt our hearts. He stressed the line ‘But it is not for me,’ meaning that nature was beautiful with birds singing and bees buzzing around, the earth was smiling at the sun, but we were hidden from happiness. After every new verse he repeated ‘not for me’ and he ended ‘it is the chimney that is waiting for me.’”
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., at least 28,000 prisoners died in Dachau and its sub-camps between January 1940 and May 1945, and their bodies were cremated in Dachau’s infamous crematorium. Some, according to Hope, were not dead when their bodies were burned, and he told a harrowing story of seeing a prisoner who was begging for help beneath a pile of corpses on a wagon headed toward the crematorium. “He was calling for us to help him,” Hope said. “But there was nothing we could do.”
Hope was certain that the man was burned alive. According to the Holocaust Museum, it’s unlikely that the total number of victims who died at Dachau will ever be known.
Hope’s return to Dachau last month was part of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of liberation of the camp. This visit was entirely different from that first visit in 1943.
“They treated us like royalty,” his son George said. All of their expenses were fully paid by Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. A large number of survivors and former liberators from the United States came to the commemoration, according to the younger Hope. Also in attendance were the Minister-President of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. According to the Memorial Site, Merkel was the first chancellor to give a speech at a commemoration while in office.
Hope remained a prisoner, working as slave labor in the local BMW factory, until April 1945 when Hitler ordered that all working prisoners be moved to the V-2 rocket construction sites in the Alps.
“They began to take X-rays of everybody,” Hope recalled. “To see who was still healthy and able to work. People were divided into two groups, those being in fair condition to go to the Alps while the diseased ones were to stay in the camp. I was in the group selected to go to the Alps.”
Hope and 7,000 other prisoners were marched out of Dachau. It was, according to Hope, a death march when prisoners who were too weak to continue were shot along the way. Near Auchkirche and Woltefratshausen they came to a large quarry in the middle of a forest, and Hope became convinced they would all be killed.
But luck was with him. The forced march had stumbled across the forward movement of American troops, and the guards panicked and deserted the prisoners. Hope and some of his compatriots took advantage of the chaos and escaped.
“We climbed another hill, and when we found ourselves at the top, we saw American tanks moving along the high road. Upon seeing them, we started to dance for joy. We were free at last.”
When he was liberated, he said that he was very ill. “I was only 80 pounds,” he said. “I was eventually taken to the Gauting Sanatorium, where I stayed for three years before I fully recovered.”
After his recovery he met his future wife, Nadya, and they were married Nov. 9, 1950, in Munich. Eventually, through a series of fortuitous connections, they immigrated to the United States in 1961 and settled in Calistoga where Hope worked in construction.
On May 13, 1974, he and his family became U.S. citizens, and at the same time he changed his last name from Choprenko to Hope.
“Since the name in the Russian language sounded like ‘Hoprenko,’ I took the Ukrainian part, ‘renko,’ and sent it back to the Ukraine while keeping ‘Hope’ here in America.”
Today, Nick Hope lives with his wife, Nadya, on Myrtle Street in Calistoga. Thinking back to those dark years, Hope said, “It was a terrible time. But this time when we were there, many of us spoke of our experiences to the children at the museum. There were many of us who were asked many questions. They wanted to know what happened.”