Students at Wayland High School outside of Boston have been poring over documents detailing the experience of the commanding officer of the Dachau Concentration Camp during World War II.

The students are donating their archive to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

It all started two years ago, when teachers at Wayland High were clearing out their old offices as they prepared to move to a new campus.  

That’s when history teacher Kevin Delaney stumbled across something so unexpected it would turn the place upside down

Inside a gray, dusty suitcase were remarkable papers detailing the war experience of World War II Army lieutenant Martin W. Joyce.

Some 270 documents and chilling photographs, including a scrapbook wrapped in gray and blue prisoners’ clothing that survivors of the death camp gave Joyce as a thank you gift. In a series of letters, the survivors credit Joyce and the Americans with saving the lives of some 32,000 prisoners. 

It all provides a glimpse into Joyce’s three months spent as the lieutenant in charge at the Nazi concentration camp in the days following its liberation.

“This just fell in our lap. It really was a buried treasure,” Delaney said.

Since then, Delaney’s 11th grade students have been putting together the pieces of Martin Joyce’s life.

Over the past two years, students have digitized the documents, posted them online and turned them into a narrative.

Here’s what their research has turned up:

Born in 1898, Joyce went to Boston Public Schools. He enrolled at Northeastern University before dropping out to serve as a doughboy. He was in the 101st Field Artillery in World War I- the famous Yankee Division. Then, he was in the reserves during the 1920s and 30s. And, about six months before Pearl Harbor he was sent to Hawaii, where he was the signal officer on December 7, 1941.

During World War II, more than 10 percent of American citizens would serve in the military. That kind of service has largely vanished from civilian life today.

For Wayland High students like Matt Broomer, learning about Joyce’s experience during World Wars I and II has helped him understand the need to give something back to your country.

“He did so much. And he was in charge of Dachau at such an important time,” Broomer said “He had so many experiences over so much time and so much distance. This guy, who probably had a childhood a lot like ours growing up in the same place was then off in other countries.”

Broomer and other students found that Joyce came back from the war and retired as a state cop. He was married but he and his wife died without any children.

How did his records get to Wayland High? One theory is that they belonged to a former Wayland teacher and World War II veteran named Robert Scotland

“He was in the medical corps and eventually in the 7th army and he used to apparently tell stories about going into one of the camps at the tail end of the war, helping the folks who were surviving to regain their health,” Delaney said.

That’s as close as Delaney’s students were able to guess as to how the suitcase ended up in the old book room at Wayland High.

This spring, with the Joyce project nearly complete, Delaney called the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

Judith Cohen, the director of the photo archive at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, was impressed with the amount of work the students took on.

“You can’t underestimate the huge amount of work these students did,” Cohen said. “We have other large collections, but the idea that there were all these documents - and not only any documents but of such value that have been sitting in a high school, unknown for so many decades - was unbelievable.”

The scrapbook and letters could help historians research medical experiments conducted at the camp. Cohen says the museum will use any new material to update existing exhibits.

“When I’m going through the documents, I see primary source material that we didn’t know about when we were putting on the exhibition about the medical experiments in Dachau,” Cohen said. “Those have been well-documented, but here’s new evidence about these experiments from the perspective of the survivors.”

Cohen said the narrative of Joyce’s service also helps to complete the record of what Americans were doing in Dachau when the camp was discovered in the spring of 1945.

The museum will now preserve the archive to make sure the documents don’t deteriorate through age.

See the images and documents the students uncovered here