Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dad in Germany

Friday, 15-Jun-1945
10:30 pm

Dear Emily, Ed, and Darling Carol:

I hope you don’t feel that the multiple greeting (with preferential adjective in the case of my one and only) makes this letter to any of you the less exclusive – because you’d be wrong. This letter’s going to cover a subject I’d like to tell each of you about and the government won’t give me the time, nor do I have the patience, to cover it separately for each of you.

However, lest it seem too much like a theme and not a bit like a letter, let me proceed to forget that it has a “subject”- and merely ask you if you’d like to go with me on a recon trip up forward. We might see a thing or two of interest. A bit of background information, before I outline our mission, so that you’ll understand our position.

Up to yesterday, we thought our part in the “drive through Germany” was over. We had crossed the Rhine, achieved perhaps the cheapest crossing of the bunch (the seventh’s, perhaps, excepted) swept on through Frankfurt, and, in a burst of speed that even exceeded last summer’s dash across France (because this time we didn’t have to stop until we wanted to) we had roared up the Super Highway to a point past Kassel, relinquished that area to the 1st, came back a ways and headed east, rolling on with no serious, unplanned interruptions until we reached the “line” which had apparently been agreed upon as the meeting place with the Russians.

The whole drive had been hectic, involving long, long hours of work, some danger (more than we Chair-borne Commandos of the rear echelon like) and supply problems, the like of which we hadn’t seen in many long months. But, before we could even get set to enjoy our respite word came that we were again to relinquish our territory to the 1st and make the long jump south into the national Redoubt to discourage any attempts to hole up.

Well, that meant more supply and transportation headaches. In an all-night turmoil of dispatching, diverting, loading, shifting this here and that there, order messages – special messengers – incoming convoys, twice-diverted convoys, (hmm – I make it sound like we were busy, don’t I? – well we were!) – We had finally succeeded in getting the bulk of our supplies and our supply units on their way. There remained only a few isolated groups of both supplies and units – that had not yet been reached. Contacting them meant a long circle trip forward, down then up and then back over a more northern route. Relieved from the bulk of the office work (because further supplies would be moved directly to our new headquarters to the south, where our advance party was already set up, and because we’d done a pretty fair job of getting things completely cleaned up) I got the unexpected chance to make this jaunt – and though needing sleep badly, jumped at it, because it meant seeing a lot of Germany that I wanted to see – and anyway, I sleep very well in a bouncing vehicle – I learned to do that back during the Bulge.

Well, it’s taken me three long paragraphs to get us started on this trip, but anyway, you now have the background of what was to prove to be one of the weirdest, most interesting, yet most horrible days I’ve ever spent. Because, after a long day of rapid traveling – stopping at half-dozen places, talking to plenty of guys who’d been through some rough spots, meeting some “liberated” American and “Tommy” prisoners, hearing and seeing plenty of things to make one think – we wound up our day’s excursion with a somewhat hurried but quite thorough trip through BUCHENWALD, the notorious Nazi concentration camp, near Weimar.

I know you’ve read plenty about Buchenwald, seen plenty of pictures, too – but I’d read, heard and seen pictures of that sort of thing, too – even had heard lots of eyewitness stories about that place – and still I was not prepared for the impact of actually being there – of mingling with thousands of the inmates, talking with a score of them – in an infinitesimal way experiencing what they’d been through. There are two things that can’t be portrayed by pictures – or word descriptions of Buchenwald; they are the stench – and I mean that literally – of the place and the dark, clammy, heavy sickening sense of shame that comes over you as you actually see, hear and feel what Buchenwald was.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. We reach Buchenwald after a 15-minute drive from Weimar. The road is excellent and the forest the camp is located in is quite lovely. Today is Sunday and has been visitors day; there are still thousands of people there, although it is late afternoon. Most are Americans, although there are plenty of British and quite a number of German civilians, with horrified, unbelieving and some very frightened expressions on their faces. But we do not notice them very long for here are thousands of inmates of Buchenwald, waiting impatiently for us, each in his pin-striped prison garb, some with warmer jackets or coats which have been given them since their liberation, but all bearing, besides the prison costume the unforgettable stamp of undernourishment and persecution.

Each has, either in insignia or in letters, the mark of his nationality on his clothing. They are diverted, principally among the Poles, Russians, Czechs, Belgians, French, and German (political prisoners), although there are also Danes, Dutch, Luxembourgish, Italians, and Spanish – some Jugoslavians (sic) and some others we do not notice. I don’t’ know what makes you so uneasy, when you look at them. Perhaps it’s the yellow, sickly color of their skin, drawn tight over their bony frames. Maybe it’s their eyes that seem to stick out of their emaciated faces. It could be their shrunken bodies – for although some of them are tall, none of them are big; only a few look like they have any muscles attached to their bones at all. At any rate, even though we know we have to contact them to be shown around the place, we hesitate to come near them.

Luckily, they are not so reluctant. In fact, they are most eager to act as guides; undoubtedly more for the cigarettes or bits of food they know we’ll give them than for any other reason – although many do seem to revel in their being the principle characters in this macabre drama. The first to approach us is a German, and since I speak German, we quickly ascertain that he is from Munich, has been here seven years (it doesn’t seem possible that anyone could stand it that long) and was placed here because of Communistic leanings. A few more questions reveal that he hasn’t stood it too well; his conversation indicates that he is what we in America would call “stir-crazy”. But since we don’t want to be rude, we go along with him for a ways – and he babbles explanations, repeating himself incessantly.

“Look, come here this way. Here is way to the crematorium. Here they brought the ones they wanted to get rid of. Here they were brought. I came once, but they couldn’t make me go unconscious, so I got away alive. They were disappointed, I can tell you. Here they stood against the posts, with their hands tied around the posts behind them. For hours we stood here. If you slumped, they struck you. You were supposed to stand upright! Here, like this, they stood. Sometimes they stood you on a step, then kicked the step away and you hung by your arms in back of you. That was bad. They didn’t do that to me. But I saw some who went unconscious because of that. Then they would let them down on the ground and throw water on them. They threw water on them. Then, as soon as they came to, they tied them up again. I saw them tie them up again. The screaming was bad. I couldn’t stand that as well as I could stand pain. Some would scream and sob and that pleased the SS men. They would joke with those that cried. They made great fun of them. Then they would treat them worse. One man kicked a boy who had fallen right in the mouth and broke his jaw. His teeth came out and a lot of blood, too. They stood him up again, though. For hours he stood there and every time he fell they would bring him to, and stand him up again. He bled bad. He took a long time to die.”

Well, that’s just a fragment of his conversation. He talked without pause, repeating himself far more than I have indicated, and since I translated for the rest, it made it a little difficult. But we stayed with the old boy through the crematorium. Now there is a place! It was the most horrible of all to many of the visitors, but I didn’t feel that way. Oh it was bad, but definitely, especially when you think of the fact that in many cases, (and this was verified by those who worked there) they were not particular whether the victims were entirely dead when they pushed them into the ovens. If they were broken up so badly that death was inevitable, they went to the ovens to speed things up. But first there was the downstairs room where the bodies were hung up to be stripped of anything of value. Gold teeth were knocked out; all usable clothing was removed. Any victims unlucky enough to have tattooing on their skins were relieved of that section of the skin. (It seems the wife of the commandant had the curious hobby of making decorative articles out of human skin that had been tattooed. She loved fancy designs. It’s true! I saw some of the things she made … bookends, lampshades, etc.)

If any of the bodies came to life while they hung there, there was a huge wooden club with a large knob on the end of it hanging handy, quite a skull-basher. But why? Well, as I got it, when they reached this room, they could no longer fiddle fuddle around. From here on out, it was strictly on a mass-production basis. The volume of business was such that no further delay could be tolerated. Strip them, load them onto the “dumb-waiter” arrangement, and get them upstairs to the furnace room. There are eight furnaces, if I remember correctly, and each one holds three bodies at a time. Not that the furnaces are large – in fact I believe there would be barely room for me in one of them. But these bodies are different. They don’t take up much space. Three go in quite readily. Then it takes over an hour to completely consume the bodies, so you see we can only dispose of about 575 bodies in a 24-hour day – and our mortality rate is greater than that. No, it’s not a nice place, but I still think it’s a better way to dispose of bodies than is that pit across the way, outside, where bodies were thrown by the hundreds, with some quicklime thrown over them and left to rot away. This way, all that is left are some charred skulls and a few of the thicker bones. “Yes, there are still some there; see here in this oven – they did not completely burn!”

Now, out this door into the delivery yard. Great heavens, what is that? It isn’t – yes it is a wagon full of human bodies, stacked up like cord wood. But I thought this place had been liberated several days ago. Oh, I see! There were over 50,000 inmates here and thousands have been starved for so long that they are still dying at the rate of 400 to 500 a day, in spite of all that our medical officers can do. Many cannot assimilate food, but must be fed intravenously. And still they die. These were found dead this morning. It is impossible to count them, but a conservative estimate would be about 250 bodies. And more will die before nightfall.

We’ve all seen the pictures of these “stacks of bodies,” so I won’t try to further describe it. I don’t know what thoughts others had as they gazed upon them, but some of these thoughts ran through my mind; “I must make myself realize that these were human beings. Their heads seemed so small and their bodies are so unlifelike that it’s hard to think of them as persons – such as you and I. Can it be possible that the skeleton of a body, there, was a man who had a happy childhood? A person who, perhaps, loved music – perhaps even sang? Oh, I’m ashamed to stand here in front of their sightless eyes, so fat and well-fed. Gosh, the amount of food I have eaten, that I did not need, would probably have kept five, maybe even ten of them alive. One bowl of soup a day they received. And one slice of bread. I wonder if they ever thought about us out there, eating all we wanted to – even eating things just for the pleasure of tasting them. I wonder how old most of them were. How many had been married. How many families living somewhere now, waiting for them, praying that they will come back to them. How many, I wonder, had known love? It seems peculiar that ordinary human beings could take away all the privileges and rights from other human beings – just because they could not agree about government, politics, or religions. It is fantastic that human beings could treat each other so. Oh, God, I’m ashamed of belonging to the same race! I’m ashamed for having been so complacently indifferent to the fact that this sort of thing existed in our world. What possible excuse than the ordinary Germans have for permitting things like this? What excuse can any of us have?”

In the middle of the stack of bodies is one who seems like a giant beside the others. His long blond hair streams downward from his sagging head in contrast to the close-cropped heads all around him. Questioning reveals that he is an SS man, who committed suicide this morning. It's funny. He must have beaten himself to death with a club, judging from those bruises on his body. (Later we found that almost every day, one of the SS men who had formerly been guards there, was found to have “committed suicide”.)

Our trip through Buchenwald took only two hours – and already I’ve taken two hours to write this, and we’ve only progressed about one-tenth of the way through. Obviously, if I continue to be so wordy, it’ll take about 50 to 60 pages to tell you everything. So we’ll just sketch in a few of the highlights.

Most revolting – and really horrible – to me, was the wooden barracks that served as a temporary camp for newly-arrived inmates. Here, in a wooden building big enough to house perhaps 50 persons, 5,000 were jammed in. Sleeping accommodations were bunks – triple-deckers, which were nothing more than wooden shelves made out of ordinary one-inch lumber. The bunks were about six to eight feet wide, slightly less than six feet long – although they were continuous like shelves. The only thing like a partition was the upright posts supporting the bunks above. In this space, twelve persons slept, or tried to. No one was permitted outside of the building and it served as latrine, washroom, living room and dining room as well as bedroom. The odor there (long days since it had been fully inhabited) was such a hideously horrible stench, that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget it.

Of greater interest, and perhaps even more revolting, if you stop to reflect upon it (it is not recommended, unless you particularly like the feeling of revulsion) was the “medical clinic,” called by the inmates “the guinea-pig hutch.” Signs on the building warn that it is strictly forbidden to enter. Many inmates, however, who were so unfortunate as to contract a contagious disease or suffer from tuberculosis, cancer, or almost any known malady, found that it was very easy to gain admission. In fact, they were welcomed. At this building we finally succeeded in shaking our little “stir-crazy” German guide and pick up a Belgian Jew who speaks some English, good French and passable German. He had had the questionable privilege of having served in the medical clinic as “janitor” for a short period. If we can believe his version (and several of the others) of the purpose of this clinic, it was at no time intended as a place to check or cure illnesses, but only as a place of experimentation. He knew one man personally who was tubercular, who was put through a series of “dietary tests,” the last of which killed him. Another unfortunate, had broken a limb, which was not set or disinfected, but which was permitted to go unattended, became gangrenous, and was the cause of his death, while the scientific-minded doctors studied the timetable and acceleration of gangrene in an untreated wound. One whole ward was filled with new, healthy inmates, he stated, who were then infected by injections of germs, with what gain to medicine he did not know. He did know that none of them were known to have left the ward alive.

As we pass along the hallway of the clinic, we notice an inscription over the doorway, accredited to the Japanese, to the effect that the physician’s life does not belong to himself, but to humanity. But of course, we must remember that these creatures who were “concentrated” here are not to be classed as humans.

There in the hallway, too, is a large case containing jars full of preserved stomachs (ulcerated), intestines, livers, hearts, brains, etc. Very, very commendable, the excellent records these doctors kept of their cases.

One of the more interesting stories we are told by the inmates is the tale of how the “underground movement” within the camp overthrew the guards, locked them up and completely took over the camp after they heard the fighting going on outside the camp as the Americans arrived. Their underground movement was very proficient, considering the close surveillance they were under. They even had a few small (crystal sets) radios, by means of which they kept up with the war news. They were organized into geographical units within the camp and certain men, covering a definite beat, were the walking newspapers, disseminating the news from the outside and from the inside among the organizations’ members. When the Americans did break into the camp, it was handed over to them by the “resistance movement.” At that time, so goes their story, over 400 guards were locked up in one of the cell blocks. Many had escaped, among them the commandant (who, incidentally, was just recently captured along with his “leather-working” wife.) Of those who were caught, a few key members were given to the American authorities, but the others were held, remaining under the guard of the resistance group until such time as they Americans could take care of them. The Belgian, Dutch, and Czech guards told us, regretfully, that it didn’t look like the SS men wanted to stay around long enough to be turned over to the Americans. They were very persistent about “doing away with themselves.”

Incidentally, this building was off limits to visitors, but when we heard there were still some SS men in there, we pulled a little “inspection stunt” to gain admittance. I acted as official interpreter and told the guards the colonel had come to inspect the cell block. They were dubious but permitted us to enter. Then they opened the cell doors to five or six of the cells. I could write pages about this phase of our visit alone (guess I’d better not, though – because officially there were no SS prisoners left there then, I believe). We interrogated the trembling, frightened “Elite Guard” one by one, asking them what their work had been, how they had felt about it, why they had done it, what they now expected, etc. etc. The answers were the trite, stalk answers about “What could we small people do against the will of those in charge? We only did as we were commanded,” etc. Some crossed themselves up by giving contradictory answers – and in one case, the Belgian guard who accompanied us could stand the SS man’s lies no longer and burst out in a fury of accusations against him. In his outburst he revealed that the underground movement had kept a history, since its inception, of all the inmates killed by torture, starvation, etc. They had kept records (I don’t know how) of the guards who were willing and unwilling tormentors (it seemed that this particular guard had been quick and severe with punishment). The record, which had been kept for only a fraction of the concentration camp’s existence, and which contained only the names of the known dead, totaled over 51,000. In fact, the day we were there, they had erected a monument, decorated it with wreaths, and had lettered on the front of it, “51,000”.

There is much, much more to write about, but this already quite long enough so I’d better draw to some sort of a close. One last long look at Buchenwald and we’ll be on our way back to our bivouac area.

After giving our guides all the candy, chewing gum, and cigarettes we had with us, we said good bye to them, wishing them luck and an early trip home. We made our way to the gates, passing hundreds of ex-prisoners along the way. It hurt to look at them, but by this time I felt like hurting myself – I felt I wanted to be so impressed with this unbelievable picture of misery, torture and degradation that I would never forget it.

As we left the barracks building, we passed near a very sick man who was being fed some broth by another man. He was the picture of death. His eyes and facial expression told how desperately he wanted to be permitted to partake of the benefits of this liberation. Oh, to have to be so weak and so deathly sick when the horror is finally ending! Oh, the injustice of surviving all that abuse and torture and hunger, only to be on one’s death-bed when freedom finally is proffered. The older man was saying, “Here, get this soup down and you’ll feel much better.” And the skeleton-like shape tried, but he couldn’t swallow – and his eyes showed his fear that he would not be able to become well. “Oh, yes. They took the bodies out quietly, now before it became fully light – but if you were unable to sleep, you saw them – the ones who just yesterday were only as sick as you are now – but who had been able to live through the night. Even though we have bedding now and are able to keep warm, even though we can have good food, they continue to die.”

There was the proud-looking scarecrow of a man, with flashing black eyes. He attracted us because he stood aloof, not deigning to offer his services as guide; looking with an expression akin to scorn at those who groveled for bits of food. We approached him, offering him a few cigarettes, which he accepted with dignity. He spoke excellent German and pretty good English. He had been a jeweler in Antwerp until 1940 – a resident of Buchenwald since then. He answered questions reluctantly; all we could ascertain was that he had a wife and two children from whom he’d had no news since 1940. He was on the roster to be evacuated in three days. Then the colonel bluntly said, “But why did they put you here?” He looked at us coldly for a moment, and then he said, in a rather rebuking tone, “Because I am a Jew!” and turned and left us.

Most, however, are too deliriously happy to be sensitive, too glad to still be alive at the finish, to care about being the object of morbid curiosity. They cannot be too accommodating; they welcome you like long-lost relatives. They would kiss you, I believe, if you’d let them.

Will we learn anything through the exposure of the atrocities at Buchenwald, Dachau, Belsen, Ohrdurf, Gardelagen, Nordhausen? Or, do we just make a big commotion about them for the same reason that we flock to go see Frankenstein movies? What is the lesson to be learned?

I could write a lot more pages trying to answer these and other questions – but don’t be alarmed, I’ll not do that – now.

Just one more comment, though! It’s apparent that the “atrocities” have made us resolved to bring the more guilty perpetrators of heinous deeds to justice, have made us resolve to be more “tough” with all Germans. With that I find no fault. But I do get impatient with our “holier than thou” attitude as we are horrified to find how bestial some Germans are and how indifferent all of them have been. I’m a little concerned about the fact that most of us seem to think that we share no guilt for any of these atrocities. We criticize the average German for “having permitted a regime to gain and maintain power at the terrific cost to human liberty and decency that is now evident. We are impatient with them when they say that they dare not criticize or do anything about it. Yet we, ourselves, knew about these things (oh yes we did – witness the wide circulation given books like “Out of the Night”, “The Seventh Cross”; the publicity given the episodes of Lublin, Lidice etc.) And most of us did very little about it! We were in less danger of reprisal than the Germans were. I must remember that I did not volunteer but was drafted to help liberate these oppressed peoples.

Well, we’ll see what comes of it all! Before the paper slides out of the typewriter, I want to apologize a bit for the haphazard style of this letter. I know it’s written in several tenses and mixed badly. I had intended to write about it in one sitting, but it has taken four, with frequent interruptions to each. So don’t be too critical. It might have been better to write about it right after I’d been there, about two months ago, but I didn’t feel like it then. I thought I could tell about it better after I’d cooled off some. I think I waited too long.

Bye now – and love,

1 comment:

  1. That was marvelous. Thanks so much for sharing this. Brought tears to my eyes.


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