Friday, November 13, 2009

My Visit to a Concentration Camp

While touring the newly liberated Ohrdruf camp, General Dwight Eisenhower and other high ranking U.S. Army officers view the bodies of prisoners who were killed during the evacuation of Ohrdruf. Ohrdruf, Germany, April 12, 1945.
— National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.
http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/media_ph.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10006184&MediaId=3934

On Veteran's Day, at our Golden Age Center where I eat lunch, my friends and I were invited to relate some of our military experiences. I had the idea of relating my experience of visiting Camp Ohrdruf, a concentration camp in Germany. Another fellow took too much time at the microphone, so I wasn't able to share this story. But while it was on my mind, I decided to post about it here so my blog readers could also read of my experience.

The date was April 1945. General Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower visited this concentration camp at Ohdruf, Germany the day before I was there. His visit with General Bradley was photographed and the picture was published in the US News and World Report magazine, probably sometime in the 1960s. I had that page from the magazine once. It was said that Gen. Eisenhower issued all military units in within driving distance at the time. His orders were for the individual unit commanders to SEND all of the personnel down to Ohrdruf, Germany over a week's time. Our company, (3463rd Ordnance Medium Maintenance Co, THIRD ARMY) took probably three truck loads of people each day. Some of our guys were there the day before when Gen. Ike was there in person.

It was said that the civilian population near the camp acted like they did not know what was going on out at the Nazi Camp, when a lot of town civilians were EMPLOYED there. When I was there the second day, they had probably 20 town civilians out there digging individual graves on a rocky ground hill, on the west side of the camp. The Camp was sort of hidden by a tree line on the south side along the road that went by there. The camp was probably a half mile away from the road. It was tree lined also.

They had a steam house where they cooked the flesh of some dead people and the human bones were stacked probably 15 feet high in a pile 30 or more feet across. Also they had dug a pit with bull dozers probably a half block long, and probably 15 feet deep and about 20 or 30 feet wide. The bottom, as we saw it, was ALL COVERED, end to end, with dead bodies. You could see their rib bones, they had been so starved. The bodies were all covered with white powdered lime to expedite decomposition. How they got them to cover the whole bottom in the center of that pit, we could not figure out. Some said they would line them at the edge of the pit and machine gun them down to fall into the pit. Somehow they had to spread that white powdered lime also. ????
I talked to one prisoner at the camp. It later became the talk of our company area, as he was Polish and his skin was all white and his rib bones stuck out like he was starved. He was in a top bunk bed. He told me he was age early 20s as I recall. My conversation was brief as he was too weak to talk much. He told me he was from Poland.
The Camp had a formation every morning and picked SOMEONE to be hanged in front of the gathering. It was just a few feet north of the office back door. The frame with rope was still there. Their toilet was like our dairy barns: cement floor with a concrete ditch for people to squat over and relieve themselves. It stunk. There was still poop in part of it when we were there. It seemed they hosed it down every so often into a reservoir or such at the end of the building.

We got to go inside of the gas chamber where they gassed to death a bunch at a time. It was the same building that had that steam unit to cook the people at the north end.
As we unloaded from our trucks, probably right after 12 noon, about 15 feet from the office back door, lay a dead man who had been stabbed multiple times and blood not yet dried. He was dressed in dark clothes with a suit size coat. The story was that the military officers told them to leave him lay there the rest of the afternoon so all the incoming soldiers would see him where he fell. It was told that he was one of the townspeople that came out to tour the camp, as Gen Eisenhower directed the military to BRING ALL OF THE CIVILIANS of the town of Ohrdruf out there to tour the camp. This was the second day of liberation, so there were many being escorted through the camp. Well the story was that this fell and was one of the GUARDS on duty there at the camp. He might have been a Nazi soldier or civilian that worked there as a guard. Anyway, some of the prisoners still there recognized him, hit him over the head with a three legged stool, to knock him down, and the one of our soldiers gave them a knife and they took turns to stab him like a pin cushion. It had happened just a few hours before we got there.
I don't know how long this touring of the camp went on, but Ike said probably someday the world would saythat the Holocaust was a myth, so he wanted as many GIs as possible to see it in person. It was pretty gruesome, enough that I had to take a little time-out interruption here while writing this, as it HIT ME, to cry out loud. It is still all so real. To realize that these were real live people and that another human being could be that heartless.

You know we read later on that they had doctors there that used prisoners as guinea pigs for medical experiments-testing medicines or surgery procedures. It was all very inhumane.

This Ordruff Camp was even much smaller than Buchanwald and others we read about today.
You know the Nazi's build their Autobahn super highway with slave labor, so I don't know how these prisoners were used. I did not get to talk too much with that guy in bed, as he seemed to be a corpse with a voice. The guys in our company knew that I could talk German, so when someone found a live person, they came and got me to see if I could talk to him. The building was a one level barracks with bunk beds. He happened to be the only guy in there at the time. Probably the Army transported them to hospitals, etc, as they could. Perhaps the Army had already evacuated the ones who could still walk, etc, and would get this one later with a stretcher, if he lived that long. I don't know who fed him, etc. There were a lot of people there that day walking around to see it all. The civilians from town were using pickaxes to dig those graves as the ground was very rocky. A bunch of us GIs stood around watching them. They worked up a sweat. Apparently some of our Army people had set out where to dig the graves as they were in rows.
After I wrote this story, I found a wealth of information about this Liberation of Camp Ohrdruf at ushmm.org, the web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

7 comments:

Debbie Blanton McCoy said...

Ernie,

Thank you for telling your story. The world never needs to forget what happened to these people. I visited Mauthausen in 1994 and it was a sobering experience. Thank you for protecting our freedoms.

Lisa Louise Cooke said...

Ernie,
Thank you for your service to our country.

I was struck by the fact that Ike foresaw the potential for people to try to dismiss what had happened as myth - and certainly some in the world today have done just that.

Thank you for sharing this compelling story. I'm sure it was difficult to revisit those memories, and yet you have done so much to ensure that we do not forget.

Karen Stock said...

Mr. Margheim,
Thank you for your service to our country. My greatest respect to you for courage in recounting this story. I will save it and send to any doubters that may come in the future. No one could doubt your story.

Ernie Margheim said...

Thank you, dear Friends, for your comments. As I wrote this story, all I could think about was "I WAS THERE. I SAW IT WITH MY OWN EYES!" It's still so vivid that I can remember the trees we saw as we drove down that rode. Those trees hid the Camp.

Greta Koehl said...

Thank you, Ernie, for all your services to your country, both during the war and now by providing an account of the history you have seen. As long as witnesses will not be silenced, the truth cannot be hidden.

Bill West said...

Ernie,
Thank you for writing this.Ike was so right to forsee that there would be those who would try to say
it never happened.

We should NEVER forget.

And thank you for your service to our country1

A rootdigger said...

i was wondering why did they cook the people. I had not heard of that before. what was the purpose. How awful.
I found a book on line which mentioned Belsen at Bergen Celle, where I had ancestors and descendents are still there. There too they denied knowing. But after I guess something was said about some one escaping...... If they escaped there would be searches, how could they not know then.
Wonderful blog.