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.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Dust Bowl Days

A friend emailed me some photos that were reminiscent of the 1930s. These thoughts came to me as I looked at those old photos she sent. In 1935 I was in the eighth grade and it was not uncommon to see dust drifts five foot high, barbed wire fence rows with a few thistles against them. The dust would pack in so that you could walk OVER the top of the fence. Horse drawn farm machinery would catch the dust and they were buried in the dust. Mom would sew girls dresses from FLOUR SACKS that came with patterned material. She also would sew the boys chambre (blue) shirts. Farm kids did not wear shoes during the summer for everyday, we all went barefoot. A daily routine was kids HAD TO wash their feet each evening before they went to bed. During the winter we had three pairs of shoes: one for chores, one for school and one for church on Sunday. The Sunday shoes never wore out, we OUTGREW them. Or they were passed down to younger family members.

Jobs were few, and during 1931 to 1933, there were times when our family was HOMELESS. We got permission to live in some friends's old hayloft of their barn. Improvised pot bellied stove with a flue thru the roof and old carpets or blankets stretched on two wires enclosed a corner with a kerosene two-burner cook stove. There were no beds -- we all slept on the floor. Dad and Mom, two boys ages 10 gnd 8 --I was the 10 yr old, and we also had twins, a boy and Girl born in 1929, so they were three years old. There were no stairs in the barn to the hayloft, it was just straight vertical step boards nailed to the side. Our toilet was just the night bucket with a lid.

The farmer let Dad work farming chores and they brought us groceries for wages. At age 8, I helped hand milk cows and we got our milk for that. Potatoes were a staple, as the farmer raised potatoes commercially. In those days people would eat the culls, as the spuds were sorted when sold. Culls were held back and used for hog feed. Instead of a granary for storage, potatoes were stored in a earthen cave. You had to watch for salamanders (similar to a lizard), snakes, rats and mice in those potato piles. B-u-t we survived.

This condition was a two year period when the bank foreclosed and repossessed our Trego County Kansas Farm and we became migrant workers in Colorado. Also during that two year period 1931/1933, my brother Alfred then age 9, died of an enlarged heart, St Vitas Dance, and pneumonia. Since we were poor with limited medical attention, the County performed the funeral and burial.

The period 1929 through 1934 was considered the DEPRESSION that followed with the DUST STORMS. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the USA President. He declared a two day National Bank Holiday when NO BANKS were open. The Government declared NRA (National Recovery Act), which included the government coming to your farm to kill a lot of your live hogs, as there was a national oversupply and no profit in raising hogs. The killed off some of the hog population to stabilize the hog market. It was common for communities to have collection points where people donated used clothing and shoes so us poor people could go obtain them at no cost. Welfare would bring us free groceries. The government made jobs for people called WPA (Works Progress Administration). The football stadium at Hoisington Kansas High School was of native stone built by the WPA. Also WPA cleared dead wood etc, along the banks of Wet Walnut Creek in Barton County Kansas. One time my Dad acquired a bad case of Poison Ivy and Poison Oak, working along the creek bank for the WPA. In Colorado WPA Labor created irrigation ditches for the farmers. In 1938 to 1942 the Government started the Civilian Conservation Corps for young boys. I served in such a Soil Conservation Service Camp in Nemaha County KS. We were civilian but the camps were run by the Army with Army Officers, Barracks, Kitchens etc. and the Dept of Agriculture provided the jobs known as SCS Service with area farmers to develop terraces, sodded waterways, water spring spillways.. This provided $18. 00 a month for kids ages 16 to 21. Like the Army, our workers had rank, such as pfc, corporal, Sgt, except we were called Assistant Leaders and got paid $36 monthly and Leaders got paid $45 month. The money was mailed to your parents as welfare income and the boys got a stipend for misc expenditures. The boys also learned a trade. Some became Stone Masons, Brick Layers, Caterpillar (Heavy Equipment) operators, land surveyors. I became a bookkeeper and gained the rank of Leader as Office Manager @ $45 a month during June 1940 to June 1942. Our camp had teachers come to our camp from Kansas State University (Manhattan, KS) to teach classes. That is how I became an Accountant. CCC Camps were all over the United States. Kansas had several, some planted Shelter Belt trees. Others that I knew were Forest Fire Fighters in Idaho who learned the Forest Ranger trade.
As World War 2 started at that time, CCC was faded out. Working in the SCS office, I had conversations with the office of the President in Washington DC. My contact was Steven Earle, who worked under President Roosevelt. The nature of our calls was the process of downsizing CCC Camps. Camp #1797 County of Nemaha, city of Seneca, Kansas was slated for closure. I handled calls to and from Washington in processing the closing of #1797. I was age 20 and 21. I think I got my rank as I was a high school graduate and many were not. We even had kids from Kansas State Industrial Reformatory (KSIR) in Hutchinson, Kansas, to rehabilitate them.