Remembrances: Richard (Dick) Colosimo (Edited by Walter C. Irla): Coleslaw
I was in Battery B, 340th FA Bn. My principal function was Jeep driver for the wire communications section. Our Section Leader was Walter Irla. Our Battery operated in support during the liberation of the Ohrdruf Labor Camp. Very soon after that fateful day, and before the cleanup crew cleared the camp, Walter got into my Jeep and directed me to that infamous site. Thus began our unique experience. As we drove into the entrance and parked, there seemed to be an ominous silence; there were but few other military personnel wandering about. We saw a number of bodies, dressed in the striped pajama-like prison wear, lying in the courtyard. We walked toward a shed and saw another group of bodies that had been stripped naked, stacked in cordwood fashion, and doused with powdered lime. Walking up further, we say the sections of railroad tracks on which bodies were burned and the gooey lime pit next to that in which unburned skeletal body parts were thrown, evidenced by an occasional skull or elbow protruding from the muck. Needless to say the stench and acrid odor accompanied up throughout our experience. I will not delve more into the gory aspects of the camp since these details have already been reported often and extensively elsewhere.
However, what makes our experience at Ohrdruf unique was encountering two survivors of the dreaded ordeal of the camp. But more than that, because of Walter's fluent Polish, and since both survivors were Russian, the similarity of the two languages permitted Walter to converse with them. We asked the natural question.... how did he survive? The first man we met related how he was herded into the courtyard along with the rest of the unfortunate inmates who were incapable of walking out with the others to another camp before the U. S. Troops arrived. They were to be executed by machine gun fire on the spot. As the execution began, this man said he dropped to the ground quickly, feigning death before being struck by bullets. After the slaughter, the German guards stepped on and over the prone corpses, checking tattooed identities and shooting any survivors. As one of the guards lifted our storyteller's arm to check his identity, he could not believe that his captors could not have heard his heart beat since he was terrified playing the death role. He did not show any response at all as they dropped his arm, letting it fall unflinchingly. As he described the scene, his gestures emphasized his plight. He demonstrated how he pulled the lap of his pajama striped uniform up over his face to hide his fear when he collapsed in faked death and patted his heart in palpitation fashion showing how his heart raced as they raised and dropped his arm. We left him sitting on a bench in apparent bewilderment of what to do or where to go now that he was liberated.
As we walked toward the bunkhouse we encountered the second Russian slave laborer to whom we also spoke. Walter asked the same question of him as to how he survived. His story was just as terrifying. This man was in the bunkhouse that had wooden bunks stretching all along the walls. The bunks were stacked five high to the ceiling, so close to each other, that one could not sit in an erect position on one bunk without bumping his head on the sideboard of the bed above. Realizing a killing spree was at hand, this survivor crawled into one of the upper bunks in the middle of a long row, snuggling his body as flatly as possible under the very thin gunnysack straw-filled mattress. He said he laid there, statue-like, not making a sound. He heard a few German guards enter the bunkhouse to search for any potential escapees. The guards scanned over the rows of bunks, evidently by stepping on the lower beds and craning their bodies in, to see if they could detect any hiding prisoners. Our sad-faced ex-prisoner indicated that he was trembling but he held his breath, not moving, just praying. His skeleton-like, emaciated body caused no apparent elevation to the mattress as the guards left and continued their search elsewhere. He said he didn't move an inch for a long, inestimable time, until he was certain it was all clear. We left him in the same apparent unrealistic state of freedom, too awesome to fathom. Of course, I'm sure that the subsequent American cleanup crews took care of these two survivors and remedied their understandable confused condition.
The last building we ventured into was the kitchen. As I recall, this building seemed to me to be a long narrow structure, with large sinks and pots and pans hanging on various hooks and cradles. At one end of the kitchen there was a large copper cauldron, perched on some sort of support or heating device. It was about five feel high and about four feet in diameter. There was a large wooden stirring and serving spoon protruding from this unbelievable muck that was the menu of the day (and no doubt every day). I unwisely reached over the top of the pot, grabbed the handle of the elongated spoon, stirred and broke the dry crusted surface of the ugly contents. I stepped back, gasping and choking. The stench of the rancid vegetable invaded my nostrils, into my throat and taste buds. That miserable experience left an indelible mark on me. To this day, and I have tried on many occasions, I am unable to eat coleslaw. When the odor of raw shredded cabbage reaches my taste buds, the memory of my Ohrdruf experience is relived.
This is but an abbreviated version of what indeed was an extraordinary and unique day at Ohrdruf for Walter and me. An infamous day that we shall never forget.