Remembrances: Ralph Craib--The Forgotten Death Camp

Fifty years ago tomorrow, the 355th U.S. Infantry Regiment and the Fourth Armored Division unveiled to the world scenes of brutality and criminality that is still difficult to comprehend.

As a sergeant in the Second Infantry Battalion barely 20 years old, I had walked-and fought-over several hundred miles, from Luxembourg to eastern Germany, in the preceding months. Violent Death and devastation were not new to us, yet nothing prepared us for the horror of Ohrdruf Nord, the first of Adolph Hitler's death factories to be captured by the Allies.

The Army acted with alacrity and obviously thought our discovery significant, yet because of a strange sequence of events, Ohrdruf became not much more than a footnote to the history of World War ll, never attaining the notoriety of Buchenwald-of which it was a sub camp-or Dachau or Auschwitz.

If we need any convincing, however, Ohrdruf showed us young soldiers (as well as the high-ranking leaders of the European campaign) that ours was a righteous crusade. We were helping defeat a criminal government that had established camps whose sole purpose was death on an assembly line never before seen on this old earth.

On our approach to Ohrdruf in the Thuringian countryside about 30 miles southwest of Weimar, we encountered so many corpses they were beyond counting. The first we saw in what appeared to be a central courtyard, where prisoners had been machine-gunned, apparently because they lacked the strength to join the walking evacuation to hide them from the eyes of approaching liberating troops.

These people were typical of the Ohrdruf prisoners we found, dead or alive, skinny as rails, the thickest part of their thighs as small as the wrists of a 10-year-old. They died wearing the standard prison stripes, lying in grotesque positions, many with mouths agape.

Nearby was what appeared to be a wood shed. In it, naked bodies were stacked like cordwood, neatly placed head to toe and covered only with lime, the chemical apparently intended to hasten deterioration.

The final Ohrdruf horror was the death pit. In this pit, camp officials had placed two elevated steel rails parallel each other to form a macabre cremation spit. Fuel had been poured over the bodies, which were then torched so they could not be identified-not, of course, as individuals, but as the remains of human beings. It didn't work. The combustion had been incomplete, and it was still possible to distinguish a leg here, a head there.

The number of victims was hard to ascertain. One General placed it at 3,200; a survivor told and interrogation team that the ghastly pit held the remains of 8,000 people.

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, who arrived a couple of days later with other military leaders, was aghast as we had been. The group included Army Group Commander Omar Bradley and Third Army Commander George (Blood and Guts) Patton, who became physically ill during the inspection.

Some scholars now contend that the Roosevelt administration knew of Hitler's "final solution"-the planned extermination of Europe's Jews-but that Washington did nothing because mainstream Protestant America was either indifferent to the fates of the Jews or might even have opposed direct intervention.

Anti-Semitism is not a European monopoly.

However, the Army response to Ohrdruf makes me believe that if Washington knew the realities of the Holocaust, that information was not conveyed to the commanders in the field, either through indifference or incompetence, neither of which were absent in the World War ll chaos. Certainly the brass touring Ohrdruf were no more prepared for it than we common, expendable infantrymen were.

John B. MacDonald, a Portland Ore. priest who served as chaplain with my division, has become an expert on Ohrdruf and has gather writings on the camp and its crimes. Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley all recalled Ohrdruf in their memoirs. "I have never been able to describe my emotional reactions," Eisenhower wrote, "when I came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it was my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand in case there ever was at home the belief or the assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda. I would like every American unit not actually in the front line to see this place. We are told that the American soldier doesn't know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against."

Bradley was more emotional: "The smell of death overwhelmed us even before we passed through the stockade. More than 3,200 emanciated bodies had been flung into shallow graves. Others lay in the streets where they had fallen. Lice crawled over the yellow skin of their sharp bony frames." He related how starving prisoners had apparently torn out the entrails of the dead for food.

Patton, known for both toughness and military scholarship but later accused of being soft on Nazis, described Ohrdruf as "one of the most appalling sights I have ever seen…words are inadequate to express the horror of this institution. The scenes witnessed here are beyond the normal mind to believe. No race except a people dominated by an ideology of sadism could have committed such gruesome crimes…even those (inmates) who live in my opinion will never recover mentally."

The generals flew on from Ohrdruf to inspect captured artwork and bullion looted by Nazi occupiers in other countries. A press contingent recorded their Ohrdruf visit. But that night, April 12, 1945, Eisenhower was awaken with the news that Franklin D. Roosevelt had died. This event so dominated press attention that Ohrdruf received no coverage.

It is ironic but fitting that the forgotten death camp has finally gained immortality. A huge photomural of the Ohrdruf death pit is the first image visitors see at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. One member of my old squad insists he can identify himself and me in that photo.

None of us has ever forgotten the sights of Ohrdruf. One of the most barbaric crimes was the fact that this camp robbed death of the dignity even primitive cultures affords it. Not only the killings but the destruction of the bodies was a willful attempt to deny that these people ever walked, talked, loved and bred just as the guards who carried out the unspeakable orders did.

The fact that 50 years later, there are people, even so-called historians and even in this country, who deny that these atrocities happened, is scary. There seems to be no guarantee that this could not happen again.

[Note: Mr. Craib worked as a reporter and editorial writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, which first published this article. A veteran of the 89th Infantry Division, he died in September 1995 at the age of 70.]