A Hirsch: Ohrdruf Remembered
It was a long day, like a day without end. It seemed that we had been riding
for hours and now that it was dusk we were still on that truck. The features of
the landscape had long faded when at last we felt the vehicle shift into a lower
gear and with a lurch pick its way slowly through the maize of night. We were able
to see that we had passed under some sort of an ornate iron gateway, which loomed as
an ominous shadow against a dark sky. A short distance later the truck came to a
merciful stop near a silhouetted long low building. In the darkness questions were
asked and faceless voices answered. " Hey, what kind of a place is this?" Answer,
"some sort of a factory." " Where do we sleep?" Answer, "Any place." Some went
inside that building, I put my sleeping bag on the ground and wasted no time in
getting some shuteye. Man, I was tired.
Morning came too soon, just as it always had. I woke to realize I had been
sleeping under a wood shingle roof, which was attached to the main structure
and supported by two wooden poles. I ventured to guess, this overhang was used
as a carport by the factory boss. The car or truck that it sheltered was gone
and so were the personnel. Walking to the far end of the masonry, yellow block
building, I carefully opened a door. By doing this I had suddenly discovered
a clean and lovely tiled lavatory with booths. Civilization! I decided to
become civilized again. No sooner did I get comfortable then the Germans
started lobbing shells. One of the shells hit close enough to knock some of the
ceramic roof tiles, where I sat. Lucky only about three to five shells were
fired. I say lucky because they sure had range. Parthian shots, so as to
speak and so much for this thing called civilization.
I next decided to walk along the length of the building and enter the first door
I came to. By this time guys from the other units were coming around to investigate,
just as I was doing. We went through a doorway that revealed a narrow hall.
The wall facing us had two furnace doors with the name of Benz cast into the
forging. Looking inside I saw only gray ash. It was then that someone behind
me said. "Hey, these furnaces are for cremating!" It hit me like a clap of
thunder. I was stunned and realized the truth that this isn't a factory,
this is a concentration camp! Up to this moment there was nothing to give
me the true identity of this place. In shock I continued walking down the
hallway not knowing what I would see or what to expect next. The place I
came to was a large yellow tiled room with showerheads high up on the walls. I
realized that this room was the gas chamber and capable of holding at least
fifty people. The murdered victims of this room were cremated in the Benz f
urnaces that we saw in the hallway just moments before. The thought of so much mass
murder, so many innocent lives being wasted was overwhelming.
For a moment, I walked out into the air to collect my thoughts. It was then that
one of the men from our squad came over to me and pointing in a direction said,
"You should see all the dead that are down there, they are all over the place."
I quickly walked down to the quadrangle and saw one of the most gruesome sights
of the war. Bodies were lying just where they had fallen, when shot by Nazi
Guards. The last moments of agony were in their faces and in the tortured
position of their bodies. Near by a group of about six or eight men were lying
in a rough semicircle. Each had a loaf of bread or a bottle of wine by his side.
Their pants were down to their ankles, no doubt to keep them from running away.
Each of these men had been shot behind the left ear. But the question comes up,
why this group? One of the inmates that had missed execution came walking near
by and I asked him in my poor German, "What is this?" pointing to the men on the
ground. The lines in his gaunt face hardened to a frown. He turned his back and
while walking away gestured with a wave of his hand as if to say, forget them.
Years later I told this story to some friends and one suggested that they may have been
Goons that worked for and with the Nazis. That made sense and explained why the man
in stripes walked away and turned his back on that gang. The Nazis first gave them
gifts and moments later killed them just when they thought freedom was in their
grasp. A last minute perverted prank by the Germans.
Not far from this cluster of men lay a man on a stretcher. I would
judge he was perhaps about no more than five yards away and he too
had been shot. He was wearing a red plaid wool shirt and a brown blanket
was covering his legs. An auburn brown, close-cropped beard was on his
round face. There was a note printed in red pencil and pined to his shirt
that drew the most comment. That note simply stated, "American Airman."
This made all of us wonder if we should or could believe these Nazis. What
proof was there that he was an American Airman? Where was his uniform?
Were his dog tags still on him? How did he get to this camp? Just who
was this man and who would investigate this murder and would we ever find any
answers to all these questions?
Slowly I walked away from this morbid scene and came to a shed that was
at the edge of the grounds. Looking inside I saw the emaciated bodies of men
that had been starved to death and stacked like cord wood. They were head to
toe and a heavy layer of lime was between each row of corpses. The excessive
lime was needed for there was no way to tell how long the bodies had been there
or how much longer they were expected to remain there. That heavy lime odor
permeated the air around that wood shack for quite a distance. Further down the
yard and a short distance away was a large rectangular pit which was used to
dump the ashes of the ovens. The ovens were cleaned out and the ashes of the
victims were thrown together and dumped into this pit. No thought was given by
any one that these ashes were the remains of men with souls. These were once
men that knew joy and felt grief. I couldn't help but think just a fine thread of
fate separates them from us.
As I ventured further the scene became more revolting. Railroad ties were stacked
with bodies and set on fire to destroy the cadavers. The fires had gone out but
the charred bodies remained testifying to the German's sins. A short distance
away was gallows with piano wire for noose to extract the last bit of pain from
a body that had already suffered more than it should. There was no let up on
evil that the Nazis would commit. All this remained for the world to bear
witness and see what the Nazis were when unmasked. This was a place of incalculable
suffering and German crime. It is an ugly monument to the Nazis doctrine of
hate and greed.
After viewing the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp I started to return to where
our 57mm A/T gun was parked. I found myself wondering where hatred like this is
born. Where and why does this intense passion to hate exist to such an extent that
it drives one to mass murder? My thoughts were interrupted when I was told to
get going because our squad was pulling out. I was more than ready to leave
this gruesome place. We loaded up and got on the truck once again.
The vehicle moved slowly under that ornate iron gate that first marked
the entrance to Ohrdruf. I was now able to read the big, bold German letters;
"Work Will Make You Free" was its message. We drove on with no one speaking;
there was no need to. Each of us was lost in our own thoughts, each
remembering what we had just witnessed. The experience/recollection
was etched in every face. Over and over again the same cruel, brutal
memories of carnage, torture and disregard for life flashed through my
brain. As we rode further from that place of torment and deeper into
Germany, the words of poet Edwin Markham echoed through my head.
"O masters, lords and rulers in all lands, Is this the handiwork you give to God?"