The following comments were written by Carl
Peterson, President of the Division Society:
When our Tour of Rememberence: (Fall of 1999) reached Ohrdruf, no one in authority in the area was available to guide us or talk to us about the place. It is currently a German Army training center. All vestiges of the place had long since been dismantled and bull dozed over to the extent that it was simply open ground on a ridge line over which German troop units conducted training exercises. The purpose of this story is to fill in the blanks for some and/or refresh the memories of others who had first hand knowledge of the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp because they were there when it was liberated or were able to visit the place shortly thereafter. Consequently, as our tour busses were leaving the area, some of our society members gave talks to us based on personal knowledge about what the place was like in 1945 when it was liberated. Because of this and because of my role as the replacement of our [recently] deceased society president. Don Johnson, I decided to research the whole thing in the Washington, DC area to provide this report to our members as an effort to give us some closure on the entire affair. I learned most of what follows from two visits to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and from several letters sent to me by various members and others who were there in 1945.
The Ohrdruf hellhole was one of many sub camps of the nearby Buchenwald Concentration Camp outside of Weimar Germany, which is located about 32 miles ENE from Ohrdruf. The Buchenwald camp had been established back in 1938. Buchenwald had it all including an execution facility and crematorium. From what I had been able to determine, the Ohrdruf Camp dated back to June of 1944, when 1000 men were sent there presumably from Buchenwald. These men were immediately put to work digging tunnels into the nearby hills. Gun emplacements and more tunnels were later built at a point eight miles from the camp at a place that had been set aside to become an underground headquarters for Adolph Hitler and his government. Some of the tunnels were designed to contain railroad tracks, which would allow a train from Berlin carrying Hitler, and key members of the government to be parked under ground. After five months only 200 of the original 1000 men remained alive due to very poor working conditions and shortage of food and proper clothing. However as time passed more and more inmates were provided from Buchenwald and other locations. As the hospital in Ohrdruf became jammed with sick, a series of "death transports" routinely and as often as twice a week were used to transport the dead to Buchenwald's crematorium. There are reports of a crematorium at Ohrdruf; however that effort came late and was primitive compared to the capability of the Buchenwald camp to dispose of dead bodies, and to dispose of very sick persons by injections followed by a trip to the crematorium. Some of the inmates were Yugoslav prisoners of war, a matter against the rules of international law. As of 25 March 1945, a report from Buchenwald reflects a total of 9943 inmates, about 6000 of whom were Jews, were at Ohrdruf all working on tunneling and construction of underground facilities. In early April of 1945, during the afternoon of April 5th, which was one day after the liberation of Ohrdruf, 9000 prisoners from Ohrdruf arrived at Buchenwald in desperate and starving condition, after a forced death march over the approximately 32 miles separating the two camps. Hundreds of others had collapsed along the route of march from weakness. They were shot without mercy by the SS. At Buchenwald, the Jews. if they could he identified, were immediately taken away for execution. By this time there was some open resistance at Buchenwald, which worked to the advantage of some of the Jews and others. The personnel at the Holocaust Memorial have provided me with a list of the names of 44 living Jewish survivors of Ohrdruf. It is possible for interested researchers to contact these survivors with questions: but only through the Holocaust Memorial personnel who can contact them as intermediator and relay questions to them from interested persons.
At Ohrdruf, generally the only inmates that remained as the American forces were closing in, were those who were unable to make the forced march to Buchenwald for a few reasons such as being too weak to do so. The SS was disposing of these inmates with a shot to the back of the head or neck; or in some reports, they had been machine gunned to death. However, earlier at Ohrdruf before the proximity of the American forces created panic: many inmates had been put to death by hanging, after which the bodies were shipped to Buchenwald for disposal. But in the panic situation of the pending liberation, bodies had been dumped into makeshift pits one of which was a crematorium which did not do its job very well - and became the object of photographs which some of us have seen and others have viewed the scene in person.
Now, comes the question of who among the liberating American forces got there first. This is quite interesting and thanks to those persons who corresponded with me about it; here is what I learned. The Ohrdruf Concentration Camp was liberated on the 4th of April 1945. At this time there were several fast moving units in the general area of the camp; and in fact, one of them was within sight of the camp in late afternoon on April 3rd, and had taken some prisoners nearby, but had not entered the camp.
What follows next is an eyewitness account from the 602nd Tank Destroyer Battalion stated to be "under control of the 4th Armored Division", yet with companies attached to each of the 89th Division regiments and another company, Company A in reserve on 3 April. Late in the afternoon of 3 April, two men in a jeep from Co A of the 602 TD Battalion while conducting a terrain reconnaissance just north of Ohrdruf city, and apparently in view of the high ground of the Ohrdruf Camp, came under fire and captured five German soldiers after returning the fire. They later determined that they had captured Ohrdruf Camp SS guards from a position outside of the camp. The next day, as the general attack continued, Company C of the 6O2nd TD Battalion entered Ohrdruf city while Company B and elements of the 89th Division Recon Troop "were to attack east but toward the north around the hill" (the hill is presumed to be the Ohrdruf Camp location). The author of this report was on reconnaissance again as had been the case on April 3rd. During the advance, he followed an M 18 TD tracked vehicle as it broke down the fence surrounding Ohrdruf Camp and followed the Ml8 into the camp compound. After examining the bodies of inmates and taking photographs, they departed the compound as they were observing soldiers of the 89th Division entering the compound. It is believed that the soldiers he saw were from the 3rd Bn of the 355th Inf which briefly entered the camp after elements of the 89th Div Recon Troop had entered the camp through the main gate following a brief fire fight to eliminate the presence of guards at the main gate.
The story now shifts to the 89th Recon Troop, a platoon leader of which sent me the following account. "My 2nd Platoon was reconnoitering ahead of the infantry regiment (355th) on that day and we came upon this complex and two German soldiers who were guarding the front gates. We shot and killed one, and the other ran off. Setting up a modest defense, we entered the compound and saw first hand the horror of life in a Nazi concentration camp. We radioed our troop headquarters for instructions and were told to remain there, keeping the inmates contained (this was hardly necessary, as most were in their bunks, hardly able to walk) while HQ contacted the infantry to relieve us. In less than three hours, the infantry (3rd Battalion, 355th Inf) arrived and we were sent on a new mission". Lastly, another member of our society who was in the 3rd Battalion of the 354th Infantry, advised me that shortly after the 355th Infantry took over the camp, the 3rd Battalion of the 354th replaced the 355th, also for only a short time. During these days, the 355th Infantry in its entirety had apparently been attached to the 4th Armored Division. All of this helps explain why both the 89th Division and the 4th Armored Division have been credited with liberation the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp.
Now, as to which of the two units described above that entered Ohrdruf Concentration Camp first on that day of April 4th; only the two fellows who corresponded with me on the subject of Ohrdruf can settle that one. We are talking about morning hours of April 4th. I have sent each of these fellows an advance copy of this story.
Addendum: During my second visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I was interested to inquire as to whether there was any particular connection between the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Ohrdruf and several additional camps in the vicinity of Kahla, 40 miles east of Ohrdruf which were of varying categories such as forced labor, voluntary workers, POW's, Russian civilian workers, Hitler Jungen, political prisoners (mostly Belgian), and a disciplinary camp. All of these camps had been involved in a big subterranean armament factory; as was explained to me by personnel of the Holocaust Memorial. Completion of the armament factory had been well ahead of the underground HQ being prepared at Ohrdruf. Of particular interest at the armament factory was the fact that the workers there had actually succeeded in putting together about a dozen or so of the world's first fighter aircraft with jet engines, a few of which had been used in operations against the advancing Americans. However these camps which I and others prefer to refer to as slave labor camps, were not engaged in any discernable program of extermination of certain groups such as the Jews. An after action report of the G-5 staff (military government) of the 89th Division was given to me with a query from a young lawyer in Belgium. The survivors of many of these camps were administered to by military government personnel and were found to be victims of sickness, starvation and slave labor to the extent that most of them were in very bad shape. These people, along with many others became classified as displaced persons (DP's); some of them spent many years in DP camps in Germany before finding a new home elsewhere. But in answer to my query, there was no connection between the activities of the concentration camps and these slave labor camps.
Carl Peterson: President, Society of the 89th Division, WWII