Central Europe: Ohrdruf

At Ohrdruf, the 255th Regiment and the 4th Armored Division pried a scab from one of Germany's ugliest sores when they captured the largest concentration camp liberated by an American force up to that time. It was located in a loathsome barracks area near a large army post. The occupants of the camp, mostly slave labor from Eastern Europe, had been callously starved and beaten to death, or shot down at the whim of their SS overseers. Men who had died in the camp had been buried in a huge common pit near the barracks area. When news came of the approach of the Americans, belated attempts were made to cover up the horrors of the place.

Prisoners were forced to exhume the decomposed bodies and cremate them on a makeshift grid of railroad rails set up near the pit. With American Armor only a few hours away, the SS guards had abandoned their project in a grisly state of half-completion, machine-gunned those prisoners too weak to walk in the courtyard of the concentration compound, and had fled. One guard attempted to disguise himself as a slave laborer but as he hurried through the gate along with a few prisoners who managed to escape during the confusion he was recognized by a former victim and killed on the spot with a heavy truck crank.

Included among the dead shot in the courtyard when the GIs entered was the body of an American flyer that had been brought to Ohrdruf from a Polish prison camp and had become ill en route. He was shot as he lay on a stretcher. Dusted over with lime, the bodies of about forty victims were stacked in a "beating shed" where they had died while receiving the customary punishment for minor infractions of the rules: 115 strokes on the naked back with either a cudgel or a heavy, sharp-bladed shovel. One of the ward bosses of the camp estimated the number of men buried in the common pit at 9,000. Shortly after the arrival of the armor and infantry, the Burgermeister of Ohrdruf and his wife were forced to visit the place. They disclaimed any definite knowledge of what had happened there but committed suicide that night.

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