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?"