Archive for April, 2010

{As part of the conclusion to my USHMM Teacher Fellowship project, I  am posting the unfolding nature of the discovery of the camps as Allied troops closed in from the East and the West, sixty-five years to the day that the discovery/event occurred.}

General Dwight D. Eisenhower (center), Supreme Allied Commander, views the corpses of inmates who perished at the Ohrdruf camp. Ohrdruf, Germany, April 12, 1945. — National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md. USHMM

We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least he knows what he is fighting against.

— General Dwight D. Eisenhower, on visiting a subcamp of Buchenwald, April 12, 1945

April 4, 1945: The U.S. 4th Armored Division liberates the concentration camp at Ohrdruf, Germany, a subcamp of Buchenwald, the site of more than 4000 deaths during the previous three months. Victims were Jews, Poles, and Soviet POWs. Hundreds shot just before liberation had been working to build an enormous underground radio and telephone communications center. Very few inmates remain alive at liberation.

April, 1945: U.S. Generals Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Omar Bradley visit the camp at Ohrdruf, Germany, and view corpses and other evidence of Nazi atrocities.

In late March 1945, the camp had a prisoner population of some 11,700, but in early April the SS evacuated almost all the prisoners on death marches to Buchenwald. The SS guards killed many of the remaining prisoners who were too ill to walk to the railcars.

When the soldiers of the 4th Armored Division entered the camp, they discovered piles of bodies, some covered with lime, and others partially incinerated on pyres. The ghastly nature of their discovery led General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, to visit the camp on April 12, with Generals George S. Patton and Omar Bradley. After his visit, Eisenhower cabled General George C. Marshall, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, describing his trip to Ohrdruf:

. . .the most interesting–although horrible–sight that I encountered during the trip was a visit to a German internment camp near Gotha. The things I saw beggar description. While I was touring the camp I encountered three men who had been inmates and by one ruse or another had made their escape. I interviewed them through an interpreter. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to “propaganda.”

Seeing the Nazi crimes committed at Ohrdruf made a powerful impact on Eisenhower, and he wanted the world to know what happened in the concentration camps. On April 19, 1945, he again cabled Marshall with a request to bring members of Congress and journalists to the newly liberated camps so that they could bring the horrible truth about Nazi atrocities to the American public. He wrote:

We continue to uncover German concentration camps for political prisoners in which conditions of indescribable horror prevail. I have visited one of these myself and I assure you that whatever has been printed on them to date has been understatement. If you could see any advantage in asking about a dozen leaders of Congress and a dozen prominent editors to make a short visit to this theater in a couple of C-54’s, I will arrange to have them conducted to one of these places where the evidence of bestiality and cruelty is so overpowering as to leave no doubt in their minds about the normal practices of the Germans in these camps. I am hopeful that some British individuals in similar categories will visit the northern area to witness similar evidence of atrocity.

That same day, Marshall received permission from the Secretary of War, Henry Lewis Stimson, and President Harry S. Truman for these delegations to visit the liberated camps.

Ohrdruf made a powerful impression on General George S. Patton as well. He described it as “one of the most appalling sights that I have ever seen.” He recounted in his diary that

In a shed . . . was a pile of about 40 completely naked human bodies in the last stages of emaciation. These bodies were lightly sprinkled with lime, not for the purposes of destroying them, but for the purpose of removing the stench.

When the shed was full–I presume its capacity to be about 200, the bodies were taken to a pit a mile from the camp where they were buried. The inmates claimed that 3,000 men, who had been either shot in the head or who had died of starvation, had been so buried since the 1st of January.

When we began to approach with our troops, the Germans thought it expedient to remove the evidence of their crime. Therefore, they had some of the slaves exhume the bodies and place them on a mammoth griddle composed of 60-centimeter railway tracks laid on brick foundations. They poured pitch on the bodies and then built a fire of pinewood and coal under them. They were not very successful in their operations because there was a pile of human bones, skulls, charred torsos on or under the griddle which must have accounted for many hundreds.


Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1945- The Year of Liberation. 1995.



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Days of Remembrance: Honoring Liberation

In commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, the Museum has designated Stories of Freedom: What You Do Matters as the theme for the 2010 observance. To honor their bravery as soldiers and their importance as eyewitnesses, the Museum will pay tribute to the U.S. soldiers who helped defeat Nazi Germany and liberate Holocaust survivors from years of suffering. Learn more about Days of Remembrance and what the liberators’ extraordinary stories of freedom mean for our world today.

Watch a story about how a teacher fellow from the Museum reunited Jewish prisoners with U.S. Army soldiers who liberated them from a train near Magdeburg, Germany, on April 13, 1945. Go to http://www.ushmm.org/remembrance/dor/years/2010/liberation/

Watch a story about how a teacher fellow from the Museum reunited Jewish prisoners with U.S. Army soldiers who liberated them from a train near Magdeburg, Germany, on April 13, 1945. Go to http://www.ushmm.org/remembrance/dor/years/2010/liberation

As an aside, we are now up to 141 survivors who were liberated on that train, most verified by original passenger manifest.


They were men and women who came together from all across the United States, from Canada, and from as far away as Israel. For several, it was their first face-to-face meeting with each other in more than sixty years.

How could a young guy like me be 88 years old! I’m not sure how many more reunions I’m going to go to. I never thought I would see anybody on that train again. It’s amazing. Just amazing.

The occasion was to commemorate an event that occurred on April 13, 1945, as American armies rolled across Europe, liberating millions from the dominion of the Third Reich. On that day, the Army’s 743rd Tank Division came upon a sight near Magdeburg, Germany, they never expected to see. Freight train cars alone on a track, and filled wall to wall with over two thousand men, women, and children, all of them Jews.

I remember the moment I remembered seeing this long freight train, long string of boxcars, and I can remember pulling the tank to the right and driving along the side of the train and seeing all these people that were on these boxcars. It was totally unexpected and when I saw their condition I was overwhelmed, I can remember thinking “What are we going to do with all these people and for all these people?”

This fateful wartime incident might have remained known only to those who were directly part of it, had it not been for a Web site created and managed by Matthew Rozell. A high school history teacher in Hudson Falls, New York, and a teacher fellow with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Rozell conducted several interviews with men and women whose lives were directly caught up in the events of the Holocaust. It was during an interview with Carrol “Red” Walsh, a tank commander with the 743rd, that the story of the train car outside Magdeburg came to light.

And at the tail end of a two hour discussion, taped conversations I had with him in his daughter’s living room, his daughter chimed in and said “Dad, did you tell Mr. Rozell about that train that stopped, that you had to go and investigate?” He said “Oh, that’s right, that train.” And he launched into about how it was a beautiful April day. He and another tank commander went down and investigated this train stopped by the side of the tracks. They found it full of Jewish refugees. The other tank commander, he told me, was still alive in California, and actually had photographs that he took of the liberation. And this Dr. Gross allowed me to place the photographs on the Internet. We put those on our school Web site, and they sat there, not a lot of Web traffic. But all of a sudden, I got an e-mail from a grandmother in Australia who had been a 7-year-old girl on that train. And she said that she clicked on the Web link, the photographs opened, and this was the day of her liberation in 1945. She said she fell out of her chair.

It was very organic the way it all unfolded. I would open up my e-mail inbox and there would be another message from a new survivor, somebody that I wasn’t aware of before. These people are coming to me individually. They’re not aware of each other for the most part before finding my Web site on the Internet, for example. So it’s just kind of unfolding.

At this time, I would like to call to the stage the rest of our soldiers and survivors, beginning with Mr. Francis Currie. [Applause]

The surviving veterans of the 743rd are modest about their accomplishments, but this did not prevent the audience of students, teachers, town residents, and Holocaust survivors from honoring them at a special reunion event held at Hudson Falls high school in September 2009.

It’s a gratifying and emotional experience to reunite with some of the survivors, to meet them face to face, and to call them my friends.

Those brave American soldiers, they were saying that they didn’t do anything heroic, they just did their job. But with that job, they gave us back our life, and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart. [Applause]

It was a heady four days for the guests of honor and their families, a time to reminisce and reconnect, a time to enjoy each other’s company, and reflect upon what brought them together.

We were there. But it’s still tough to wrap your mind around the situation that presented itself when those people were liberated on that train.

None of them put themselves up as being something special, and they have a great sense of humility, and also a great sense of love. I feel that love just emanating from them to me and the others, and I think the sense of love that they have I think is also what has kept them going and giving all their lives.

“And so we choose history teacher Matt Rozell, the Holocaust survivors on that train, and those American soldiers who kept them and their story alive.” [Cheers, applause]

Matt Rozell’s spotlight as ABC News Charles Gibson’s person of the week was a fitting conclusion to this special event. At the farewell banquet following the broadcast, Rene Roberge, the Hudson Falls high school teacher who served as the program’s master of ceremonies, told liberators and survivors alike what he had learned from them.

Share the truth. The moral responsibility you had as a liberator to free a people from harm at a moment’s notice, and, as a survivor, to save a generation from becoming complacent. You were heroes then. You are my heroes now.

I think we were in the right place at the right time, in the sense that we had people who are now at the stage in their life where they really wanted to send a message before they leave this earth. To see how it touched these students so deeply, that is where the real gratification is for me, and that’s what this whole week was all about. Don’t forget the past. You have to remember what happened. You can’t just be a bystander.

You know, I bid those people goodbye and thought I’d never see them again. So now here we are 65 years later, to come this full 65 years and, we’re coming together, and it’s a rewarding experience.

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{*As part of the conclusion to my USHMM Teacher Fellowship project, I  am posting the unfolding nature of the discovery of the camps as Allied troops closed in from the East and the West, sixty-five years to the day that the discovery/event occurred. This material was published elsewhere, as noted below; it is used with permission. This post also gets an inordinate amount of hits; please be sure to visit the “About” link for context.}

Prisoners on a death march from Dachau move towards the south along the Noerdliche Muenchner street in Gruenwald. German civilians secretly photographed several death marches from the Dachau concentration camp as the prisoners moved slowly through the Bavarian towns of Gruenwald, Wolfratshausen, and Herbertshausen. Few civilians gave aid to the prisoners on the death marches. Germany, April 29, 1945. — KZ Gedenkstaette Dachau. USHMM

Early April 1945

The SS evacuates thousands of Jews–mostly on foot–as Allied and Soviet forces press in from the east and west. Evacuees are taken to camps at Bergen-Belsen, Germany; Dachau, Germany; Ebensee, Austria; Leitmeritz, Czechoslovakia; and Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. The operation is rife with daily beatings and murders as well as deaths from starvation and typhus. Thirteen hundred Jews are evacuated on foot from Vienna; only 700 will reach their destination, the Gusen, Austria, camp, alive.

The evacuations of the concentration camps had three purposes:

(1) SS authorities did not want prisoners to fall into enemy hands alive to tell their stories to Allied and Soviet liberators

(2) the SS thought they needed prisoners to maintain production of armaments wherever possible

(3) some SS leaders, including Himmler, believed irrationally that they could use Jewish concentration camp prisoners as hostages to bargain for a separate peace in the west that would guarantee the survival of the Nazi regime.

The SS guards had strict orders to kill prisoners who could no longer walk or travel. As evacuations depended increasingly on forced marches and travel by open rail car or small craft in the Baltic Sea in the brutal winter of 1944-1945, the number who died of exhaustion and exposure along the routes increased dramatically. This encouraged an understandable perception among the prisoners that the Germans intended them all to die on the march. The term death march was probably coined by concentration camp prisoners.

During these death marches, the SS guards brutally mistreated the prisoners. Following their explicit orders, they shot hundreds of prisoners who collapsed or could not keep pace on the march, or who could no longer disembark from the trains or ships. Thousands of prisoners died of exposure, starvation, and exhaustion. Forced marches were especially common in late 1944 and 1945, as the SS evacuated prisoners to camps deeper within Germany. (USHMM)

April 1, 1945 – The Red Army liberates Sered labor camp in Slovakia. The first UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) teams enter Germany in the wake of the Allied armies to facilitate and assist in the relief of the displaced persons.

April 1, 1945: The SS initiates death marches to evacuate the concentration camps at Dora-Mittelbau and Kochendorf, Germany.

April 3, 1945: All 497 members of a slave-labor group at Bratislava, Slovakia, are shot and killed by their captors. The Nazis evacuate the concentration/slave-labor camp at Nordhausen, Germany.


Weber, Louis. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2007. http://www.holocaustchronicle.org

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1945- The Year of Liberation. 1995.


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