I’m recovering from a foot injury and it has given me time to finish Rick Atkinson’s latest release, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 in his Liberation Trilogy. With school around the corner, I am excited to be teaching a couple dozen seniors once again about World War II, and in the springtime, the Holocaust.
I’m happy with Mr. Atkinson’s coverage of the heroics of the 30th Infantry Division-he even made a research pilgrimage to Hill 314 in Mortain, where elements of the 30th held off against a Hitler-ordered panzer counterattack for 6 days, saving the Allied breakout in Normandy in August 1944.
If you are a follower of this site, you will know that that division is dear to my heart, not because of any blood relations who fought in it, but because they named me an honorary member of their Veterans of World War II Association for my work in the classroom and in uncovering and reuniting the story of the liberation of the concentration camp train at Farsleben, Germany on Friday, April 13, 1945.
So you can imagine my excitement when I ran across this passage last evening from page 599 of Rick’s book. He writes about some of the chaos that unfolded as POWs, slave laborers, and concentration camps were liberated in Germany:
“Instead, starvation, revenge, indiscipline, and chaos often created what Allied officers called a “liberation complex.” SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces ] had presumed that refugees “would be tractable, grateful, and powerless after their domination for from two to five years as the objects of German slave policies.” As an Army assessment concluded, “They were none of these things.… Newly liberated persons looted, robbed, murdered, and in some cases destroyed their own shelter.” Freed laborers plundered houses in the Ruhr, burning furniture for cook fires and discarding slave rags to dress in business suits, pajamas, and evening clothes ransacked from German wardrobes. Ravenous ex-prisoners licked flour off the floor of a Farsleben bakery. In Osnabrück, “rampageous” Russian slaves died after swilling V-2 rocket fuel discovered in a storage yard. Others smashed wine barrels and liquor bottles in a Hanover cellar, drinking so heavily from a sloshing, six-inch-deep pool of alcohol on the floor that several collapsed in a stupor and drowned before U.S. MPs could close the entrance.”
So I did a double take: Ravenous ex-prisoners licked flour off the floor of a Farsleben bakery. I checked his notes-page 801, sure enough, 30th Division G-2 report. I know I have read this before in my research of primary source documentation, originally sent to me by Frank Towers, one of the liberators. Here it is.
Of course, the backstory surrounding the document above is the story that I have to tell- the soldiers of the 30th Infantry Division and the attached 743rd Tank Battalion, the Holocaust survivors whom they stumbled upon, liberated, and were reunited with 62 years later at our high school and subsequent events. I’ll probably share the Benjamin photo with Mr. Atkinson on his FB page.
Anyway, I recommend the book to any of my followers interested in the history of World War II in the European theater, and am really pumped to teach some very excited and motivated students this year, including the grandson of the tank commander who was sent to investigate the train.
This is how you “do” history, and how the teaching of history can sometimes take on a life of its own. So cool to be a part of it, and to read something in a best seller and be able to grasp the incredible backstory that awaits to be told.