72 years ago, on Friday the 13th of April, the 743rd Tank Battalion overran the train near Magdeburg, Germany. Shortly thereafter, other attached units of the 30th Infantry Division, notably the 105th Medical Detachment and the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, also arrived at the liberation site and immediately set to work trying to handle this unexpected encounter. The account of T4 Wilson Rice as he reports on the disposition of the survivors and the soldiers in this combat zone is revealing.
The following is an extract of more detailed information that is from the 30th Inf. Div. G-2 Report, 17 April 1945, about the concentration camp train:
CONCENTRATION CAMP TRAIN
On 13-14 April, 1945 troops of the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, moving into billets in the town of Farsleben, discovered that the normal population of 500 in the town, had been augmented by approximately 2,500 persons crammed onto a prison train of 45 cars, most of them freight wagons, which had been standing in the station for two days. Conditions on the train were frightful. It was critically overcrowded, and filthy almost beyond description, particularly in view of the lack of sanitary facilities. Nineteen persons had already been stricken with typhus and six more were already dead of the disease. No food had been received for three days, and those who still had the strength, were almost dangerously ravenous, some swarming into the local bakery to lick up the raw flour.
The commanding officer of the 823rd T.D. Bn immediately ordered the Burgomeister to provide food for the train’s passengers by the slaughtering of cattle and sheep, and the all night operation of the town’s two bakeries, and to provide housing by the community. These arrangements were confirmed by the Military Government, which later moved the group to barracks in Neuhaldensleben.
Interrogation of 20 of the passengers revealed that they were Jews and some other political prisoners who had been confined in the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp located near Celle, Province of Hannover. This section of Bergen-Belsen was believed to be the only camp set up exclusively for Jews, and was termed as a stopover to Camp xxx. The prisoners were supposed to be used in exchange for German citizens through neutral countries.
On 7 April 1945, the entire exchange group of Jews was suddenly alerted and bundled into the train which wound up on the Farsleben siding. The train left 8 April and was said to be bound for Theresienstadt, in the Sudetenland. The train was halted at Farsleben because of the advances of our troops; before the guards and crew abandoned it, the prisoners were told to cross the Elbe River on foot.
[Hauptmann Schlegel, the train commander] estimated that 15,000 persons had died at the camp during his stay there, out of a constantly changing population of about 40,000, attributing the deaths to typhus and typhoid, both of which were frequent, rather than to deliberate starvation. He said he knew of two as doctors and a “number” of civilian doctors at the camp. On the train, he stated, there were three civilian doctors. Five persons died while enroute. He believed that the 33,000 prisoners outside the stop-over camp at Bergen-Belsen, were about equally political and criminal cases.
A PW [prisoner of war] stated that the camp was run by two officers of the Totenkopf Verbande, SS/Hauptsturmfuhrer (Capt.) Kramer and SS/Untersturmfuhrer (Lt.) Klipp. His own attitude was one of hand-washing apathy. He was not responsible for what went on, was just a pawn–and if he was bothered by some of the things that went on, no one knows about it.
This is one of the many stories of the Nazi’s organized cruelty of the German model of total warfare. Two other suspects of the case which certainly will affect the task of Military Government, which will face many of the units now devoted to fighting, were developed at Farsleben. The first in the report by many of the prisoners, that the inhabitants of the town were very friendly when the train first stopped there –because they expected the hourly arrival of the U.S. Troops. Later, when our failure to arrive aroused some doubts, the populace reverted to hostility and contempt. Our troops, when they did arrive, however, found the citizenry of Farsleben most eager to be of help to the prisoners. The second observation was made by Military Government Officers, after the prisoners had been fed and deloused and after beds and clean bed-clothes had been set up for them in barns and other buildings. The set up looked beautiful, but only for a short time. The personal standards of cleanliness of many members of the group were bad, and some even went so far as to defecate on the floor of their living quarters. This rehabilitation for many of the victims of Hitler’s Europe, must mean far more than mere relocation and provision of adequate food and quarters, which itself is no great problem. True rehabilitation must provide for even so fundamental a thing as a sense of physical decency, for a large number of those who have been treated have lived for years as animals.
Casualties to date: Division 24,778
Other Units 3,628