Section 2: Gunskirchen Lager
“THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED”
By Captain J. D. Pletcher
It was V-E Day. While the world celebrated, the weary men of Company “K”, 5th Regiment, 71st Infantry Division, commanded by Capt. Horace S. Berry of Spartansburg, S. C., faced the task of cleaning up Gunskirchen Lager, a German concentration camp near Lambach, Austria; of sending the living to hospitals, of supervising the burying of the dead, of trying to cover the stench coming from the half-finished buildings in the woods.
They had been working at the job since May 5, the day after Company “M” and Company “K”, like all others who saw it, will never forget.
In order that more people may know about the record of German inhumanity and barbarity revealed at Gunskirchen, the 71st Division publishes this booklet.
As strong as the words in these eyewitness accounts may be, as gruesome as the photographs and paintings may seem, they fall far short of expressing the horror that was Gunskirchen – a horror that no words or pictures could fully show.
On V-E Day Pfc. Norman Nichols, former Detroit art student, placed on a roving assignment by Major General Willard G. Wyman, commanding general of the 71st Division, set up his easel in the stinking patch of woods at Gunskirchen Lager and faithfully recorded the depths of degradation and suffering reached by “non-aryan” prisoners of the Reich.
Pfc. Nichols was with rifle companies of the 71st when the big push of the war’s closing weeks was on. He was under fire and shared the many discomforts of the infantryman’s life, but this was his most unpleasant job of all.
But because he and the men who have seen such camps in all part of Germany believe that the people back home should know, his pictures include all the details as they actually appeared that bright May morning. The painracked, starving, skeleton-like figures of the prisoners are not caricatures.
These people actually were that skinny. The piles of bodies and parts of bodies jumbled in death’s grotesque postures are not exaggeration.
The buildings, the woods, the roads near Gunskirchen Lager were choked with bodies. Artist Nichols has given a faithful picture of a German concentration camp.
Cynical persons who have put down as “propaganda” the stories of brutality in the Nazi prison camps may call Nichols’ sketches “just another atrocity” story. To Pfc. Nichols and the men of the 71st Division, “atrocity” is a mild word for what they saw. This actually happened.
German soldiers carry half-dead and dying prisoners from one of the stinking huts to a German truck for transportation to a hospital. The several day-old body in the foreground, one of many left where they fell, is ignored by both soldiers and prisoners.
“The German soldiers who were detailed to carry out the living, bury the dead and clean up the buildings denied any connection with the camp”, Artist Nichols said. “They said it was another SS mess.” The half-crazed, starving Jews were so glad to see the Americans they kissed the hands of embarrassed, nauseated Yanks who came away from the scenes of Nazi horror with an almost irresistible desire to shoot every German soldier on sight.
As the living were bring removed, the job of collecting and burying the dead was begun. None of the bodies was heavy for they were little more than bones. One detail of Germans collected the dead and placed them in a clearing, while another group dug graves. The kneeling boy to the right of Artist Nichols’ picture sat most of the day staring at the body of his brother, sobbing quietly and begging the Germans to give him a decent burial in an individual grave.
“Every time the Germans would go anywhere in the woods, they’d find more bodies of prisoners who had gone off from their comrades to die”. Nichols said. Almost any disease in the book could be recognized in the dead and dying men, though the few women in the camp who had been on “friendly” terms with the guards were apparently well-fed and buxom. One of these women walked back of the above burial scene and Nichols shows her in the right background.
“Sometimes we slept three deep in the mud of the barracks”, an inmate related. “We were too weak to move out the dead, too weak to move ourselves, so we slept with the bodies.” All the inmates were vermin-infested and many were covered with huge, open sores. This is a scene inside one of the buildings at Gunskirchen Lager.
End of the second of four sections
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