Liberation of Buchenwald
by Harry J. Herder, Jr.
Liberation of Buchenwald
by Harry J. Herder, Jr.
For Reports About the Dachau Liberation
Over fifty years ago, I went through a set of experiences that I have never been able to shake from my mind. They subside in my mind, and, then, in the spring always, some small trigger will set them off and I will be immersed in these experiences once more. The degree of immersion varies from year to year, but there is no gradual diminution with time. I note, but do not understand, that the events occurred in the spring, and the re-immersion seems to be always in the spring. This year I set those memories on paper, all of them, or at least all of them I recall. I hope for the catharsis. I do not expect a complete purging — that would be expecting too much — but if I can get these memories to crawl deeper into my mind, to reappear less vividly, and less frequently, it will be a help.
We are as we are, we saw what we saw, and we remember as we remember. So be it. These are my memories. It is enough for me that I feel what I do feel, and I am now attempting to thin those feelings out. And I use you, the reader. I must purge these feelings on someone, and if I have readers, it is they I am using. I apologize to you, and I ask for your understanding.
This all happened to a group of us on April 11, 1945. The things we found then were grotesque enough without knowing some of the other things we did learn later. As a P.F.C. in the U. S. Army, there was no way that I could learn the origin of the orders that started it all. In fact when we started there was no way for those of us at the bottom of the ladder to have any idea at all where we were going or what we were up to. What I do remember is that we eventually drove up some gentle valley where there were trees on either side of us, when we made a sharp left turn, so sharp that those of us on the tops of the vehicles were grabbing things to keep from falling off. By the time we had regained our balance, there it was: a great high barbed wire fence at least ten feet high. Between us and the fence and running parallel to the fence was a dirt road, with high guard towers every fifty yards or so. Beyond the fence were two more layers of barbed wire fence not quite as tall. There seemed to be about five yards between those fences. The barbed wire in those fences was laced in a fine mesh, so finely meshed no one was going to get through it. Our tanks slowed down, but they did not stop; they blew straight at and through the barbed wire. Those of us riding the top scurried quickly to get behind the turret, while those vehicles just continued to charge. When we broke through the first of those fences we got a clue, the first clue as to what we had come upon, but we had no real comprehension at all of what was to assault our senses for the next hours, the next days.
We hit those fences with enough speed so that it was unclear to me whether it was the first level, or the second, or the third, but at least one of those levels was hot with electricity. We hit the fences, blew through them, and shorted out whichever it was on the damp ground. Once we were through the fences we turned left a bit and took off up a gentle cleared hill toward a concentration of buildings. Those buildings were still two hundred yards or more up the hill from us, but it didn’t take long for those tanks to growl their way up toward those buildings. I recall that I was very much on the alert. The tanker on our vehicle assigned to the machine gun was on that weapon and ready to use it, and those of us riding the top were ready to bail off and hit the ground on the run and do whatever it was that we were going to have to do. I was an assistant bazooka man, and I had a sack with ten bazooka rounds hung over my shoulder; I had an M1 Garand, and some bandoleers of ammo for that; some grenades hanging one place and another; a fully loaded cartridge belt; and I was on my toes ready to scramble off that tank at the first sign of trouble. I would follow the bazooka man: wherever he went I would go. It turned out that we didn’t need any of that hardware.
I remember scouting out the area in front of us quickly with my eyes. There were no great details, but I saw that over to the left, next to, and just inside of the fence, and to our front, were some major buildings, and next to one of those buildings was a monster of a chimney, a monster both in diameter and in height. Black smoke was pouring out of it, and blowing away from us, but we could still smell it. An ugly horrible smell. A vicious smell.
The tank which we were riding, along with two other tanks in our column, wheeled to the left so that the three of them made a front. Two more columns containing the rest of our company, off to our right, made the same maneuver so that all of us presented one front. Our Company Commander and the commander of the tank destroyer outfit were riding in a jeep somewhere near the middle of all of that mess. Once we presented that front, those of us who were on top of the tanks jumped off and spread out on the same front. I was prepared to flatten out on the deck, but it turned out we didn’t have to, and none of us did. I stayed close to Stover, my bazooka man, ready to do whatever it was he was going to do. None of us–well, none of us in the lower ranks–knew what it was we were up to or where we were, but we were fully expecting a fire fight with German troops, whose camp we had just stormed and taken, and we thought they would be angry at us. It turned out there were no German troops present.
Slowly, as we formed up, a ragged group of human beings started to creep out of and from between the buildings in front of us. As we watched these men, the number and the different types of buildings came to my attention. From them came these human beings, timidly, slowly, deliberately showing their hands, all in a sort of uniform, or bits and pieces of a uniform, made from horribly coarse cloth with stripes running vertically. The stripes alternating a dull gray with a dark blue. Some of those human beings wore pants made of the material, some had shirt/jackets, and some had hats. Some only had one piece of the uniform, others had two, many had all three parts. They came out of the buildings and just stood there, making me feel foolish with all of that firepower hanging on me. I certainly wouldn’t be needing it with these folks.
The jeeps, our company commander’s and a few others, rolled forward very slowly toward these people, and, as they parted, drove slowly through them, to the brick building next to that tall chimney, and our officers disappeared inside. Our platoon sergeant had us form up some and relax, then signaled that horde of human beings to stand fast; he just held both hands up, palms out, and motioned them backwards slowly. Everything was very quiet. The tanks were all in slow idle.
Hesitatingly we inched closer to that strange group as they also started inching closer to us. Some of them spoke English, and asked, “Are you American?” We said we were, and the reaction of the whole mass was immediate: simultaneously on their faces were relaxation, ease, joy, and they all began chattering to us in a babble of tongues that we couldn’t answer–but we could, and did, point the muzzles of our weapons at the ground, making it obvious these weapons were not “at the ready”.
It was then that the smell of the place started to get to me. Our noses, rebelling against the surroundings they were constantly subjected to were not functioning anywhere near normally. But now there was a new odor, thick and hanging, and it assaulted the senses.
There was still space between us and the group in front of us, the people on both sides now relaxed, one side considerably more jubilant than the other, but all of the tensions were gone. We were inching closer together when our platoon sergeant was called back to one of the tanks and got on the radio. He wasn’t there but a few minutes, came back, formed up our platoon, and took us back away, toward the place where we had entered the camp, back toward the fences through which we had ripped holes. At each hole in the fence he left two of us. The sergeant left us there with instructions that we were to let no one through that hole from either direction. He left Bill and me in the middle of the hole in the fence, and told us to hold that hole. Bill and I were vigorous young things with an immense curiosity, and it was difficult standing still in the middle of a hole through a set of three fences. We hadn’t the vaguest idea what we had run into. Not yet.
Soon Sergeant Blowers came by and told us that all of the people inside of the camp had been told to stay inside of the fence, that we were down by the holes to make sure they stayed inside. Bill and I were told to go into the tower, go to the top floor, to stay there, and to keep people from coming out through the hole. We still had no idea what this place was.
Containing the prisoners was not expected to be any trouble because they understood the need, and they were being provided for in every way that we could think of: the field hospital had just arrived, a big mess unit was on the way, loads of PX rations were coming. Sergeant Blowers told us that some of the prisoners spoke English. Then he got even quieter, looked at the ground for as moment, raised his eyes, and looking over our heads, began very softly, so softly we could barely hear him. He told us that this is what was called a “concentration camp”, that we were about to see things we were in no way prepared for. He told us to look, to look as long as our stomachs lasted, and then to get out of there for a walk in the woods. I had never known Sergeant Blowers to be like this. The man had seen everything I could imagine could be seen, and this place was having this effect on him. I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what a concentration camp was, or could be, but I was about to learn.
Bill, Tim, and I started off through the trees, down the hill to the front gate which was only a couple of hundred yards away. The gate was a rectangular hole through the solid face of the building over which was office space and a hallway. High up above the opening for the gate was a heavy wooden beam with words carved into it in German script, Arbeit Macht Frei. In a clumsy way I attempted to translate the inscription to Bill and Tim as, “Work will make you free”. The three of us headed through the gate, through the twenty or thirty feet to the other side of the building. We were slightly apprehensive of what we might see. Our antennae were up. We had been teased by bits of information, and we wanted to know more. The lane we were walking on bent to the right as we cleared the building. We had barely made the turn, and there it was. In front of us a good bit, but plainly visible.
The bodies of human beings were stacked like cord wood. All of them dead. All of them stripped. The inspection I made of the pile was not very close, but the corpses seemed to be all male. The bottom layer of the bodies had a north/south orientation, the next layer went east/west, and they continued alternating. The stack was about five feet high, maybe a little more; I could see over the top. They extended down the hill, only a slight hill, for fifty to seventy-five feet. Human bodies neatly stacked, naked, ready for disposal. The arms and legs were neatly arranged, but an occasional limb dangled oddly. The bodies we could see were all face up. There was an aisle, then another stack, and another aisle, and more stacks. The Lord only knows how many there were.
Just looking at these bodies made one believe they had been starved to death. They appeared to be skin covering bones and nothing more. The eyes on some were closed, on others open. Bill, Tim, and I grew very quiet. I think my only comment was, “Jesus Christ.”
I have since seen the movie made about Buchenwald. The stack of bodies is vividly displayed in the movie, just as I saw it the first day, but it is not the same. In no way is it the same. The black and white film did not depict the dirty gray-green color of those bodies, and, what it could not possibly capture was the odor, the smell, the stink. Watching the movie was, in a way, a reliving of the first walk through those stacks of bodies.
The three of us looked, and we walked down the edge of those stacks. I know I didn’t count them–it wouldn’t have mattered. We looked and said not a word. A group of guys from the company noticed us and said, “Wait till you see in there.”
They pointed to a long building which was about two stories high, and butted up tightly to the chimney. It had two barn-like doors on either end of the building we were looking at, and the doors were standing open. We turned and walked back to the building where we found others from our company, along with some of the prisoners milling around in the space between the bodies and the building. We moved gently through those people, through the doors and felt the warmth immediately. Not far from the doors, and parallel to the front of the building, there was a brick wall, solid to the top of the building. In the wall were small openings fitted with iron doors. Those doors were a little more than two feet wide and about two and a half feet high; the tops of the doors had curved shapes much like the entrances to churches. Those iron doors were in sets, three high. There must have been more than ten of those sets, extending down that brick wall. Most of the doors were closed, but down near the middle a few stood open. Heavy metal trays had been pulled out of those openings, and on those trays were partially burned bodies. On one tray was a skull partially burned through, with a hole in the top; other trays held partially disintegrated arms and legs. It appeared that those trays could hold three bodies at a time. And the odor, my God, the odor.
I had enough. I couldn’t take it any more. I left the building with Bill and Tim close behind me. As we passed through the door someone from the company said, “the crematorium.” Until then I had no idea what a crematorium was.
It dawned on me much later–the number of bodies which could be burned at one time, three bodies to a tray, at least thirty trays–and the Germans still couldn’t keep up. The bodies on the stacks outside were growing at a faster rate than they could be burned. It was difficult to imagine what must have been going on.
Later that evening, sitting on the front steps of the barracks with a group of people from the company, Sergeant Blowers among us, the three of us started to pick up the parts of the story we had missed because we were on guard at the towers. All of the German guards had packed up and moved out about three hours before our arrival. There were bits and pieces of personal gear still left around the barracks, but not much. We saw neither hide nor hair of those German guards. When the Germans left, the crematorium was still going full blast, burning up a storm, the chimney belching out that black smoke. Our First Sergeant, Sergeant Blowers, our Company Commander, and the Leader of the TD group found the source of the fuel, and played around with one thing and another until they figured out how to turn the damned thing off.
That was the start. That was just the “openers”. There was more, but it was impossible to assimilate it all at once. General Patton had assigned us to this place for four days, ostensibly to keep the now-free prisoners off the roads needed to supply his troops who were racing through Germany at the end of the war. The full explanation was given the prisoners, and there was no problem, they understood. Patton had assigned a whole field hospital to the place along with a big kitchen unit. He eventually sent in an engineering outfit with bulldozers to dig a mass grave for those bodies. We were doing everything we possibly could for the prisoners. Later on, when things became quieter, military government people arrived to help the prisoners get home–if there were homes for them to get to.
A little later in the evening the three of us walked back into the camp, passed by the crematorium and the stacks of bodies, and wandered into the camp proper. There were temporary lights strung around for the medics to do their work. The prisoners came up and surrounded us, moving with us as they jabbered, but they spoke a language we did not understand–they were probably speaking several languages we did not understand. There was the slightest of communication. They gave way and moved along with us. We must have appeared as giants in their midst: we well-fed, healthy, strong, young men; they gaunt, shrunken, their ugly striped uniforms hanging on them.
They were jabbering, and we wanted to listen, to understand, but there seemed to be no way we could. After some moments we figured out they wanted our cigarettes. In no time we were out of them–they just disappeared. We had nothing else with us they really wanted, but they stuck with us and guided us to another set of buildings, which had the look of large barns with wide doors in the middle of the front. Entering the first of these we found we were entering their home. There were stacks of bunks five or six high, crowded together with very little room between a bunk and the one above it. (It was my thought that one would have a rough time merely rolling over.) The bunks were much too short even for short people. The lower bunks served as rungs of a ladder to the upper ones. How many hundreds of people slept in this one building was beyond me. Then there were all of those dead bodies outside that must have come from here. Where did the Germans get them all?
Just inside the door were people on the lower bunks so close to death they didn’t have the strength to rise. They were, literally, skeletons covered with skin–nothing more than that–there appeared to be no substance to them. The next day when the press arrived, one of the photographers for LIFE magazine had one of the really bad ones propped up against the door frame in the daylight. He took the photograph, but out of sight in the darkness of the building, behind the man, were the people propping him up. I have seen that photograph several times in the years since, and every time I see it my stomach rolls a little, my mind goes into some kind of a dance, and it takes me a little time to return to normal. There are still altogether too many things that flood my mind once a trigger is pulled.
Later we were told the medical unit was moving around searching for the most desperate cases, in order to get them to the doctor as quickly as possible. They told us the story of one prisoner who was so close to death that even thinned chicken broth was too rich for his stomach. The doctors were doing everything they could, trying mightily; but in too many cases they had no chance at all and would lose in spite of their best efforts.
We were about to do what Sergeant Blowers had told us to do–take a walk in the woods. We headed for the woods talking softly to each other, the talk full of wonderment–the hows, the whys. We had no answers. As limited as our combat experience had been, we had seen dead men, we had seen wounded men from both sides with the immediacy of battle, with no time for conjecture. We had done what we could for the wounded and then had got on with the job that had to be done. None of us, no one in our company, even amongst those who had been the originals, was prepared for what we were now surrounded by. It was not “human”. It did not seem real. But it was all too real, it was the only life that some of the prisoners had known for years. Maybe it was all too human. Maybe this is what we are.
Later that evening, a bunch of us from the company were sitting on the front steps of the barracks, talking. There were questions, far more questions than there were answers. Those of us assigned to the towers at the beginning had missed a great deal of what had gone on, and we were catching up.
Amongst other things, Sergeant Blowers was explaining our duties while we were here: we were to stand guard for four hours at a time, and then take eight hours off; there would be one of us in every other tower most of the way around the camp. We would be covering all of the holes we had ripped in the fence. The first platoon, ours, had the midnight-to-four, and the noon-to-four shifts.
Sergeant Blowers told us some things about the Commandant of Buchenwald and his wife. We could see their house down the hill through the leafless trees from our seats on the front steps. Blowers painted a picture of truly despicable human beings. The wife, Ilse Koch, favored jodhpurs, boots, and a riding crop. He told us this story about her: Once, she ordered all of the Jewish prisoners in the camp stripped and lined up; she then marched down the rows of them, and, as she saw a tattoo she liked, she would touch that tattoo with her riding crop; the guards would take the man away immediately to the camp hospital where the doctors would remove the patch of skin with the tattoo, have it tanned, and patch it together with others to make lamp shades. There were three of those lamp shades–the history books say there were two, but there were three. One of them disappeared shortly after we arrived. This may give you a glimmer of an idea of what Ilse Koch was like–and her husband–and the camp “doctors.”
We learned that only a very few Jews remained at Buchenwald, most of them in terrible physical shape. The Jews who had been healthy, to any degree, had been marched away from the camp weeks before. No one knew why they had been taken away, or where they had been taken. Originally, in the camp, the Jews and the non-Jews were largely separated and given different food rations and different jobs to do. Treatment of the prisoners varied also, depending on ethnic origin. There were a few women prisoners, but we wouldn’t see them for a time as they had been taken immediately to the field hospital to be checked over and cleaned up. Those who were able began working with the American nurses or helping out in the kitchen. They gave the impression they no longer felt like slave laborers; in fact, they seemed only too glad to assist. There were children prisoners, some of them born in the camp. The females had been forced into prostitution often (though not the Jews). We learned more from an American Lieutenant who had entered the camp later as an interpreter. Things that he had learned interviewing prisoners in the hospital.
After listening to all of this, a half dozen or so of us went down to the Camp Commandant’s home, walked in, and looked around. It was a grand home, luxuriously furnished, but messy now from the many feet trudging through it all day long. We looked for the lamp shades–we found only the lamp bases where they had been.
Then, since we were to go on guard duty from midnight to four in the morning, we thought a little sleep was in order, so we returned to the barracks, threw our blankets across our mattresses, crawled under them, and slept, or tried to sleep. My mind was full. Sleep did not come easily. Sergeant Blowers broke us out a little after eleven o’clock that night. We gathered our equipment and piled into a truck and went around the watch towers, jumping out as we came to our assignments. I climbed the stairs to the top floor using the flashlight handed to me by the man I relieved. As I stood on the top floor looking out, I saw nothing. There was no electricity so the search lights in the tower didn’t work. I had with me my Garand rifle, the rifle belt with a full canteen hanging on it, a field jacket over my woolen shirt. The pockets of the field jacket were loaded: in the top left pocket was a toothbrush which I had quit using for its primary purpose once I started cleaning my rifle with it; there was a mess kit spoon right beside it, along with a pack of cigarettes and two or three cigars; in the top right pocket was another pack of cigarettes and some Hershey bars.
I started by stacking my rifle in the corner, took off my belt and put it on the table, and, leaning on the table, I started thinking about all of the things that had happened during the day. Strange things. Things I could not yet understand–could never understand. I thought about those things and questions entered my mind, but there were no answers. Finally I merely slumped and realized how good a cup of coffee would taste. I had my canteen cup. There was water in my canteen. There were packets of instant coffee (horrible stuff) in my pocket along with packets of sugar. I had everything I needed for a cup of coffee except heat. With the help of a flashlight I started scrounging around, finding little wood chips all over the place. The trench knife from my belt helped me make some more of them, and I ended up with a tidy bunch of wood chips. I built the fire right in the middle of the machine gun table, heated the water in my canteen cup and made myself a cup of coffee. After sweeping the fire from the table and stomping on the sparks, I sat on a corner of the table, lit a cigar, drank the coffee, and looked out into the darkness. Less than a half an hour later I saw a fire in Bill’s tower and guessed that he had seen what I was up to and done the same thing.
The next morning while we were sipping coffee after breakfast, a great commotion broke out down at the gate. We wandered off in that direction, coffee cups in hand. A bright and shiny jeep came through the gate, with this fellow standing in front of the passenger seat, holding onto the windshield. His helmet was gleaming and elaborately decorated, his uniform spic and span, his pistol highly polished and oddly shaped, and, by God, there he was: it was George Patton himself touring this place. From time to time the jeep would stop and he would ask questions. In front of the crematorium the jeep stopped, he alighted and walked inside. He was out of sight for some minutes, appearing again with a very stiff back. Into the jeep and he was all over the place in just a few minutes. He passed us on the way out–and damn he looked mad–about as mad as I had ever seen anyone look. I would not have wanted to cross that man right then. The jeep sped back out the gate and on down the road and George just sat.
Now that we had gone through a tour of duty at the towers, we knew what it was we wanted to take along with us. I fully intended to load up with candy bars, instant cocoa, and a bunch of other good things to stash away in one of the tower cupboards.
Eventually Sergeant Blowers came down the hall, out the door, and onto the front steps with the rest of us. I got to my tower, crawled up the staircase, and relieved the fellow from the third platoon. I set all my things down and surveyed the scene in front of me. I stacked my rifle in the corner and threw my rifle belt on the machine gun table. There was a tiny char mark on the table by now, the word apparently having been passed around. It was a warm afternoon so I took my jacket off, dropped it on the table and leaned on the ledge of the opening for a while. After a bit I crawled up on the table and sat on it cross-legged. I dug a cigar out of my jacket, lit it, and enjoyed it, and I studied the landscape around the camp. There were some heavily wooded areas around the outside of the camp, and the spring weather was turning the leaf buds a fuzzy green color. I imagined it would be very beautiful there in the summer with all of the trees leafed out.
I was ruminating in this manner when I heard a tiny voice, and my attention came back to the inside of the camp. I could see nothing, but I heard the voice again, under me, down near the fence. I scrunched forward on the table to where I could see almost straight down. There, right in the middle of the hole in the fence, looking up, calling me, was this very small person. I waved my arm at him letting him know that it was all right to come on through the fence, to come up the tower. He did so immediately. The sound of his footsteps coming up the stairs was almost instantaneous. I barely had time to get off the table and over to the stair opening before he was beside me.
He was young, very small, and he spoke no English. He was dressed in bits and pieces of everything, ragged at best, and very dirty. He chattered up a storm and I could not understand one word. First, I got him to slow down the talk, then I tried to speak to him, but he could not understand a word I said. We were at a temporary stalemate. We started again from scratch, both of us deciding that names were the proper things with which to start, so we traded names. I no longer remember the name he taught me, and I wish so badly, so often, I could. Our conversation started with nouns, naming things, and progressed to simple verbs, actions, and we were busy with that. As we progressed I reached over into my field jacket to pull things out of the pocket to name. I came across a chocolate bar and taught him the word “candy”. He repeated it, and I corrected him. He repeated it again, and he had the pronunciation close. I tore the wrapper off the chocolate bar and showed him the candy. He was mystified. It meant nothing to him. He had no idea what it was or what he was to do with it. I broke off a corner and put it in my mouth and chewed it. I broke off another corner and handed it to him and he mimicked my actions. His eyes opened wide. It struck me that he had never tasted chocolate. It was tough to imagine, but there it was. He took the rest of the candy bar slowly, piece by piece, chewed it, savored it. It took him a little while but he finished the candy bar, looking at me with wonderment the whole time. While he was eating the bar, I searched around for the old wrapper, found the word “chocolate ” on it, pointed to the word, and pronounced the word “chocolate”. He worked on the correct pronunciation. I am sure that was the first candy the little fellow had ever had. He had no idea what candy was until then. We worked out words for those things close around us. He was learning a bit of English, but I was not learning a word of his language–I do not even know what language he spoke. This wasn’t something that happened consciously, it was just something that happened.
I spent the rest of my four-hour tour with him. I pretty well ignored what happened in the rest of the camp. There was nothing much going on down in my corner, so it was easy to ignore. My whole world shrank to the inside of the fourth floor of the tower and the young boy. Toward the end of the tour, I found one of those blocks of compressed cocoa that came in the K-Rations in a pocket of my field jacket, and the two of us constructed a hot cup of cocoa for ourselves. We used the same method I had used the night before to make a cup of coffee. A canteen cup is a rather large cup and the two of us shared it. On the first sip he looked at me with a large smile and said the word “chocolate”. We were starting to communicate. I gave him other things from the K-Ration packages, among them a small can with cheese and bits of bacon, which we opened with the can opener I wore on my dog tag chain. This meant he had to study the dog tags. His curiosity was immense. He ate the cheese mixture (which I ate only when I was very hungry), and sorted out the words “cheese” and “bacon”, and he loved the stuff. It did not even begin to enter my mind that he might have been Jewish and shouldn’t have been eating bacon. I made up my mind to really load up before I came to the tower the next day.
That’s the way the tour went, and it was all so pleasant. The little fellow was a joy scampering around. I figured him to be somewhere between five and eight years old, but I was probably wrong, on the low side. Later, when I thought more about it, I realized whatever growing he had done had been on the rations of that camp. No great growth could be expected from a diet like that. When we split at the end of the four hours, he pointed to my pack of cigarettes. My first thought was that I didn’t want him to smoke them, but then I remembered the events yesterday in the camp when my pack of cigarettes simply disappeared. Cigarettes were for barter; they were exchange material. I had no idea how rich one was when one had a whole pack of cigarettes. To these people cigarettes were money, and I was getting them free from PX rations. When we parted I loaded him up with candy bars and my extra pack of cigarettes. He had them all inside his shirt and went streaking back through the whole in the fence and on up the hill. After I was relieved and heading back up the hill, I saw Tim coming down the road behind me and I slowed until he caught up. When we got to Bill’s tower, Bill was waiting for us, and the three of us walked up the road together.
As we approached the gate area, we noticed the place was in a kind of a mild uproar. The press people were still there, joined by a lot of big shots from the army. Buchenwald was filled with those who had to “spectate.” People were walking around and through the aisles of those stacks of dead bodies. To me this was the final indignity. It was an exhibition. God, help us. Those people in the stacks were dead, they were gone. Nothing could really hurt them further, but it hurt me that they were now an exhibition. The three of us at the gate stood there, looked, turned our backs, and walked away.
All of the way from the tower I had been telling Bill and Tim about the little kid. Bill had noticed the two of us in the tower. I’d had the kid standing on the table and had put my field jacket on him, which was much, much too large for him; then I put my steel helmet on his head, and the two of us giggled. On the way back up the road our moods lightened a little with the stories about the little fellow, we had started to feel a little better. We got to the gate and saw the carnival atmosphere, and our good spirits vanished. Scowling, we quietly walked back to the barracks. We had to go near the Commandant’s house, and all of the “tourists” were lined up to go through another “exhibit,” where someone was busy telling “Ilse” stories. That was enough for me. I was glad to get back to the barracks.
We headed for the mess tent, talking about what had been going on all day long with the press and the visitors. Some of our guys had been disgusted by a bunch of nurses or WACs in their Class A uniforms taking pictures of the naked dead. It was not the display of the genitals that shook some of us up; it was that final indignity, the exhibition. Some one mentioned, while we were eating, that the engineers would be here tomorrow to bury those poor people. That made me feel a little better; no one could hurt them anymore after their burial. The trays at the crematorium would be emptied also. It would not be the most desirable of burials, but we would be rid of part of the exhibit.
There was other talk too, and I was turning into one hell of a listener. It seemed that Patton had become so angry at what he had seen in the camp that he scooted into the nearest major town, Weimar, broke the mayor of the town out, and told him he wanted every citizen up the next morning, ready to march to through Buchenwald so as to see what the German people were responsible for. The engineers were not to bury the dead until after the grand tour by the German townspeople.
We heard stories that night from two professors who had been non-Jewish prisoners at Buchenwald for over four years. They were intelligent. They had seen and were aware of everything that had happened at the camp. We asked them questions and we were given answers. We were flooded with information. There is no way I could present those stories as we heard them, chronologically, after this great a time. What I remember now are bits and pieces, and certain of those bits surface more rapidly than others.
We sat, that night, around the table on the second floor of Bill’s tower and talked–Bill, Tim, the man from the third platoon, the two professor prisoners, and myself. In one way the talk was an interrogation: four of us with insatiable curiosities, two who could satisfy those curiosities. Four of us asking questions, two providing the answers. There were times when we lit Sterno cans and made ourselves some instant coffee, but the talk never ceased. The four of us emptied our pockets of the little goodies we were carrying, spread them out on the table top, and made them available to everyone. We kept talking and time disappeared. The minds of the four of us grew and stretched in terms no psychoanalysts would ever be able to measure. Four hours of education happened that night which could have happened no place else.
Of the events at Buchenwald described by the two professors, I remember some. I told the two professors about the young person who had been at my tower the past afternoon, and described him as best I could. They thought they knew which of the young boys it was and believed he had been born at Buchenwald. The only life he knew was that of the concentration camp. There was no way he could have known about chocolate candy before this afternoon. That flipped me.
One story: The German army had been losing men on the Russian front because they were freezing to death. Some had been still alive when brought to the field hospitals, but had died in spite of the best efforts of the German doctors. Those field hospitals had requested some research on how to revive human beings who were very nearly frozen to death, but were still alive. The research had been done at Buchenwald. Groups of Jewish men had been taken outside on winter nights, stripped, and sprayed with a mist of water until they were nearly dead. They were then trundled into the hospital, and every effort was made to revive them. Every effort failed. The ungrateful Jewish prisoners just went ahead and died, in spite of the best efforts of German medicine at the time. Finally, some bright medical type thought there might be a kind of animal heat that would revive them. They took one more group out, freezing them until they were nearly dead, brought them back into the hospital, and put them into bed with naked women. Their animal desires would revive them, or so the theory went. It goes without saying the experiment failed–again. The still ungrateful prisoners simply continued to die.
Another story: There had been a factory a couple of kilometers down the railroad line from Buchenwald that was manufacturing something that was in demand by the German government. It was not clear to me what the plant had been making, but, in any event, it was the place where most of the political prisoners worked. Some Jewish prisoners worked there too, but they were only trusted with the menial jobs. One particular night our bombers flew over the camp to the factory, which they pulverized. They leveled it completely. Everyone working there was killed, but that didn’t seem to matter to the two professors; not one bomb had missed the factory, not one bomb had fallen inside Buchenwald. The two professors thought that was remarkable–to be able to bomb with such precision. To listen to them was to get the feeling they believed it was a blessing to die in a bombing raid rather than in other circumstances at Buchenwald. The dead were better off, and the factory was out of business also. The Germans had made no effort to rebuild it. It had all happened not too long before we arrived.
Another story (to me the most gruesome): German doctors at the camp were doing research on some human diseases. Groups of Jewish prisoners would be selected (which must have been some kind of an admission they were human beings) and inoculated with the diseases. They would then be observed, and all of their reactions charted until death occurred. A post-mortem of the body would be done, and those organs affected by the disease would be preserved and stored. The doctors would then move onto another disease, repeating the process. A building in the camp, near the hospital, held all of those preserved specimens. The two prisoners told us of the building and its location, how we could find it in the morning if we were so inclined. In that building were rooms devoted to each of the organs: a kidney room, a liver room, a heart room, etc. The two named some of the diseases studied, but I have forgotten (willfully?) the names.
Another story? No. About what they did with the women prisoners? No. I quit. No more. That was probably the most brutal night I have ever lived through. Enough. A major reason I need a catharsis.
The next morning we did a check on the building, and there they were. Rooms full of bottles of organs, all neatly and voluminously labeled. We turned and walked away. I had had enough. Any prisoner could tell me anything he wished from now on, and I would believe. That building was enough.
After seeing the organ building and my walk in the woods, I still had a few hours before my next tour of guard duty. I spent the time straightening my gear out and loading up the pockets of my field jacket. I expected the young boy again, and I wanted to be able to give him everything I could.
After a quickly gobbled lunch at the mess tent, we took off for our towers and relieved the third platoon men. I had barely reached the top floor when the young fellow came running up the steps. I hadn’t seen him out in the field on the other side of the fence, but there he had been watching, waiting for me. The first thing he got was another chocolate bar, and he took his time with that while we worked some more on our language. We made another cup of cocoa, this time over a Sterno can rather than a fire on the table. I tried to give him some boxes of K-Rations, but, hell, he was eating better than that at the mess tent. Maybe those K-Rations would be used for barter–that was all right with me. I had more cigarettes to give him when we parted too.
I saw a gang of about thirty or forty of the prisoners still wearing their striped garb. They were heading back toward the camp, which mystified me, because they should not have been outside of the camp in the first place. As they passed the tower I noticed that one of them, one in the middle of the group, had his hands tied behind his back, and a rope tied around his neck. He was being led back into the prison. The commotion was centered around that individual. The little fellow in the tower with me became all excited and tried to explain things to me. After a bit, I got the idea that the person on the end of the rope had been one of the German guards at the prison camp, and these people found him in a small village near the camp. They were bringing him back.
It was then, too, that I noticed a lot of action up in the camp. Something important was happening there. People were scurrying about, and most of the prisoners were headed toward the gate. I was too far down the hill to discern the nature of what was going on, but I was betting it was the people from Weimar touring the camp after being marched out from the city. It turned out to be a good guess.
An interpreter met them at the gate, marched them around, and, according to the word I heard later, carefully explained in great detail what had been going on in the camp. In fact all the interpreter would have needed would have been a few words and a pointed finger. The evidence was all there; the massive pile of bodies still stacked, just as they were when we first found them; the doors in the crematorium now all open, and more of the trays pulled out with their contents visible. The German people were seeing what had been going on in that place all of those years. Now we could bury the bodies.
After the tour had been administered, the group headed back out of the gate and back down the road to Weimar. There was a large patrol of our troops marching them, some on either side of the road. As they were moving back to Weimar, not even out of sight of the camp, a number of Germans in the group found something to laugh about. The commander of the American troops heard them and became livid with anger. He turned them around and marched them, then and there, back through the camp again. This time they went through much more slowly. By the time they returned to the camp the bodies in the stacks were already being loaded on to trucks to be carried away to the mass grave. This time, on the march home to Weimar, there was no laughter. The next day we heard that after returning to their town, the mayor of Weimar and his wife both committed suicide.
The ovens were soon cleaned out, and the bodies were almost all gone, being buried over the top of the hill where the engineers had dug a monstrous trench. The Buchenwald prisoners had found one of their German guards in a nearby village dressed in civilian clothes, and they had him now in a cell in one of the buildings and were interrogating him. No one knew how this gang of prisoners had been able to sneak out the hole in the fence to get to the village. We walked through the gate to the door that opened to the cell area. It was crowded and the onlookers parted to let the three of us through, and we went to the door of the cell. The German was standing at attention in the middle of the room and was being peppered with questions that we did not understand. The answers were all monosyllabic. Tears were coming down his cheeks. One of the Buchenwald prisoners seemed to be in charge, but a group of them were participating in the interrogation. The one who appeared to be in charge also appeared to be one calm individual. The three of us watched, but we couldn’t understand what was being said, so we turned and left. The crowd parted again to let us through. A most welcome sight to my eyes was the absence of the stack of bodies as I came through the door from the cell area.
Back inside the cell the former Buchenwald prisoners, and their current prisoner presented a riveting scene: The hands of the German were untied, and, in them was placed a stout piece of rope. He was being given instructions, and, as we watched, it wasn’t long before I and the people who had come with me realized he was being told how to tie a noose in the rope. The German guard was corrected three or four times, and had to undo some of his work to re-do it correctly. When he was finished, he had a very proper hangman’s noose, thirteen turns of the rope and all. A table was brought to the center of the room and placed under a very strong looking electrical fixture. The guard was assisted on to the table and instructed to fix the rope to the light fixture. Finishing that he was told to put all of his weight on the rope and lift his feet. The fixture held. The guard was told to place the noose over his head, around his neck, and to draw the noose fairly snug. Then he was told to place his hands behind his back and his wrists were tied together. The table was moved until he barely stood on its edge. He couldn’t see that–his eyes were unhooded and open, but the noose kept him from looking down. He was talked to some more and then he jumped. He was caught before all of his weight was on the rope, and they set him back on the table. The next time he stepped gently off the end, and the table was quickly slid away from him and out of his reach, and he dangled there. He slowly strangled. His face went through a variety of colors before he hung still.
My stomach did not want to hold food any longer. I turned and walked away, the rest of our guys following me. The Buchenwald prisoners stayed on to view their handiwork.
I walked through the crowd, out the door, through the gate, on up to the barracks, and I didn’t say a word. The others with me didn’t speak either. It was murder; there can be no doubt of that. The Buchenwald prisoners never touched the rope after it was placed in the German’s hands. They did not tie the noose, nor did they fix it to the ceiling. They did not place the rope around the man’s neck. They did not pull the table out from under him. In one sense, they had not committed murder; rather, the German had committed suicide. A sophist could rationalize that one I suspect.
That was not what was bothering me, however. I had the ability and the means to stop the whole thing, and I did not. Neither did my companions. Here we were–five or six of us–fully armed with semi-automatic rifles, and we did not make the Buchenwald prisoners stop. We let them continue. In one way, we sanctioned the event. Ever since that day I have been convincing myself that I understood why the Buchenwald prisoners did what they did. I had witnessed their agonies. I had wondered how human beings could treat other human beings as the prisoners at Buchenwald had been treated. I felt I knew why the prisoners of Buchenwald did what they did – so I did not stop them.
I have become some kind of a sophist for myself now. I could have stopped the whole action, and I did not. I have had that under my hat for the past forty-six years. Now I have written it. I have acknowledged it. Maybe it will go away. There are so many things from that week I wish would go away, things I wish could be scrubbed from my memory. When we returned to the barracks we did not tell anyone what we had witnessed.
I was not about to sleep, however. I flopped on my bunk without a thought of my tiny bunk mates, the bugs–I merely lay there. My eyes were closed, but my mind wasn’t. I tried to think of other things, but it was impossible. I reviewed in my mind the multiple things the Buchenwald prisoners had gone through, the length of time they had been living through hell, and I didn’t have to rationalize their actions. Hell, I knew why they were doing what they did. That train of thought took me further and further from my own guilt, and, in a little while, I was absolved. At least, as absolved as I was ever going to be. Absolved enough to be a little more comfortable with myself. That was enough for then.
The bunch of us walked around to our towers and some of us walked very quietly. Others were full of talk about tomorrow. The electricity had been restored in all of the towers, but I didn’t bother with it as I entered mine–I knew my way around. Upstairs, I relieved the guy before me and put my rifle over in the corner, threw the rifle belt under the table, crawled on the table, lit a cigar, and my thoughts continued.
I thought of my German heritage, my Grandfather Hugo who had come from to the United States from Germany while he was still a teenager, my mother’s grandparents who had come over from Germany long before that, my mother who had grown up early in this century in a small town in Minnesota, where there were two catholic churches: one for the Germans, the other for the Irish. They were only about a block apart from each other, each having its own grade school. My mother had attended the German school, and the only language spoken through the fourth grade had been German. When I was very young she had taught me how to count in German, and how to sing the German alphabet. She also taught me a very few words in German, everyday kinds of words which I still remembered. Three quarters of me was from German background, solid German stock. Pictures of the formidable Hugo had always been around me as I was growing up.
I wondered…Suppose my ancestors had not come to the United States; suppose they had stayed in Germany, and, through some fluke, the two people who had become my mother and father had met, and I had been born a German citizen. What would I be like? Would I be like the people who had instituted and guarded a place like Buchenwald? Could I have been that? Would I have been in the German army? The answer to the last question is obvious–certainly I would have been in the German army. But what kind of work would I have done? I hoped that I would not have been like most of the Germans I had seen. I could have accepted a likeness to some members of the German army whom we had fought, but there were many I would have been uncomfortable with. Much of what I had seen ran counter to everything my mother had brought me up believing. This whole situation would have appalled her. I have never ever told her, or my father either, most of these stories about Buchenwald. I did not feel it necessary. They knew early on that I had been there, and they took LIFE magazine. They had been made aware, like most people in the United States, of what had gone on.
During these past forty-six years, these memories have been creeping out of my mind, leaving me with sleepless nights afterwards. Never the whole story at once. Until now. I relive that night sitting on that machine gun bench, smoking a cigar, staring at the darkness. That night I sat in the dark and went through two or three cigars, and several cigarettes. I stared out at the darkness, and there were two reasons for not seeing anything: my eyes couldn’t see anything, and my mind wouldn’t see anything. My thoughts kept me too busy. They do now also.
I saw the lights up in the camp, but, at that time of night, nothing distracting was going on. My relief arrived, but I didn’t notice him until he was on the way up the stairs, turning the lights on as he came. By the time he reached the top floor I had my belt back on, my rifle in my hands, and was standing by the stair opening. Nothing had happened during my shift, and that was what I reported to him when he reached the top. I walked down, and caught up to Bill on the road. The two of us walked slowly until Tim caught up to us. As we all three walked together our only conversation was of our departure later in the morning.
I was nineteen, Bill and Tim were eighteen–chronologically anyway. We had aged years in a few short hours.
(Harry Herder Jr. served in the Korean War also, where he lost a leg to an enemy land mine.)