Holocaust: Confirmation and Some Retribution
by Ralph G. Rush, HQ Co, I&R, 355th Inf
Early on the morning of April 4,1945 a squad of the 355th HQ's Reconnaissance & Intelligence Platoon attached to the 4th Armored Div. as scouts, spotted a double fenced barbed wire enclosure with guard towers high on a hill. It looked ominous. We approached cautiously and after a brief firefight we entered the front gate of what proved to be Ohrdruf Nord, a Nazi concentration camp.
Later I learned that this was the first Nazi concentration camp to be captured by the Western allies. Its capture confirmed the "Holocaust" which until then had only been rumored. It is reported that on April 12th, Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton visited Ohrdruf and were sickened by the horror of the death camp. The Army knew what they had and flew in the press but on that day President Roosevelt died and the attention of the American press was diverted from Ohrdruf atrocities to the death of a President.
My recollection of all the details is not complete, but most of the horror is burned into my memory. Just inside the gates were a circle of men--10 or 12, almost all were allied soldiers including three American GIs, who had been kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs, one on a stretcher, all shot in the back of the neck. The bodies were still warm. On the right were open front, tar papered buildings containing a number of gaunt and emaciated inmates--just skin and bones. They were standing or sitting by their "beds"--a space about 2 feet by 6 feet outlined with strips of wood on the bare ground. They were dressed in lightweight striped prisoner's clothing and had only one blanket to use against the April cold.
Then something happened that I shall never forget. A young man approached me; he was about my age maybe a year or so older, I was 23. He was thin and gaunt but in better shape than the other inmates. He wore striped prisoners clothing with a faded gold Star of David sewn on the left side. He told me, in broken English, he was a Polish Jew and a trustee in the camp: that the SS guards had changed from their uniforms into prisoner's clothing and were hiding in the camp until they could get away. He asked me for my gun and I told him NO, that I could not give him my gun. I asked him how did I know that he was not SS---and he showed me his Tattoo--he was a Jew. We talked some more, he told me he had been in the Polish Army, and then he said "The guards have changed clothes and you don't know who they are, "But I Do! ", and he said "I know the cruel ones and the ones who enjoyed the torturing and the hanging and you don't. In combat you learn to trust your instincts and to make quick decisions; my instincts told me he was telling the truth. (A few days earlier ourplatoon had captured a German paratrooper and I had relived him of his 9mm Luger and several clips of ammo. I had it inside my shirt on my belt.)
Seeing the horror and the inhuman treatment all around us, I gave him the loaded Luger and two or three clips of 9mm ammo and wished him good luck.
Sergeant "Red "James Connell called me and the rest of the squad and advised us that the camp Commandant was holed up in the camp Headquarters Bldg. that "He was heavily armed and would fight to the death. " We were ordered to capture or take him out. The men covered all the windows and exits with their weapons and three of us went room by room throughout the two-story building--no one home. I do remember the Commandant's office-- it looked very efficient--large mahogany desk with a slide-rule in a leather case lying on top --- everything was very neat. I used the slide-rule all through college.
We carefully walked through the camp with our weapons ready --- it seemed that dead bodies were everywhere--a large shed contained 50 or more naked bodies with parchment like skin, stacked like cordwood, with lye sprinkled on them to keep down the smell. We passed what appeared to be a torture apparatus--we later learned it was a whipping table; the feet were placed in stocks in the ground and two guards pulled the man over the top of the table and another beat him across the back and loins with a heavy wood stick; one stick was standing nearby with what appeared to be dried blood smeared on much of it. This was treatment received for the slightest infraction of camp rules. We also saw a gallows that we were told was used for prisoners who had attempted to escape. General Patton, in his book "War as I Knew It", describes the Ohrdruf gallows and its gruesome use: "the gallows had a drop board that was about two feet from the ground, and the cord used was piano wire which had an adjustment so that when the man dropped, his toes would just reach the ground and it would take about fifteen minutes for him to choke to death, since the fall was not sufficient to break his neck. The next two men to die had to kick the board out from under him."
Further on we came upon a crude crematorium or burning pit-- a long pit had been dug with a mound at each end and rail road rails laid a about 3 feet apart from mound to mound. A fire was still smoldering in the pit and partially destroyed bodies remained on the rails and burnt parts were in the pit. The stench was overwhelming. Shortly, the young Pole spotted me and beckoned for me to come and talk with him. I did and he had tears in his eyes, he returned the empty gun and empty ammo clips and cried as he thanked me over and over for helping him and his people. He said, " Some of the guards would not harm anyone again." Then he said, "Here, this is all I have of value." and he handed me a large silver watch attached to a heavy silver chain. I told him that I couldn't take it, that he would need it as the War would end soon; he would not take No for an answer. I have a picture of Neil Cramer and myself in Arnstadt, our next objective, and the watch and chain are clearly visible on my person. I'm sorry I didn't get the young Poles name and I often wonder if he is alive today.
Shortly thereafter, our unit moved out, headed for an attack on Arnstadt, other elements of the 89th took over at Ohrdruf. Some have said that Ohrdruf was not a Concentration camp but was just a Slave Labor camp. I rather doubt that the inmates we liberated there would agree with this observation. Yes, the inmates of Ohrdruf were used for slave labor. The 89th liberated several slave labor camps during our drive East. They were not pleasant but were very different from Ohrdruf in the kind and condition of the inmates and the type of security that enclosed them.
Ralph Rush, formerly a scout in WWII European Theater with HQ'S. Co. I&R Platoon 355th Reg., 89th Infantry Div, General Patton's 3rd Army.