Sunday, May 08, 2005

Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch

General Wesley Clark reminds us of the historic significance of Dwight David Eisenhower's visit to Ohrdruf on April 12th, 1945. Ohrdruf had been the first of the Nazi concentration camps to be liberated by American forces. Technically it was not an exterimination camp, but rather a labor camp, a subcamp of Buchenwald. For the liberators of Ohrdruf, the difference was difficult to discern. Ohrdruf was a scene of mass murder and utter depravity. It was nauseating.

There had been rumors of atrocities, stories circulating about death camps in Poland. And the stories were met with disbelief. How could they not be?

Indescribable. Unspeakable. Those are words Eisenhower chose to communicate his sense of shock. At a later time he is reported to have used the phrase made famous by Edward R. Murrow, reporting from Buchenwald, "For most of it, I have no words." Though words seemed inadequate, Eisenhower was certain of the need to bear witness. On April 18th Eisenhower sent a telegram to Churchill: "Herewith a few pictures taken on the day that I visited the German internment camp near Gotha. I think they tell their own story."

I won't display here the pictures I have seen because some of them are deeply disturbing, too disturbing for me to impose upon you. At your discretion, then, see the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library's collection of photos and documents pertaining to Eisenhower's reaction to the Holocaust, more briefly Ike and the Death Camps from the Eisenhower Memorial, Holocaust Encyclopedia: Ohrdruf from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Ohrdruf Forced Labor Camp from scrapbookpages, Liberators: Stories and Photos from the Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust, and finally The Ohrdruf Photos.

What was it like to be behind the camera? David Cohen was with the 4th Armored at Ohrdruf on the 12th of April. He recounts:

I saw many buildings with bodies stacked in them. The first time I went in and walked out. I couldn't take it; I was sick; I felt like throwing up. I walked in three times; each time I became ill. I wanted to take pictures, but I couldn't. One of my buddies pushed me back inside to take the pictures.

I imagine Cohen would have empathized with the experience of William A. Scott III of the 183rd, one of the men who liberated Buchenwald:

I took out my camera and began to take some photos--but that only lasted for a few pictures. As the scenes became more gruesome, I put my camera in its case and walked in a daze with the survivors, as we viewed all forms of dismemberment of the human body. We learned that 31,000 of the 51,000 persons there had been killed in a two week period prior to our arrival. An SS trooper had remained until the day of our arrival and survivors had captured him as he tried to flee over a fence. He was taken into a building where two men from my unit followed. They said he was trampled to death by the survivors.

I began to realize why few, if any, persons would believe the atrocities I had seen. HOLOCAUST was the word used to describe it--but one has to witness it to even begin to believe it--and, finally after going through several buildings, with various displays--lamp shades of human skin, incinerators choked with human bones, dissected heads and bodies, testes in labeled bottles, so that they could be seen by the victims on a shelf by the door as they went in and out of the barracks (after two weeks of this procedure, they would be killed, but, we arrived before this ritual could be continued), my mind closed the door on this horror.

Eisenhower more than any one understood the importance of directly observing the horrors of the Nazi camps. He wrote to General Marshall on the 15th of April:

But the most interesting--although horrible--sight that I encountered during the trip was a visit to a German internment camp near Gotha. The things I saw beggar description. While I was touring the camp I encountered three men who had been inmates and by one ruse or another had made their escape. I interviewed them through an interpreter. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to "propaganda."

Four days later Eisenhower telegrammed Marshall:

We continue to uncover German concentration camps for political prisoners in which conditions of indescribable horror prevail. I have visited one of these myself and I assure you that whatever has been printed on them to date has been understatement. If you could see any advantage in asking about a dozen leaders of Congress and a dozen prominent editors to make a short visit to this theater in a couple of C-54's, I will arrange to have them conducted to one of these places where the evidence of bestiality and cruelty is so overpowering as to leave no doubt in their minds about the normal practices of the Germans in these camps. I am hopeful that some British individuals in similar categories will visit the northern area to witness similar evidence of atrocity.

The townspeople of Ohrdruf were marched through the camp, an event which prompted the mayor and his wife to commit suicide. Their last words to the world: "We didn't know--but we knew."

Today, according to Carl Peterson of the 83rd, there is no memorial for the victims at the site of Ohrdruf. The town of Ohrdruf continues to celebrate its heritage as a home to Johann Sebastian Bach. History records April 12th, 1945 as the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. Buchenwald has supplanted Ohrdruf in the popular consciousness as the place where Americans first uncovered the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Even Eisenhower seemed never to have quite remembered the name of the place where he "first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality." And yet it is largely because of Eisenhower that we undeniably know what took place at Ohrdruf.

posted by Fido the Yak at 5:33 AM.


Blogger Eddie Beaver said...

Excellent post. Will we one day view the satellite photos of burning villages and mass graves in Darfur and say something similar to that of the mayor and his wife?

May 17, 2005 6:05 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Hi, Eddie. I suppose that sort of thing is being said now. We know, but we don't know. It's one of the frustrating aspects of all genocides. Disbelief is out of whack with the clarity of the evidence and the call for clear thinking. The psychological denial of those who ought to stand as witnesses cohabits with the denials of the genocidaires, each giving the other strength.

Last year the Independent ran a story by Kim Sengupta called "The mystery of Mirair and the official answers that do not add up." Sengupta presents Mirair as a microcosm of the Darfur genocide. It almost reads like a parable. I don't know if it explains much, really, but it captures the way people act in such situations.

May 18, 2005 11:23 PM  

Post a Comment

Fido the Yak front page