On April 5, 1945, units from the American Fourth Armored Division of the Third Army were the first Americans to discover a camp with prisoners and corpses.
Ohrdruf was a Buchenwald sub-camp, and of the 10,000 male slave inmates, many had been sent on death marches, shot in pits, or their corpses were stacked in the woods and burned. The Americans found the camp by accident – they did not set out to liberate camps, they happened upon them – and found starved, frail bodies of hundreds of prisoners who had managed to survive, as well as the corpses. In Nordhausen, on the 11th, the American Timberwolf Division found 3,000 corpses and 700 starving, ill, and war-wounded survivors who were slaves in the V-2 rocket factories.
An Austrian-born Jewish U.S. soldier, Fred Bohm, helped liberate Nordhausen. He described fellow GI’s as having “no particular feeling for fighting the Germans. They also thought that any stories they had read in the paper, or that I had told them out of first-hand experience, were either not true or at least exaggerated. And it did not sink in, what this was all about, until we got into Nordhausen.”
When the American Combat Team 9 of the 9th Armored Infantry Battalion, Sixth Armored Division were led to Buchenwald by Russians, the camp contained 30,000 prisoners in a pyramid of power, with German Communists at the top, in the main barracks, and Jews and gypsies at the bottom, living in Little Camp, in an assortment of barns.
Buchenwald barrack prisoners were reasonably healthy looking. The Little Camp had 1,000 to 1,200 prisoners in a space meant for 450. Witnesses described prisoners as “emaciated beyond all imagination or description. Their legs and arms were sticks with huge bulging joints, and their loins were fouled by their own excrement. Their eyes were sunk so deep that they looked blind. If they moved at all, it was with a crawling slowness that made them look like huge, lethargic spiders. Many just lay in their bunks as if dead.” After liberation, hundreds of prisoners died daily.
Generals George Patton, Omar Bradley, and Dwight Eisenhower arrived in Ohrdruf on April 12, the day of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. They found 3,200 naked, emaciated bodies in shallow graves. Eisenhower found a shed piled to the ceiling with bodies, various torture devices, and a butcher’s block for smashing gold fillings from the mouths of the dead. Patton became physically ill. Eisenhower turned white at the scene inside the gates, but insisted on seeing the entire camp. “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he was fighting for,” he said. “Now, at least he will know what he is fighting against.”
After leaving Ohrdruf, Eisenhower wrote to Chief of Staff General George Marshall, attempting to describe things that “beggar description.” The evidence of starvation and bestiality “were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick,” Bradley later wrote about the day: “The smell of death overwhelmed us.” Patton, whose reputation for toughness was legendary, was overcome. He refused to enter a room where the bodies of naked men who had starved to death were piled, saying “he would get sick if he did so,” Eisenhower reported. “I visited every nook and cranny.” It was his duty, he felt, “to be in a position from then on to testify about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief … that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.” (Seemingly, he intuited then that these crimes might be denied.)
Eisenhower issued an order that American units in the area were to visit the camp. He also issued a call to the press back home. A group of prominent journalists, led by the dean of American publishers, Joseph Pulitzer, came to see the concentration camps. Pulitzer initially had “a suspicious frame of mind,” he wrote. He expected to find that many of “the terrible reports” printed in the United States were “exaggerations and largely propaganda.” But they were understatements, he reported.
Within days, Congressional delegations came to visit the concentration camps, accompanied by journalists and photographers. General Patton was so angry at what he found at Buchenwald that he ordered the Military Police to go to Weimar, four miles away, and bring back 1,000 civilians to see what their leaders had done, to witness what some human beings could do to others. The MP’s were so outraged they brought back 2,000. Some turned away. Some fainted. Even veteran, battle-scarred correspondents were struck dumb. In a legendary broadcast on April 15, Edward R. Murrow gave the American radio audience a stunning matter-of-fact description of Buchenwald, of the piles of dead bodies so emaciated that those shot through the head had barely bled, and of those children who still lived, tattooed with numbers, whose ribs showed through their thin shirts. “I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald,” Murrow asked listeners. “I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it; for most of it I have no words.” He added, “If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald, I am not in the least sorry.”
It was these reports, the newsreel pictures that were shot and played in theaters, and the visits of important delegations that proved to be influential in the public consciousness of the still unnamed German atrocities and the perception that something awful had been done to the Jews.
Then the American forces liberated Dachau, the first concentration camp built by the Germans in 1933. There were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its subcamps; 43,350 were political prisoners; 22,100 were Jews, and a percentage of “others.” As Allied forces advanced, the Germans moved prisoners from concentration camps near the front to prevent their liberation. Transports arrived at Dachau continuously, resulting in severe deterioration of conditions. Typhus epidemics, poor sanitary conditions, and the weakened state of the prisoners worsened conditions further and spread disease even faster.
On April 26, 1945, as the Americans approached Dachau about 7,000 prisoners, most of them Jews, were sent on a death march to Tegernsee. Three days later, American troops liberated the main camp and found 28 wagons of decomposing bodies in addition to thousands of starving and dying prisoners. Then in early May 1945, American forces liberated the prisoners who had been sent on the death march.
After World War II, the Allies were faced with repatriating 7,000,000 displaced persons in Germany and Austria, of whom 1,000,000 refused or were unable to return to their homes. These included nationals from the Baltic countries, Poles, Ukrainians, and Yugoslavs who were anti-communists and/or fascists afraid of prosecution for collaborating with the Nazis and Jews. The Allies were forced to service citizens of 52 nationalities in 900 DP camps, under the aegis of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Lack of trained personnel, absence of a clear policy, and poor planning and management prevented the agency from fulfilling its role properly. Private relief organizations were gradually permitted to operate in the camps, but at best could provide only partial aid. Consequently, the United States Army, with a shrinking budget and inexperienced personnel, assumed major responsibility for the DPs. It was not a responsibility they anticipated, or they welcomed, but they had no other choice.
Each national group and religious denomination demanded recognition of its own problems. To avoid charges of discrimination, the American army adopted a policy of evenhandedness toward all the DPs, a policy that adversely affected Jewish DPs housed in the same camps with Poles, Baltic nationals, and Ukrainians. In those camps, the Jews who survived the Holocaust remained exposed to antisemitic discrimination. They were living among antisemites who had hostility toward them. Furthermore, only after liberation could survivors begin to feel, to sense what had been lost. Others could return home; Jewish survivors had no homes to which to return.
The American army was beleaguered. Trained for war, they had to juggle multiple assignments: the occupation, the Cold War, and the problems of survivors who were naturally distrustful of all authority and in need of medical and psychological attention.
Short-term problems, such as housing, medical treatment, food, and family reunification, were acute. The army had no long-term strategy. The survivors had nowhere to go. Britain was unwilling to permit Jewish immigration to Palestine and the United States was not ready to receive refugees.
Homosexuals continued to suffer, even with the end of the war. Paragraph 175 of the German legal code stated that male homosexuality, but not female lesbianism, was punishable by imprisonment. After 1943, male homosexuals had been forced to wear a pink triangle and were sent to the death camps. After the liberation, the Americans did not repeal Paragraph 175 and sent homosexual inmates liberated from the camps to other prisons.
Preferential treatment to Jews was denied on the ground that this would be a confirmation of the Nazi racial doctrine, which differentiated between Jews and others. The Jews were therefore dealt with according to their country of origin; Jews from Germany, for example, were classified as “enemy aliens,” just like the Nazis.
American troops who liberated the concentration camps felt sympathy for the Jewish DPs, and many Jewish GIS and officers went out of their way to assist the survivors. But that sympathy did not extend to men who arrived on following troop rotations. Unfamiliar with history and facts, they had little or no sympathy for the Jews. It did not help that concentration camp survivors mistrusted people, were hypersensitive, and had acquired habits that did not compare favorably with the local German and Austrian population. Some objected to the fact that they took care of their biological needs in hallways and outside; one officer provided a simple solution of latrines and the problem ceased.
Americans’ contacts with antisemitic Germans stirred up innate personal prejudices held by troops. Some American commanders suspected that the DPs from Eastern Europe included Soviet agents, and that Jews had a predisposition to communist beliefs. The Army also treated the DPs as if they stood in the way of the pre-Cold-War rush to rehabilitate Germany. By June 1945, conflicts were heated enough for President Truman to send Earl G. Harrison to the American Zone on a fact-finding mission. His visit was complete with political overtones and his report was a bombshell.
His conclusions were harsh, even overstated:
His recommendations were equally dramatic:
After the pogrom by Polish fascists that killed 60–70 Jews in Kielce, Poland, on July 4, 1946, more than 100,000 Jews fled to the American Zone aided by Beriḥah, overcrowding the camps and straining the Army’s budget, but when the administration tried to close the borders, the American Jews pressured them to reopen them. Twice the American government kept the borders open.
From April 1945 to the summer of 1947, the Jewish DP population in the American Zone exploded from 30,000 to 250,000 as the Jews fled the Soviet Bloc. The Jews had no place else to go, since no one would take them in. As their needs grew, and U.S. Army charged with caring for them was being restricted by budget cuts, the U.S. tried to transfer control of the Jews to the local German governments, which the Jews refused to accept under any circumstances.
On April 19, 1947, General Lucius Clay, commander of the American forces in Germany closed the borders to the American Zone and denied UN aid to newcomers, but 12,000 Jews from Romania and Hungary managed to enter. The American Army usually closed their eyes to illegal immigration, especially when the immigrants were Jews. But as time went by, and troops were replaced, the communication, tolerance, and relationships deteriorated between the Americans and the Jews, especially in matters concerning the black market, which led to raids and even violence.
When Israel was established in May 1948 and Congress passed the Wiley-Revercomb Displaced Persons bill allowing 100,000 DPs to come to America, the situation changed again. The camps were essentially empty and changed the Army’s attitude to those who remained behind.
At the end of the day, the Army has been praised by some historians and scholars, and reviled by others. Typical are Abraham Hyman who calls the postwar period and the Army’s treatment of the Jewish DPs the Army’s finest hours. Leonard Dinnerstein, a historian, criticized the Army for being insensitive and unduly harsh.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
I. Gutman (ed.), Macmillan Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (1990);
A. Grobman, Battling for Souls, The Vaad Hatzalah Rescue Committee in Post-War Europe (2004).