Triumph and Tragedy

That was the end of our conversation. It was as if he had suddenly realized it would be wise for him to stop.

My first impulse was to correct him and tell him that because we were artillery our basic unit was called a battery, not a company. My next reaction was a very uneasy feeling, one of dread. From the suddenness of the question, from something in his voice, and from the question itself, I got the strong impression that this man was obsessed with Jews. I decided to answer him civilly, to see where this topic might lead.

“Yes, there are a few—five or six, I think,” I responded.

“Do you like them?” he asked sharply, almost accusingly.

“Yes, I like them!” I answered irritably. “Well, there’s one I don’t like very much, but it has nothing to do with his being Jewish. Why do you ask?”

There was a long pause, as if he were considering his answer very carefully. Finally he muttered, “Oh … no reason.”

And that was the end of our conversation. It was as if he had suddenly realized it might be wise for him to stop.

Nevertheless, the brief exchange had made me recall something I didn’t like to think about— the liberation by the division of the Nordhausen concentration camp. It had happened about a month earlier, in central Germany. Reconnaissance troops and infantry had come upon the place late one April afternoon, and we in the artillery learned of their discovery soon afterward. Nordhausen, a name unknown to most people, held about eighteen thousand prisoners, mostly Hungarian Jews. There were no gas chambers at Nordhausen; the people there were simply worked and starved to death. I learned later that the work they did was on the rocket weapons sent against England. When they died, their bodies were thrown into the ovens, which burned around the clock. The camp was populated by what appeared to be thousands of living skeletons.

The lieutenant got permission to go into the camp. He left most of the section in a farmhouse about half a mile away and went off with the sergeant and two of the corporals. I begged him to take me also, but he refused. I was angry as I watched them drive off without me.

So we had simply waited impatiently for our comrades to return. The owner of the house, whom we had permitted to remain, skulked about, doing his chores. He was extremely nervous and would not look at us directly. He knew what had been found half a mile away. There was an odd, sweet odor in and around that house that, though faint, was extremely offensive. It seemed to be unrelated to normal rural smells. We realized later that the odor came from the ovens and chimneys of the camp, from the smoke of incinerated human bodies, and from a huge pile of rotting corpses in the nearby woods. That smell was, literally, the smell of death. And in that foul-smelling house there was a clammy, greasy film over everything that must also have come from the smoke.

The others came back around ten o’clock. They were very quiet and at first would say nothing about what they had seen. In the pale light of a kerosene lantern their faces were ashen, and we realized we were looking at men almost in a state of shock. After the others were asleep, one of the corporals began to talk to me. He was a person I regarded as a tough, hardened individual, but his voice trembled with emotion as he told me of the camp—of people so thin it seemed impossible that they could be alive; of the overwhelming stench, which almost made him faint; of recoiling in horror as a group of inmates tried to show gratitude for their liberation by touching him with skeletal hands that frightened him; of corpses still in bunks among the living, because no one had the strength to move them; of the ovens, still with bones and skulls in them; and finally of the monstrous pile of bodies in the woods. I had trouble getting to sleep that night.

In the morning we started for the town of Nordhausen in convoy. This time we were near the end of the column. Somewhere between the camp and the town we came upon an incredible sight. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of the former inmates were walking toward the town in a great mass, through the fields on either side of the road. They were almost totally silent. The only sound they made was the rustling of their long, ragged coats against the grass of the fields. They looked like an army of scarecrows, a phalanx of living cadavers.

It was unclear why they had left the camp, where Army medical personnel were already beginning to help them. Perhaps they just wanted to breathe clean air again and walk in the open as free men. Perhaps they were simply after food in the town. Or perhaps they wanted to confront their tormentors and murderers. I never learned what happened when they reached the town. We gave them what food we could from our rations as we drove slowly through their ranks.