Triumph and Tragedy


At one point along the road there was a dead horse, probably killed by artillery fire the day before. Two of its legs stuck rigidly into the air, and its entrails lay spilled on the dusty ground. Men were swarming over that dead horse like giant flies, ripping off pieces of flesh with their hands, and eating it. “My God! Look at that!” the sergeant exclaimed. “How hungry do you have to be to do that?”

“Mighty goddamned hungry!” muttered the corporal. Of the four of us, I suspected he was the only one who might have experienced hunger during the Depression.

We’d begun to smile and whistle at German girls. But we did not smile at the girls of Nordhausen.

A little farther along, our slow-moving convoy came to a complete halt. We had been stopped only a few minutes when we saw two boys approaching from the direction of the town, walking leisurely, defiantly along the other side of the road. They appeared to be about fifteen years old, and each wore the brown uniform of the Hitler Youth. They were blond, pink-cheeked, and healthy-looking. As they passed along our column, they were watched with silent hostility, contempt, or indifference. They paid little attention to us, except for an occasional arrogant glance in our direction.

When they were almost opposite my jeep, they suddenly saw the vanguard of the starving Jews, who were coming up behind us and were now walking on the highway. The two boys stopped in their tracks, utter amazement on their faces. Then, incredibly, they began to laugh. They nudged each other, pointed at the Jews, made comments, and continued to laugh uproariously.

It was as if the devil himself were hurling a final insult at those tormented people. We were dumbfounded and enraged. In desperation I turned to the lieutenant. “Sir! What should we do? Shoot them?”

“Are you crazy, Shields? That would be murder!”

“We ought to do something ! They’re the murderers! The whole goddamned country are murderers!”

Those two young Nazis probably never realized how close they came to dying on that road. I know others in that column were considering using their weapons to stop that laughter. I thought momentarily of shooting over their heads, to shut them up. Then I decided I would get out of the jeep, cross the road, and begin bashing in their faces with the butt of my carbine. But at that moment the convoy began moving again. The last I saw of this drama was the two boys and the army of living skeletons approaching each other. I have often wondered what happened when they met.

Soon we were in the town, driving along the main street. It appeared to be one of the older, more picturesque towns, the kind one sees on postcards, with high-gabled, medieval-looking houses flanking the street. As in all the other towns we had entered that spring, white sheets hung from upstairs windows as a sign of surrender. But something was different in Nordhausen. The people here behaved differently. They saw the ugly mood of their conquerors, and they knew what had caused that mood. Instead of congregating along the main street, as was done in other towns, most remained indoors and watched our entrance silently and furtively from upstairs windows. In the other towns I had seen a variety of emotions on people’s faces as we drove past them: fear, anger, hatred, anxiety, shock, dismay, and occasionally even friendliness. But on the faces of the people of Nordhausen I saw a single emotion, one I hadn’t seen before in Germany: guilt.


There were pretty girls in those windows of Nordhausen. Blonde, shapely girls wearing colorful peasant outfits. A month earlier, when we first entered Germany from Alsace, we had regarded all Germans with hostility. Then, as the weeks passed, we had begun to relax a little, reacting to attractive members of the opposite sex in a more normal way. We would stare at them, smile at them, whistle at them, and occasionally make lewd remarks, in English and in German. But we did not smile at the girls of Nordhausen.

As we neared the center of town the unnatural silence was broken. Ahead of us we could hear angry voices, and we could see some sort of commotion. Uniformed men were milling about in a little parklike area up ahead on the right. As we got closer we could make out three kinds of uniforms—MP, infantry, and some unfamiliar green ones without insignia.

We were extremely puzzled. We had never encountered anything like this before. Then we began to distinguish the words being shouted. “Kill them! Kill them! Torture them! Beat them up! Give them to us. We’ll take care of them!” As we got closer we could see that the MPs were halfheartedly trying to protect the men in green, while a group of infantrymen were striking at them with rifle butts and fists.

Suddenly I realized what was going on. “Sir! Those must be guards from the camp!”