December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
An American soldier would never forget encountering the German with an icy smile. He would later discover that the blood of innocent millions dripped from Eichman's manicured hands
It was the second of May, 1945, six days before the end of the war in Europe. We were members of Headquarters Battery, 608th Field Artillery Battalion, 71st Infantry Division—one of the spearheads of Ration’s 3d Army, driving south through a conquered Germany toward Austria, the last unoccupied part of Hitler’s Reich. Bridges over the Inn River, between Bavaria and Austria, had been wrecked by retreating German troops, but a large hydroelectric dam with a roadway on it was still intact, and that was our objective this beautiful spring morning.
There were four of us in the jeep. I was the driver, a twenty-one-year-old private first class. Beside me sat a first lieutenant, not much older than myself, and on the rear seat were a staff sergeant and a corporal, whose job was to operate the .50-caliber machine gun mounted between the seats. This was an unusually large weapon for a jeep at that time; some jeeps had .30-caliber machine guns, but most had none.
This formidable weapon had probably been given to us because, as members of a survey section, we were often by ourselves, away from the rest of the battalion, plotting new positions for the howitzers almost every day of that final, hectic offensive. Whatever the reason, we were glad to have it.
The jeep, not a roomy vehicle under any circumstances, was unbelievably crowded. In addition to four men and a machine gun, there was a large box of .50-caliber ammunition, a bulky radio, a five-gallon gas can, a five-gallon water can, rifles, grenades, maps, and sleeping bags. The sergeant and corporal sometimes had trouble finding a place to sit; for much of our thousand-mile odyssey across Western Europe, the sergeant perched precariously on the right rear wheel cover, clinging to the cylindrical machine-gun mount.
Behind the jeep was the other vehicle of the section, a three-quarter-ton weapons carrier, a homely but rugged vehicle, practical and reliable. It carried the rest of the men in the section and the battalion’s surveying instruments, equipment vital to an artillery unit. We in the jeep presented a more dashing appearance than our companions, partly because of that menacing gun, but they had the distinct advantage of being protected from the elements by a canvas top. We were a rather independent bunch, probably because our job kept us away from the main body of troops much of the time. We liked it that way.
The ten men of the survey section formed a cosmopolitan group. In the jeep alone the four of us were from four different parts of the country and from four different ethnic backgrounds. The lieutenant, from the Midwest, was Italian; the sergeant was a blond Scandinavian from the far West; the corporal was from somewhere in Appalachia; and I was from the Susquehanna Valley of central Pennsylvania, of British and German ancestry.
Among the others were a Southerner, a Californian, and someone from the upper Midwest. One of our members spoke fluent French, and another spoke fluent German, so it was fairly easy for us to deal with civilians, displaced persons, and prisoners of war. Our German-speaking member was Earnie, a Viennese Jew, a refugee from Nazi persecution. He was the driver of the three-quarter-ton, and like many European city dwellers, he was neither a good nor a courteous driver. After a number of minor scrapes and near misses, we began drawing silhouettes in chalk on the side of the truck of everything he had hit or come close to hitting: geese, horses, oxen, people, wagons, trucks, tanks, jeeps, and howitzers. Earnie wasn’t insulted; he liked our joke.
Now, as we approached the border of the homeland he had left almost a decade before, I was aware of his mounting excitement. I knew he hoped we would go all the way to Vienna, at the eastern end of the country, but that seemed highly unlikely; I was almost sure the Russians were already there. Still, the remote possibility that we might somehow reach Vienna caused me to wonder, as we neared the Inn River, what it would be like for Earnie, or for any European Jew who had survived the war, to return to his old home and neighborhood and confront former Gentile friends and acquaintances—people who, while Germany was winning, never expected to see a Jew again.
We reached the Inn River dam around midmorning, and, following the directions of a military police (MP) officer, I drove onto its narrow top. Behind us stretched the battalion in convoy, a long line of trucks, 105-mm howitzers, and jeeps. In front of us there was no one. Because of the machine gun, the battalion commander often assigned us the dubious honor of being the lead vehicle. I had the uneasy feeling that we were leading not only the battalion but the whole division. I didn’t realize it at the time, but except for reconnaissance troops and engineers, we were apparently leading the 3d Army into Austria.
On one side of us were millions of gallons of water, lapping a few feet from the jeep’s wheels, and on the other side was a long drop to the river gorge below. As we started across, the lieutenant announced that our engineers had said that the dam was safe, that most of the dynamite planted in it by retreating Germans had been removed, and that wires leading to the remaining charges had been cut. Apparently he had picked up this disconcerting information at the morning briefing. His remark was supposed to be reassuring, but it had the opposite effect on me. I had a momentary vision of a gigantic explosion, of men, machines, and tons of water plunging to the gorge below. I wanted fervently to get off this monstrous pile of concrete.
But then I looked at the tree-lined opposite bank, and in a moment more pleasant thoughts occupied my mind. In a political sense that bank was part of Germany, but in reality it was in another country. I had very romantic notions about Austria; I had always thought of it as a very beautiful, idyllic place, and its name brought to my mind other pleasing names: Strauss, Mozart, Hedy Lamarr, the Danube, the Alps, Vienna, Salzburg, the Tirol.
In a few minutes we were safely across the Inn River. And here a strange, surprising, and very pleasant reception awaited us. There was no town, only woods, but hundreds of people, mostly women and girls, had lined both sides of the road, waving, smiling, cheering, and throwing flowers in our path. Apparently they had learned of our imminent arrival from the reconnaissance troops and had walked here from a nearby town, carrying armfuls of flowers.
We were stunned. For the past two months German civilians had met us with silence, occasional weeping, and sullen, hostile stares. What a startling, refreshing change! It seemed unreal, dreamlike, and I experienced an eerie feeling of déjà vu. I knew that conquering Roman legions had sometimes been greeted in this manner, and I had a very real vision of the Teutonic ancestors of these people greeting victorious Romans two millennia ago.
My déjà vu passed, and in a moment we all had recovered from our surprise, and we began smiling and waving in return. It was a beautiful, sunny, slightly cool spring morning. Many of these Fräuleins , in their colorful dirndls and peasant blouses, were extraordinarily pretty. The war was nearly over, and the retreating Wehrmacht seemed to have disappeared into thin air. It was hard to feel animosity toward anyone.
As the pleasant sounds of our unexpected welcome faded behind us, we picked up speed and continued southward. We had apparently lost all contact with the retreating German forces. We came out of the woods lining the Inn River and saw spread before us a countryside of breathtaking beauty. It was an area of rolling hills, green patches of woods, sunlit fields, hamlets, and farms. The sweet smell of newly cut hay perfumed the air, and in the distance a great range of the Alps rose majestically above the lesser hills.
Years after the war I would wonder how this beautiful little country, this fairy-tale land, could have produced two of the most evil men in history, Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann—one a mad, hypnotic demagogue who plunged the world into the worst war in its history and the other his lieutenant, who supervised the extermination of millions of people, who planned and directed the rail system that funneled those people to the death camps, and who helped develop the chief means of those mass murders, the gas chamber.
Hitler had been born in Braunau, not far from where we were right now. Eichmann came from Linz, a picturesque town about sixty miles east of Braunau, also on a river, the Danube. In 1945 few people in Germany, and fewer still outside, had heard of Adolf Eichmann. He seemed to have deliberately kept a low profile, avoiding publicity and avoiding being photographed. It was as if he had instinctively known that he might someday become a fugitive.
In late afternoon we pulled into the hamlet where we would spend the night. For nearly two months Headquarters Battery had spent almost every night in a different town, in the homes of civilians. We saw no reason to change this practice now, even though we were in a more friendly country. As we had done in Germany, we simply picked out houses we wished to occupy and evicted the inhabitants. But we did try to be a little more polite now that we were in Austria.
In Germany we simply knocked loudly on the door of a house, and when someone timidly answered, usually a woman or an elderly man, we would hand that person a piece of paper. On the paper was a typewritten paragraph in German, stating that the occupants had ten minutes to get out, taking with them whatever they could collect in that time. If we were in a generous mood, we sometimes gave them more time. If we were in a bad mood, we sometimes gave them less.
It was tranquil and almost eerily quiet that first evening in Austria. I have long since forgotten, if I ever knew it, the name of the village. It looked like most Central European hamlets—a picturesque cluster of houses dominated by the onion-dome spires of a church, nestled in the foothills of the mountains. It must have been in the western part of Upper Austria, somewhere north of Salzburg.
To our surprise and great satisfaction, the survey section found itself in a house that apparently belonged to a well-to-do family. It was an unusual house to find in a rural setting, not large but tastefully and expensively furnished. One member of the section headed immediately for the cellars of the homes we occupied and kept us well supplied with excellent wine, much of it originally looted from France by the Germans. We were enjoying some of that wine now, as we relaxed in the attractive living room.
Much to our surprise, the power was still on in the area, and as darkness fell we turned on lights, and more from force of habit than any real danger, we pulled down shades as a precaution against German artillery. The sergeant was in the kitchen, heating the rations for our evening meal. He would have delegated this chore, but apparently he was enjoying the luxury of a working stove.
The section was fortunate in having two excellent leaders, the sergeant and the lieutenant. They performed their jobs with efficiency and dispatch and required us to do the same, while maintaining what seemed an ideal level of discipline, not too much and not too little. Like the rest of us, they were citizen soldiers, not career men.
In spite of a few minor instances of friction, the lieutenant and I liked each other and got along very well. We had shared a number of escapades in the past two months, some humorous, some harrowing. On one occasion we had been lost, on a very dark night, in a rural area between the rapidly changing front lines. It was a dangerous place to be lost. Ordinarily we would not be driving at night, but this was an exception. We were trying to find our way by the jeep’s blackout lights, which threw a faint glow about twenty feet in front of the hood. The lieutenant was crouched in his seat, holding a flashlight over a map, frantically trying to determine where we were.
Suddenly, above the sound of our own engine, there was the sound of other engines, monstrous engines, coming toward us. In a panic we turned off quickly into the adjacent field, stopped, turned off the blackout lights, and seconds later watched with pounding hearts as four huge tanks clanked past only yards away.
“Sir!” I said hoarsely. “Those tanks have low silhouettes! They’re—”
“German!” he interjected in a shaky voice. (When we were scared, we used the word German . Otherwise it was always Kraut .) Panic-stricken, we waited until that frightening rumbling had faded in the distance, then returned to the road. We proceeded at about twenty miles an hour in the direction from which the tanks had come, expecting to be fired on at any moment. At the next intersection we turned, still lost, and eventually, miraculously, we were back with the battalion, relieved, exhausted, and shaken.
One day the lieutenant shot and killed a German soldier. It was a situation in which he had no choice but to do what he did. After being ordered to halt, the man panicked and ran. If he had stood still and put up his hands, he would have lived. If he had escaped, as he nearly did, he could have taken with him information damaging to us, and he himself could have killed Americans later. But the incident preyed on the lieutenant’s mind, and for days he hardly spoke to anyone. Up to that time I had wanted a chance to use my rifle against the enemy, but after that I changed my mind.
Although the battalion’s howitzers caused casualties among the enemy almost daily, by the very nature of artillery we were behind the lines most of the time and did not have a clear idea of the violence at the front. But on one occasion I saw something an artilleryman doesn’t often see. I saw what we were shooting at.
Once, about four o’clock in the morning, one of the gun batteries was dug in on a hillside overlooking a narrow valley in the Harz Mountains. The enemy was in sight, or would be, with the first light of dawn. Across that valley, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, about a hundred German troops were reportedly asleep in a large wooden building, some sort of factory or warehouse. In the darkness we could just make out its faint outline. Incredibly, our gun crews had dug in and prepared the guns for firing without the enemy’s hearing them, although that dark valley was absolutely still.
Unless they intended to leave before dawn, when we could fire accurately, or unless we accidentally gave away our presence, the enemy troops were doomed. They were trapped, without even knowing they were trapped. They were sleeping the last hour of their lives. Those Germans were remnants of a once-elite SS division we had been pursuing and decimating. Perhaps sheer exhaustion on their part had enabled us to come this close without being detected.
The lieutenant and I stood with a group of officers, behind and to one side of the battery. We had nothing to do but observe. Everyone spoke in a hushed voice. All was in readiness. A shell was in the chamber of each of the four howitzers, with more shells stacked behind them.
Finally the dawn came, and with it an extraordinarily clear light, so clear that small details could be seen at a great distance. Then it began. A few quick, quiet commands to the gunners peering through their sights, and all four gun barrels moved slightly, staying parallel with each other. The executive officer stood like a statue, his arm raised. The section chief of number two stood the same way, while the man with the lanyard was also poised and ready. Then came the hushed, tense command: “Number two, one round! Fire!” The arms came down, the cannoneer pulled the lanyard sharply, the howitzer roared and leaped, and the first, adjusting round was on its way. It fell a little short, a puff of white smoke a few yards in front of the building, followed by the dull thud of the explosion. I saw two tiny figures run out the front door. Probably they were the only ones to escape.
A quick command to adjust the battery, and the four gun barrels elevated slightly. Then the shouted command: “Battery! Six rounds! Fire at will!” In a moment all four 105s were firing, as twenty-four high-explosive shells began to bracket the target. Explosion after explosion rocked the building. The officer standing next to me offered me his binoculars; perhaps he didn’t want to see too clearly what was happening. Through the glasses I could see debris being blown into the air, silhouetted against the reddish orange of the explosions and flames. Horrified, I saw that some of that debris was unmistakably in the form of human bodies. “Oh, my God!” I thought. I handed back the binoculars. “Those are SS men!” I reminded myself. “The scourge of Europe! They deserve to die!” Still, it was an unnerving sight.
On the fourth of May we ran our last surveys. The gun batteries were placed in the positions we surveyed, but I don’t think they ever fired from them. The war was winding down rapidly. To our great relief the retreating enemy continued southward and eastward, across relatively open country. There had been an ominous rumor that some German units might turn westward and make a final, suicidal stand in the Alpine Redoubt, a rugged area that would have been very costly to attack. But that didn’t happen. Now they would be squeezed between the 7th and the 3d armies (our own 71st would be the most eastward division of all the Western armies when the war ended on May 8), the Russians moving west from Vienna, and the British 8th and American 5th armies coming northward from Italy. It was almost over.
The section came back glumly from the survey that morning to the hamlet in which we had spent the past day and a half, but not to the same attractive little house. Instead we went to the larger, rather drab house from which headquarters was operating. As we pulled up and stopped, we were mildly surprised to see a German soldier sitting on a low wall. A member of headquarters section explained that the man had just surrendered, and he was our prisoner until the MPs came for him.
I felt a moment of empathy with that forlorn-looking figure. He wasn’t young —perhaps about forty—and he looked small and frail and harmless with his horn-rimmed glasses and an overcoat that seemed too large for him. His uniform showed him to be a Luftwaffe corporal. He looked rather scholarly to me, and I thought perhaps he had been a university professor in civilian life. “Poor fellow,” I thought. “He shouldn’t even be in uniform.” Because of his frail appearance, I assumed he had had some sort of desk job.
We waited in our two vehicles while the lieutenant and sergeant went into the house to report to the battalion commander. We paid little attention to the German sitting a few yards from us, and he paid little attention to us. The sky was overcast, and rain seemed imminent. In a few minutes the sergeant came out and ordered us all inside. He assigned my friend Dick, the Californian, and me to bring in the prisoner and take charge of him until the MPs arrived.
I grabbed my carbine, got out of the jeep, approached the man, and said, “Kommen Sie mit uns!” That brief sentence represented a major part of my German vocabulary.
“I speak English,” he responded in a heavy accent and with a sharp edge in his voice that took me by surprise. It was unmistakably contempt. He stood up slowly and arrogantly, looking at me with a mixture of derision and condescension. Startled, I took a closer look at our prisoner, and I was rather unnerved by what I saw. His features were ordinary, except for a thin face and sharp nose. He was a couple of inches shorter than I was, and behind those studious-looking glasses were the coldest eyes I had ever seen in my life. As disconcerting as the eyes was the strange, faint smile on his lips. It was not a friendly smile. It was a smile that seemed to say that its owner had a secret, a secret that he had no intention of divulging but that was a source of great amusement to him. The sergeant told us to take him to a room on the second floor.
“Upstairs!” I said, indicating with my carbine that he should follow Dick up the narrow steps. Again, as he had done outside, he waited a moment, obviously to let me know he wasn’t going to jump at my command. As we started up the steps, he gave me another contemptuous glance with those cold eyes and that unpleasant little smile. It seemed to irritate him to be ordered about, and yet, in a perverse sort of way, it also seemed to amuse him. This was a puzzling situation. No other prisoner I had dealt with had acted this way. I was beginning to believe we had a rather unusual person on our hands. And I was beginning to regret having felt a moment of empathy with that person.
As we went up the stairs, one possible reason for his odd demeanor suddenly occurred to me. “This guy acts as if he once had a lot of authority,” I thought.
The upstairs room was big and cluttered with furniture. Other members of the section were already there, sprawled in chairs or on the floor. We took the German to one end of the room, and Dick, pointing to a chair, said, “Sitten Sie!” As he sat down, the man gave Dick the same hostile, arrogant look he had been giving me, but my friend didn’t seem to notice.
I asked a couple of the others to watch the prisoner for a few minutes and took Dick aside. I felt I had to share my suspicion with someone. “Dick,” I said, “there’s something odd about this guy! He acts very haughty, very superior. He acts more like an officer than an enlisted man. I have a feeling he isn’t what he seems to be.”
Dick shrugged. “Kraut noncoms have a lot of authority. Privates have to salute them and call them ‘sir,’ I think. He doesn’t like being ordered about by privates—that’s all it is. He’s just obnoxious. That’s not so unusual.”
I was unconvinced, but no one seemed concerned by the fact that the German prisoner had no identity papers. What more could be done? If I had gone to anyone of higher rank with my doubts, the answer surely would have been “Let the MPs worry about it!”
So we went back and sat down near our charge. For some reason, one of the more suspicious things about him seemed to have escaped our attention. That was the fact that his uniform didn’t fit very well. I suppose we didn’t wonder about it because, in the last weeks of the war, we were used to seeing people in all kinds of unusual and ragged apparel, both refugees and members of the Wehrmacht. But our prisoner’s clothes weren’t unusual or ragged; they just didn’t fit. Somehow it never occurred to us that he might be wearing someone else’s clothes.
Another odd circumstance did occur to me, but I didn’t attach much importance to it. That was the fact that he had surrendered by himself. This was unusual. The enemy almost always surrendered in groups—squads, platoons, companies at the beginning of the offensive and, near the end, battalions, divisions, armies—but almost never a single soldier.
Outside a light rain had begun falling. Our prisoner sat in a chair at one side of a desk, one arm resting on the desk, the sly, enigmatic smile still on his face. I noticed that his hands were clean, delicate, and manicured, like the hands of a woman.
We sat there in silence for a while, glancing at each other occasionally, and then, since this person spoke English, I asked if he thought the German army might make a last-ditch stand somewhere. He said he was certain that wouldn’t happen; the war would probably end in a few days. Dick joined in, remarking on the scenic beauty of both Germany and Austria, an observation with which the prisoner naturally concurred. He then asked us what our ethnic backgrounds were, and when told both of us had British and German ancestors, he seemed pleased.
The conversation turned to the postwar period. I asked what he thought should happen after the war. He suggested that what he termed the Aryan countries—Germany, Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, and the United States—form an alliance against the rest of the world, the non-Aryan world. Such an alliance could and should rule the world, he insisted. We thought this idea was preposterous and told him so. He was extremely displeased by our reaction, and the conversation died away.
After many minutes of silence he suddenly asked, “Are there any Jews in your company?”
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.
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.
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!”
In a moment we were abreast of the melee. The lieutenant and corporal remained stoically silent as we passed the ugly scene, but from the back seat the sergeant, his face contorted with rage, shook his fist and shouted, “Kill them! Kill the bastards! Kill the murdering sons of bitches!”
Something seemed to snap in my mind. I reached in front of the startled lieutenant and shook my fist. “Kill them!” I cried. “Kill them! Kill them! Kill them!” A few minutes later we were again outside the town, in the quiet countryside, headed south. I knew I would remember the name of Nordhausen the rest of my life.
Having asked the questions that reminded me of these recent, grim events, our prisoner remained sunk in silence. After about an hour someone came up the stairs and said the MPs had arrived. Dick and I took the prisoner downstairs and out to the front of the house, where two MPs were waiting. They put him in their jeep and drove off. We said nothing to him, and he said nothing to us as he departed, but he gave us one final, chilling look with those cold eyes and that mysterious little smile. We both were relieved to see him go.
Exactly fifteen years later, in May 1960, I saw that face again and almost immediately recognized it, staring coldly from television screens and from the front pages of newspapers, beneath headlines saying EICHMANN CAPTURED!
The man I guarded for about an hour that day, and spoke with briefly, was surely Adolf Eichmann. Army records show that we were in the area in which Eichmann, according to sketchy biographical and autobiographical accounts, surrendered to American troops, on the day he said he surrendered. He said that he surrendered alone and in disguise, that disguise being a Luftwaffe corporal’s uniform. In the last days of the war I saw thousands of surrendering Germans, but of those thousands I remembered only one face, and that one was identical to the face in the rare photographs of Adolf Eichmann. The ill-fitting Luftwaffe uniform had proved to be one of the great disguises of history and had earned for its wearer fifteen years of uneasy freedom, seventeen more years of life altogether. Fifteen years later that name and that face would be known by much of the world, but on that spring day in 1945, in that peaceful Austrian hamlet, there were only two who knew the terrible secret. There were only two who knew that behind that ordinary face with the icy smile there was unspeakable evil. There were only two who knew that the blood of innocent millions dripped from those manicured hands: Eichmann himself and his Creator.