America's Witnesses to the Holocaust
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About the author
Michael Hirsh is a Vietnam combat veteran and the author of three previous military books, as well as the co-author (with Michael Schiavo) of the New York Times bestseller Terri: The Truth. During a forty-year career in broadcasting, he produced documentaries and specials for PBS, CBS, ABC, and HBO, receiving multiple awards, including the Peabody.
From the Hardcover edition.
At last, the everyday fighting men who were the first Americans to know the full and horrifying truth about the Holocaust share their astonishing stories. Rich with powerful never-before-published details from the author’s interviews with more than 150 U.S. soldiers who liberated the Nazi death camps, The Liberators is an essential addition to the literature of World War II—and a stirring testament to Allied courage in the face of inconceivable atrocities.
Taking us from the beginnings of the liberators’ final march across Germany to V-E Day and beyond, Michael Hirsh allows us to walk in their footsteps, experiencing the journey as they themselves experienced it. But this book is more than just an in-depth account of the liberation. It reveals how profoundly these young men were affected by what they saw—the unbelievable horror and pathos they felt upon seeing “stacks of bodies like cordwood” and “skeletonlike survivors” in camp after camp. That life-altering experience has stayed with them to this very day. It’s been well over half a century since the end of World War II, and they still haven’t forgotten what the camps looked like, how they smelled, what the inmates looked like, and how it made them feel. Many of the liberators suffer from what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder and still experience Holocaust-related nightmares.
Here we meet the brave souls who—now in their eighties and nineties—have chosen at last to share their stories. Corporal Forrest Robinson saw masses of dead bodies at Nordhausen and was so horrified that he lost his memory for the next two weeks. Melvin Waters, a 4-F volunteer civilian ambulance driver, recalls that a woman at Bergen-Belsen “fought us like a cat because she thought we were taking her to the crematory.” Private Don Timmer used his high school German to interpret for General Dwight Eisenhower during the supreme Allied commander’s visit to Ohrdruf, the first camp liberated by the Americans. And Phyllis Lamont Law, an army nurse at Mauthausen-Gusen, recalls the shock and, ultimately, “the hope” that “you can save a few.”
From Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany to Mauthausen in Austria, The Liberators offers readers an intense and unforgettable look at the Nazi death machine through the eyes of the men and women who were our country’s witnesses to the Holocaust. The liberators’ recollections are historically important, vivid, riveting, heartbreaking, and, on rare occasions, joyous and uplifting. This book is their opportunity, perhaps for the last time, to tell the world.
From the Hardcover edition.
HOW DO YOU PREPARE TO SEE THAT?
In the final months of World War II, as American soldiers pushed the German army east toward the advancing Russians, the GIs began to discover—and to liberate—dozens upon dozens of camps large and small filled with the multitudes imprisoned by the Nazis. Some had been shipped to the camps to serve as slaves, to dig tunnels into mountains, there to build war machines for the Reich. Others had been shipped from camp to camp for one purpose only: to keep them from falling into the hands of the advancing Allied forces.
The prisoners who are the focus of this book had been liberated by the Americans, British, and Canadians. (The Russians liberated the notorious camps in Poland.) They had been consigned to death; the manner was, for all practical purposes, irrelevant.
They were marched to death, worked to death, starved to death, dehydrated to death, frozen to death, sickened to death, gassed to death, and sometimes shot to death—although this was not a preferred method, but only because bullets were not cost- effective. It also wasn’t enough that the victims of the Nazis died; they were always humiliated and usually dehumanized and tormented before death came.
The deaths occurred not just in a handful of concentration camps whose names are familiar to almost everyone, but in literally thousands of camps and subcamps sprinkled all over the map of Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and France. Wherever slaves could help the Third Reich accomplish its aims, there were camps. Some may have been nothing more than a barn where women workers making hand grenades in a forest armory were locked up at night; others were part of sophisticated underground manufacturing facilities where the first rockets and jet fighters were built and thousands of workers were used up.
Each of the major camps in Germany and Austria—like Dachau, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen, to name three of the oldest and largest—had jurisdiction over a wide geographical area, and each may have had a hundred or more subcamps. Workers were often transferred from one to the other as needed and then transported back to the main camp alive, to be killed, or dead, to be burned.
It’s this system that American soldiers discovered, much to their shock, horror, and surprise, as they chased the German army toward its mythical Alpine redoubt. The GIs had received no warning as to what they might find, but that may not have mattered, for as one of them said to me, “What if we had? How do you prepare to see that?” Most of the more than 150 Americans interviewed for this book were soldiers. Six were U.S. Army nurses. One was a 4F (physically unfit to be drafted) volunteer civilian ambulance driver who worked at Bergen- Belsen with the British and Canadian forces. Three were U.S. Army prisoners of war—two of them Jewish soldiers—who experienced the Holocaust firsthand alongside slave laborers imported from Eastern Europe. Five were concentration camp inmates who developed special relationships with particular GIs and are now American citizens. And one—also an American citizen now—served in the Polish army attached to the Russian army. With them he discovered some of the worst of the camps in Poland but only after all the inmates had been either murdered or evacuated to the west. He finally liberated prisoners in Sachsenhausen and eventually participated in the battle for Berlin.
At the time they were interviewed, the veterans ranged in age from eighty- three to ninety- six. All are among the relative handful of America’s witnesses to the Holocaust who are still alive, still willing and able to recount their experiences, still cognizant of the need to tell their stories.
While researching this book, I discovered that it’s not unusual for veterans not to know, even now, the names of the camps they discovered. Some U.S. medical personnel spent weeks at the camps, but it was more typical for combat troops to spend mere minutes to a few hours inside the gates before moving on in their relentless pursuit of the German army. Although they may not know the names, and though they may have spent but a short time inside their gates, they’ve never forgotten what the camps looked like, how they smelled, how the inmates looked, and how it all made them feel. And that is what this book is about. This is their opportunity, perhaps for a final time, to tell the world what they saw.
Writing about the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963, Hannah Arendt used the phrase “the banality of evil” to explain that the Holocaust had been executed by ordinary people willing to be convinced that their actions were normal. In interviewing American soldiers who confronted that evil face- to- face, I became aware of a banality of the language they use to describe what they saw. And through my own personal reaction I’ve come to recognize the danger in that for those of us who are anxious to learn from them. The most vivid example: soldier after soldier from camp to camp to camp described “bodies stacked like cordwood,” to the point that it’s very easy for the shock and horror of such a statement to evaporate into meaninglessness. When an individual soldier was confronted by “bodies stacked like cordwood,” he was seeing them that way, in all their brutal horror, through eighteen- or nineteen- , or twenty- year- old eyes, for the first time. Those kids were confronted with premeditated murders and attempted murders on a scale heretofore unimaginable.
A word, now, about the concept of the liberators. Aware that the Americans were coming, the SS guards—often with a final orgy of indiscriminate torture and killing—fled. It was left for the GIs to enter the camps, assess the humanitarian needs of the surviving inmates, bring up rear- echelon forces to minister to them, and arrange for the burial of the dead.
While I have observed the pride that members of specific Army units feel at having been officially designated the liberators of a certain camp, the truth is that their greatest achievement was not in cracking open the gates. Their achievement was in doing everything necessary to liberate an entire continent, and it took between three and a half and four million members of the U.S. armed forces (plus those of British, Canadian, French, and other Allied nations) in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) to do that job.
It’s unfortunate that because of what I believe to be a wellintentioned but poorly drawn agreement between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Americans who died in the surf at Omaha Beach or in the Battle of the Bulge, for example, are not given any credit for liberating concentration camp victims, while an entire 15,000- man division that may have had just a handful of its members drive past a camp en route to battle elsewhere is declared to have liberated that camp and honored with the display of its flag at the museum.* The soldiers on the scene were certainly, and importantly, American witnesses to the Holocaust—a condition that, as you’ll learn, often had lifelong negative consequences. Nonetheless, the flag of every division that landed on European soil, every Army Air Corps unit that flew over European soil, every Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine command that sailed in support of the war in Europe, should be displayed in a place of honor, and all the men and women who served anywhere in the European Theater of Operations should be honored as liberators at the magnificent and moving Holocaust Memorial Museum in our nation’s capital.
(* The agreement effectively holds that if just a truckload of troops out of a 15,000- man division reached a specific concentration camp at any time within the first forty- eight hours after the first American unit had reached that camp, the entire division would be declared to be a liberating unit of that camp and the flag of that division would be provided by the Army and placed on permanent display at the USHMM.)
I want to thank every one of the men and women who were willing to dredge their minds and their souls to bear witness to the Holocaust in this book. The process often brought forth painful memories that had never been shared even with wives or children and, quite often, tears from both interviewee and interviewer. There were several instances of a wife learning for the first time of her husband’s experiences at the camps by overhearing the interview for this book.
A word of caution: this is a book about crimes against humanity and about the reaction to those crimes by men at war. To soften the images and not tell the complete truth would violate the trust they placed in me when they agreed to speak. It would have been a disservice to them and to history. They know, and want you to know, that war is ugly despite rules and conventions negotiated far from the battlefield to make it less so.
A few words about what this book is not. Though the focus is almost solely on the actions of American fighting units, it is not a traditional military history of the final days of World War II in Europe.
There are many of those, nearly all of which share one trait in common: the discovery by the Allied forces of the death camps, the slavelabor camps, and the Nazis’ end- of- days attempts to murder tens of thousands of prisoners are barely a footnote, because they were almost never significant to the achievement of military victory. Bearing witness is not a soldier’s primary job. Even the U.S. Army’s official chronology of World War II, while detailing the day- by- day flow of Allied divisions across Germany—a country only slightly larger than the state of New Mexico—assigns no importance to the horrors discovered by the soldiers.
That said, what The Liberators does is trace the course of the final months of the war in Europe, by tracking the American units as they freed the inmates of camp after camp on an almost daily basis from early April 1945 through May 8—VE Day. For this book, bearing witness is the primary mission of the soldiers, whose stories have continued long after the war, when the true cost of war is often revealed.
The Beginning of the End
Alsace, Occupied France
Some guys have all the luck. Some guys have none. Since they survived the war, you might say that Army veterans Norman Fellman and Morton Brooks belong in the former category. But don’t make up your mind just yet—because both these former GIs are among the very few American witnesses to the Holocaust who experienced it from the inside, on the wrong side of the barbed wire. Sent to liberate Europe, Fellman and Brooks would instead personally experience the Holocaust. They would be caught up in the Nazis’ compulsion to eliminate all Jews from the face of the earth.
Norman Fellman was drafted into the Army in the spring of 1942, right out of high school in Norfolk, Virginia. He was a well-built kid, six feet tall and weighing 178 pounds. He was trained as a medic and then transferred into the Army Air Corps but was washed out when the training program was shut down because the instructors were needed to fight the war. The Army was forming the 70th Infantry Division at Camp Adair, Oregon, and since he arrived there on an odd day of the month, he became a scout in B Company, 1st Battalion, 275th Infantry Regiment. Had he arrived a day earlier or a day later, he would have been assigned to the artillery and his entire life would likely have been very, very different.
In early December 1944, the 275th Regiment sailed aboard the troopship West Point, landing in Marseilles, France, ten days later after stops in North Africa. Originally commissioned in 1939 as the luxury liner America, the flagship of the United States Lines, the ship was fast and made the crossing without benefit of convoy. The landing on European soil on December 16 coincided with the German offensive that the Wehrmacht called Operation Watch on the Rhine. The U.S. Army officially named it the Battle of the Ardennes, but it came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. The German intent was to split the British and American line in half, capturing the vital port at Antwerp, Belgium, in the process. It was essential to the Allies that the Germans not succeed, and in an effort to prevent that from happening, they threw every available unit into the fray, whether or not they were deemed combat-ready.
At almost the same time that Fellman’s outfit was landing in Europe, Morton Brooks’s unit, part of the advance elements of the 42nd Infantry Division (designated Task Force Linden for its assistant division commander, Brigadier General Henning Linden), landed in southern France, rushed there after less than two weeks of training in England. The task force included three infantry regiments and a headquarters detachment, but no supporting artillery units.
Brooks had grown up in Brooklyn and enlisted in the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) just shy of his eighteenth birthday. He was sent to Syracuse University, but when the program was shut down because the Army needed line troops, he was assigned to the 42nd—the Rainbow Division—as a rifleman.
Instead of having weeks to acclimate and train with its supporting artillery units, Norm Fellman’s 275th Regiment was given just four days, and then loaded onto 40 and 8 railroad boxcars, so named because they could carry forty infantrymen or eight horses, and sent five hundred miles north, arriving in Brumath, France, just north of Strasbourg, on Christmas Eve. The men were now part of Task Force Herren, which would soon be attached to the Seventh Army’s 45th Infantry Division. They were about to confront well-equipped German army units that would be executing a surprise attack in the snow-
covered ridges of the Low Vosges Mountains. The Germans called it Operation Nordwind. It was designed to cause the Allied armies to shift forces away from the Bulge, where German troop movements had stalled. Nordwind would be the last gasp of the Third Reich, but that would prove to be of little comfort to Norm Fellman.
By January 4, his Company B was tasked to hold Falkenberg Hill, twelve kilometers outside Philippsbourg, a village in the heart of the Alsace region of northeastern France that was valued for the nearby rail lines and road network. Snowstorms began during their first night on the hill. Temperatures plummeted. The winter had already been declared the harshest in decades.
The Germans let loose with constant artillery barrages, supplemented by Nebelwerfer rockets, which the GIs called Screaming Meemies. Communications were cut off with A and C Companies on adjacent hills, and Fellman’s company commander was wounded. B Company held the hill for five nights and six days. “By the end of the third or fourth day,” Fellman recalls, “we were running short of supplies. Food was pretty much gone. Whatever we had in the way of candy bars or rations went to the wounded, which were beginning to pile up. We had water from melted snow, but that was it.”
At the end of the sixth day, the Germans surrounded his unit with flamethrowing tanks, and the surviving officers decided to surrender. They’d sent three or four patrols out; they later learned that only one man had gotten through to the American lines. Fellman says, “We could starve to death or we could freeze to death, or we could surrender, and that was the choice they made.”
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
"These eyewitness accounts are powerful, detailed and horrifying. Of particular note is the last chapter, in which some of the veterans record what happened to them after the war; decades later, many still struggled with nightmares and rage." –USA Today
"The survivors of Nazi concentration camps can never forget – and, as Michael Hirsh shows in his spellbinding work, neither can the young soldiers who liberated them." –The New York Post
"Never forget is the message that these vets and survivors carry to schools, churches, and synagogues, and other places…Hirsh’s The Liberators helps [them] carry on that important work." –Philadelphia Inquirer
"Hirsh should be commended for the diversity of his interview subjects, which include former GI and Ohrdruf liberator Charles T. Payne, President Obama’s great-uncle, who gained fame during the 2008 presidential campaign. . . . A worthy tribute to these soldiers and a valuable historical document. A necessary history."
"A fine and necessary addition to the lexicon of Holocaust literature…A powerful and emotional telling of the trials these soldiers faced."
"Hundreds of often chilling, heartbreaking but ultimately exalting stories of ordinary soldiers from all across the country who banded together to not only defeat a great military threat to the entire world, but to battle for something even deeper – the very soul of humanity…an intimate look at the common men who had come from farms and factories, cities and small towns, to places such as Dachau."
–The Chattanooga Pulse
"The victory over Nazism is given a first class presentation by noted military historian, Michael Hirsh, himself a veteran of US military service in Vietnam. In…The Liberators, Hirsh gives full vent to the searing experiences that our young and untutored American troops faced at the liberation of Buchenwald and numerous other Nazi slave labor camps in Germany during the closing days of the war. In a heart-rending series of biographical sketches and interviews with many of those GIs, the author graphically details the human and emotional trauma that many of them experienced and the horrific emotional and even spiritual toll this took on "our boys.""
–The Jewish Star
"Hirsh allows us to see the terrible atrocities through the then young eyes of the Americans who rescued the survivors and buried the many dead, memories that remained vividly compelling years after the historical Allied liberation of Europe from Nazi control. By telling these dramatic untold stories of the first young American soldiers to discover Hitler’s death camps, [he] has written a must-have addition to any library on the Holocaust, and another ringing rebuttal to the shrinking cluster of die–hard holocaust deniers."—Peter Arnett, Pulitzer Prize-Winning War Correspondent and author of Live from the Battlefield
"The Liberators delivers a riveting reading experience. The memoirs are deeply personal: Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, the images, sounds, and smells as experienced by the Nazi-death-camp liberators provide compelling testimony to man’s inhumanity to man and capacity for evil as well as good and kindness. This is an extraordinary book that is strikingly important in its ability to deliver the scope and gravity of the war.—Thomas Tradewell, commander in chief, Veterans of Foreign Wars
"A striking catalogue of inhumanity."—Richard C. Hottelet, member of Edward R. Murrow’s CBS Radio reporting team during World War II
From the Hardcover edition.