Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is observed on the 27th day of the month of Nisan, which marks the day in 1945 when Allied troops liberated the first (and one of the largest) Nazi concentration camps: Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Buchenwald was built in 1937 in Ettersberg, roughly five miles from Weimar, in east-central Germany, and had outlying satellite camps.
Buchenwald’s first prisoners were political opponents of Nazism. After Kristallnacht, German SS and police sent roughly 10,000 Jews to Buchenwald where they were treated extraordinarily cruelly. Buchenwald also held recidivist criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Sinti gypsies, German military deserters, prisoners-of-war (including Americans), captured resistance fighters, and prominent former leaders of German-occupied countries.
In 1941, it housed a special barracks where physicians and scientists performed medical experiments on prisoners designed to test vaccines and treatments for contagious diseases. Inmates were injected with strains of typhus, typhoid, cholera, and diphtheria, which caused hundreds of deaths. In 1944, its experiments extended to “curing” homosexuals via hormone transplants and other means.
One satellite camp, Ohrdruf Concentration Camp, located near Gotha, Germany, was used to house forced laborers tasked with building railway construction.
It was here that on April 12th, 1945, General Eisenhower met General Omar Bradley and General George S. Patton. After they surveyed the camp, Eisenhower ordered every American soldier not on the front lines to visit Ohrdruf– to see for themselves the evil against which they were fighting.
During the camp inspections with his top commanders Eisenhower said that the atrocities were “beyond the American mind to comprehend.” He ordered that every citizen of the town of Gotha personally tour the camp and, after having done so, the mayor and his wife went home and hanged themselves. Later on Ike wrote to Mamie, “I never dreamed that such cruelty, bestiality, and savagery could really exist in this world.” He cabled General Marshall to suggest that he come to Germany and see these camps for himself. He encouraged Marshall to bring Congressmen and journalists with him. It would be many months before the world would know the full scope of the Holocaust — many months before they knew that the Nazi murder apparatus that was being discovered at Buchenwald and dozens of other death camps had slaughtered millions of innocent people.
General Eisenhower understood that many people would be unable to comprehend the full scope of this horror. He also understood that any human deeds that were so utterly evil might eventually be challenged or even denied as being literally unbelievable. For these reasons he ordered that all the civilian news media and military combat camera units be required to visit the camps and record their observations in print, pictures and film. As he explained to General Marshall, “I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”
His prediction proved correct. When some groups, even today, attempt to deny that the Holocaust ever happened they must confront the massive official record, including both written evidence and thousands of pictures, that Eisenhower ordered to be assembled when he saw what the Nazis had done.
General Patton wrote in his diary, after he toured Ohrdruf:
It was the most appalling sight imaginable. In a shed . . . was a pile of about 40 completely naked human bodies in the last stages of emaciation. These bodies were lightly sprinkled with lime, not for the purposes of destroying them, but for the purpose of removing the stench.
When the shed was full–I presume its capacity to be about 200, the bodies were taken to a pit a mile from the camp where they were buried. The inmates claimed that 3,000 men, who had been either shot in the head or who had died of starvation, had been so buried since the 1st of January.
General Bradley said of the atrocities at Ohrdruf:
“The smell of death overwhelmed us even before we passed through the stockade. More than 3200 naked, emaciated bodies had been flung into shallow graves. Others lay in the streets where they had fallen. Lice crawled over the yellowed skin of their sharp, bony frames.”
Dunetz writes, “May the Memories of those who suffered through the Shoah always be for a blessing. And may we never forget what evil men can do when they are appeased by the rest of the world.”
1945 news clip of generals talking to Holocaust survivors, touring the camps.