The Soldiers Who Liberated Holocaust Concentration Camps Can Never Forget What They Saw

May 13, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IINazi GermanyConcentration CampsPTSDHolocaust

The Soldiers Who Liberated Holocaust Concentration Camps Can Never Forget What They Saw

After liberating the Nazi concentration camps, many veterans are still dealing with the psychological aftermath.

Here's What You Need To Remember:  While the horror behind the gates of the death camps did not threaten the lives of the GI liberators, it did destroy their sense of moral order, of humanity, of a universe directed by an ultimately divine benevolence. It annihilated the possibility of ever feeling safe again.

Down in the basement of my father’s medical office a Nazi helmet stood guard. It sat on top of the pea-green Army trunk, CAPT R LEVINSON stenciled in white letters under a beaten-up leather handle. Throughout my childhood, whenever my father took me to the office while he did paperwork, I snuck down the basement stairs to stare at the trunk. It magnetized me, but I could not reach past the German helmet, with eagles on both sides grasping in their talons strange Xs that bent up at the ends at 90-degree angles. Only after my father’s death, when my brother, Alan, and I needed to empty the office, did I finally open the latches.

On top lay the dark green Army jacket my father was wearing in the portrait that hung in the family den. A Roman numeral “VII” within the shape of a seven-point star decorated one shoulder. An odd gold pyramid surrounded by blue adorned the other.

Under the jacket sat a Florsheim shoebox, big enough to hold boots. Out spilled photographs as I took off the lid. Hundreds of photographs. One showed endless ocean, faint ripples the only clue that the empty expanse was water, lit by a cloud-shrouded moon. My father’s seismographic handwriting noted on the back: “The English Channel, June 2, 1944. Prelude to the Invasion.”

Other photos showed GIs lying on the ground, white bandages on their heads, their arms, their thighs. Soldiers wearing Red Cross armbands. The Clearing Station on Utah Beach, Normandy, June 8, 1944. Huge circus-sized tents, emblazoned with enormous red crosses. Lines of GIs holding plates and cups. Mountains of rubble next to the remains of churches and homes. Fields covered in snow, tanks and bodies covered in snow. Fields covered with white crosses and occasional Stars of David. The boys who died in the Ardennes. Another: A lad in our battalion.

I flipped through the photos, repetitive with war’s destruction, until, at the bottom of the box, blurred stripes seized my eyes. Rows and rows of blurred stripes that cascaded into a wave. A foot emerged from the chaos, a leg. Many legs. Grotesque, frozen faces. My fingers pinched the top corner and turned over the photo. Nordhausen, Germany. April 12, 1945.

Nordhausen. What was Nordhausen? Another photo, more focused: a long canal-shaped ditch filled with bodies. Body after body, all in a row. An endless row of bodies. The burial of the concentration camps victims. April 15, 1945.

I dumped the photos back into the box and ran up the stairs, up and out into the hallway, the smell of rubbing alcohol relaxing my lungs, letting me breathe. I rested my forehead against the wall.

“Don’t Think it Can’t Happen Here”

“Those photographs were intense,” Alan said as we drove back to our family home. What were those photos doing in my father’s trunk? Why had he made notes on the back of them––as if he had been there––as if he had seen a concentration camp. But that wasn’t possible. He had told us (granted, just in passing, never with any details) that he had been a surgeon for the Army and had landed on Utah Beach right behind the first wave of troops on D-Day. He tended the wounded of the VII Corps all across France and into Germany, including the Battle of the Bulge. But he had never mentioned a concentration camp. He never talked about the Holocaust at all.

I first learned about the genocide of Europe’s Jews at age 15 when I went to the Jewish Community Center and saw a movie, Night and Fog, by Alain Resnais. It showed endless lines of people being marched onto trains, then behind barbed wire.

I ran home, trying with each breath to push away the images. I rushed into the den and poured out my anguish to my parents. My father responded, “Don’t think it can’t happen here,” as he wagged his finger before walking up the stairs and closing the bedroom door.

I might never have looked at the photographs in the shoebox again if my brother hadn’t shipped the trunk to me 12 years, a wedding, and two sons later. One afternoon, my sons came running into the house, “Mom, the UPS man is bringing us a trunk!” They hung over me as if I were opening a pirate’s chest. “Wow! Look at those buttons!” While they reached for my father’s jacket, I slipped the shoebox out of the trunk and under the couch.

By uncanny coincidence or providential design, my older son, Ray, was studying World War II and the Holocaust in his sixth-grade class.

“I can’t believe your dad fought the Nazis!” he said at dinner.

“He was a surgeon for the Army.”

“Did he see the Holocaust?”

My husband, Burke, turned and looked at me, waiting to see how I would answer. My tongue lay cemented to my jaw.

“I … I’m not sure,” I finally said.

That night I opened the shoebox and spread the photographs over my bed. The photographs of Nordhausen were blurred, the endless skeletal bodies staggering. My father’s hands had been quivering, I realized. He had been overwhelmed. He had seen the worst.

Two Weeks at Nordhausen

I learned that Nordhausen is how the GIs referred to the slave labor camp the Nazis called Mittelbau-Dora. A subcamp of Buchenwald situated three miles outside of the town of Nordhausen, its purpose was to produce the V-1 buzz bombs and V-2 long-range missles after the Allies discovered and bombed the testing facility at Peenemunde. The Nazis then transferred prisoners from Buchenwald and Dachau to Mittelbau-Dora, forcing them to carve tunnels through the Harz Mountains with hand chisels and dynamite. Then the prisoners had to live within the dank caverns and assemble the rockets.

When they could no longer work, the Nazis shot and burned them in a crematorium built at the camp once the bodies became too numerous to transport to Buchenwald. At the end of the war, not wanting to “waste” bullets, the Nazis built a warehouse called Boelcke Barracks on the far side of town. There they locked up the sick and weak prisoners and left them to starve to death. It was this warehouse, unintentionally bombed by the Allies two days before its liberation, that my father photographed.

“Oh, yes,” my Aunt Joan told me, “your father had the bad luck of being assigned to treat the survivors at a camp. It affected him terribly. He didn’t talk about it.”

Joan was a British “war bride” who met my father’s brother, Leon, in London during the war. Perhaps, I thought, he had revealed more to one of his siblings. I asked his 86-year-old sister, Mildred, what she knew about his time at Nordhausen.

“He spent two weeks there taking care of survivors,” she told me. “He had a nervous breakdown after seeing that place, and the Army sent him to the Riviera for R&R. We couldn’t understand why, six months after all the other boys were back, Rube was still over there. ”

Remembering the photographs in the shoebox of him on the Riviera, I was too stunned to ask more.

The Men Who Liberated the Camps

Books on the liberation of the camps do not address the quivering minds and hearts of the liberators, the consequences of bearing witness. But that is what I needed to know if I was to understand what the photographs might be telling me about my father. Perhaps they were clues to his steely silence, his melancholy and detachment.

The one way I could understand what the photographs were showing me was to find and talk with veterans who had also helped to liberate the camps.

I learned thousands of GIs had participated in the camps’ liberations. They liberated 39 camps, so if a division had 14,000 soldiers and one, if not two, divisions liberated each of those camps, tens of thousands of GIs witnessed them.

In the spring of 2007, in the former Eastern bloc, researchers discovered Nazi documents that established the existence of hundreds of subcamps for each of the listed camps. So, once subcamps are factored in, the total number of camps increases to more than 5,000, placing the GIs who witnessed a camp in the range of 250,000, especially if the number includes auxiliary troops like my father’s medical battalion that were brought in to help survivors. In addition, General Eisenhower ordered soldiers from every battalion within 50 miles of a discovered camp to send soldiers to be witnesses. He had the prescience to anticipate “Holocaust deniers” and wanted as many eyewitnesses as possible to view the horrors of the death and concentration camps.