Liberators: The U.S. Army and the Concentration Camps of World War II

As the Nazi regime crumbled under the combined pressures of Allied armies, advancing American Soldiers made a grim discovery as they liberated the death camps where millions of Jews, political prisoners, and other persons deemed undesirable by the Nazis were sent to labor and die.

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Allied forces liberated dozens of camps and sub-camps.  Names like Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen became synonymous with the evil of the Nazi regime.  Along with their Allied counterparts, American Soldiers became the first outsiders to witness the horrors of the camps.

Upon hearing of the camps, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower visited Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald.  He brought Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley with him.  Of that visit, Eisenhower famously wrote:

“The things I saw beggar description. While I was touring the camp I encountered three men who had been inmates and by one ruse or another had made their escape. I interviewed them through an interpreter. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. 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.””

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As one of the most famous witnesses to the Holocaust, Eisenhower’s words are widely known.  Other witnesses, however, include thousands of American G.I.s who broke down the gates, fought through any remaining resistance, and tended to the survivors.   They recorded their experiences in countless letters, diaries, interviews, photographs, and books, many of which are in the collections of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.

Presented here is a small sample of their eyewitness accounts. 

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They killed a lot of people just before the troops came, the Germans. They were still half-dead bodies. There were still bodies lying there, that must have been dead maybe seven, eight hours, and they tried to bury them just before. I recall that they were shot. They were trying to bury them. And then after this I left, and they had the high brass come, the Division Commanders came and they looked at it and took pictures.

– Corporal Eric Leiseroff - 353rd Infantry Regiment, 89th Infantry Division (Eliach and Gurewitsch 2)

…we were actually hit by a stench that we immediately knew had to come from burning flesh… everybody who say what was going on there was literally stunned into silence. The only thing that was spoken after that were when orders were given to move food and blankets into the camp... 

– Sergeant Paul Lenger - 8th Armored Division, XVI Corps (Eliach and Gurewitsch 4)

I had studied German literature while an undergraduate at Harvard College. I knew about the culture of the German people and I could not, could not really believe that this was happening in this day and age; that in the twentieth century a cultured people like the Germans would undertake something like this. It was just beyond our imagination...   Many of them did not realize the significance of having been liberated. Many of them spoke to us and said that they were ordered that morning to go on a forced march and they were sure that they were going to be shot at that time, because they had heard rumors that the Americans were approaching. The Germans left in a hurry and the inmates were free and wandered about without any purpose, aimlessly, not realizing fully that finally they had been liberated.

– Captain (Dr.) Philip Leif - 3rd Auxiliary Surgical Group, First Army (Eliach and Gurewitsch 17))

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We mentioned one thing to a German family in a town we had taken, that there was a concentration camp about four and a half miles from where they lived and they acted very surprised. They didn’t know about it. But they did know, they did know about it. They had to be blind or dead not to know about it. They saw cars and trucks going there and cars and trucks coming back. Cars and trucks going with people on them and the trucks retuned with no people on them...  This was the most horrible experience of my entire life.  Jews and Non-Jews, when they saw what was happening there, all I saw was many, many wet eyes. No human being had ever seen a sight like this and I hope to God we never do again.

– Private First Class Alex Schoenberg - 90th Infantry Division (Eliach and Gurewitsch 21)

We all expressed horror. We were aghast at what we saw. How deep that feeling was is hard to say. I cannot even speak for myself, in terms of how deep that hit me because I felt that I pushed it aside, I sort of covered it up; I didn’t want to deal with that. It was too traumatic. And like most people, you have to find some kind of security blanket, some way to insulate yourself from the Horror. And I sort of pushed it away, and I never talked about it at all.

– Sergeant Leon Bass - 183rd Combat Engineer Battalion (Eliach and Gurewitsch 23)

The first thing I saw was this big pile of bodies, about five, six foot high, like a haystack. I didn’t realize that they were bodies- my mind didn’t tell me they were bodies until I got a little closer.

– Joe Vanacore (Hirsch 26)

They treated them like animals. It was just horrible. Because it was hard to breathe. The odor, the smell, the air. The crematoriums, some of them still had bodies burning in ’em, so you could still smell it. And it was a relief on our part to get away from it, but you couldn’t forget, you couldn’t forget.

 – Max Schmidt (Hirsch 81)

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It was one of those moments that I can describe in some detail and force because it was so horrifying to walk where those kids, some four hundred to five hundred, were kept. I can’t say ‘housed’, because housing suggests a sense of decency and civilization.

– Warren E. Priest (Hirsch 120)

Yesterday, I saw the most horrible sight I have ever seen. It was a German slave labor camp… We took all the soldiers we could to see it, as I believe it is one of the best arguments against fraternization that I know. 

– General George Patton (Ast 102)

Five miles before we reached the camp [Dachau] we could smell death and the decaying bodies. The closer we came, the mood of the unit became more somber.

– Private First Class Ladd Roberts (Ast 105)

I have never forgotten the appearance of these people, that just sat along the walls, you know, up against the walls and just sat there, didn’t move, didn’t say anything to anyone, just sat there.

 – Lieutenant William Cartledge (Ast 115)

[There were] two survivors… the awesome thing about their appearance was that they had phantom-like faces, such as I have never in my life seen. Their eyes had receded into their eye sockets themselves… they appeared to be nothing but dark holes in their skull and face.

 – Sergeant Joseph Kushlis (Ast 115)

Emaciated, putrefied, covered by insects, flies, maggots, they created an unbearable stench. All around me I saw the consequences of barbarism, appalling atrocities and monstrous slaughter-houses.

–Colonel Weinstein (Ast 117-118)

The overall atmosphere of the camp was one of – I don’t know- they were – deprived of everything; their clothing, their health, their means of survival. They were completely helpless. 

– Emory Weston (Ast 121)

We started getting these bodies and we wound up – I was told – the total number was 2000, and we just had them in big long lines and I know our chaplain was just running up and down the lines, just straining and cursing and everything… It was just a silent stink putrid death is… I mean, you know, we would even communicate with each other in whispers and things like that, I don’t know why you do that, don’t ask me, you just do… I guess half my thoughts were really prayers, but right at that point, we were trying to get these bodies out. We were afraid of disease and this kind of thing, and we wanted to get them under the ground and restore some sort of dignity to them, but then we had another mission after that one… I guess really later the profoundness of the situation gradually came to me

– C. W. Doughty (Abzug 40)

My first impression of it was the odor. The stench of it was all over the place and there were a bunch of very bewildered, lost individuals who came to me pathetically at the door in their unkempt uniforms to see what we were doing and what was going to be done about them. They were staying at the camp even though their guards and staff had fled because they didn’t know where to go or what to do. They had heard news that the Americans had taken over that area and they were waiting for somebody to turn their lives back straight again and they were just lost souls at that time. Well, my feeling was that this was the most shattering experience of my life.

– John Glustrom - 333rd Engineers (Abzug 53)

Well you were just in a state of shock really, nobody had ever seen anything like that before. You know, I had been in the service and I had seen men die before. I’ve seen dead bodies, but not stacked up like cordwood.

– Bill Allison - 14th Armored Division (Abzug 92)

The first thing I saw was a stack of bodies that appeared to be about, oh 20 feet long and about, oh as high as a man could reach, which looked like cordwood stacked up there, and the thing I’ll never forget was the fact that closer inspection found people whose eyes were still blinking maybe three or four deep inside the stack.

– Jack Hallett (Abzug 92)

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A Note Regarding Photographs

Technical Sergeant (T/SGT) Nelson A. Shuey served in the Signal Section of Headquarters, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) during World War II. He somehow had access to the photo processing division and had prints of Signal Corps photos made and sent home in personal letters to his wife.  From the scope and content of the photos, Shuey almost certainly did not personally see all that these photos depict.

Private First Class (PFC) Watson H. Nelson was born on December 25, 1912.  He served in the European Theater in WWII.  The Watson H. Nelson photograph collection contains photographs taken during his service in World War II. The photos cover PFC Nelson's service from training in Mississippi and Oklahoma to photos taken while on active duty in France, Germany, and Austria. The collection includes personal photos as well as some Signal Corps photos of the 42nd Infantry Division. The majority of the collection consists of photos of identified American soldiers, but the collection also includes sightseeing photos taken in France, photos of German soldiers, and photos of various camps.  Nelson died on December 2, 1973.

Works Cited

Abzug, Robert H. Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps. Replica Books, Division of Baker & Taylor, 2000.

Ast, Theresa. Confronting the Holocaust: American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps. Nomenklature Publikations, 2013.

Eliach, Yaffa, and Brana Gurewitsch. The Liberators: Eyewitness Accounts of the Liberation of Concentration Camps.  Center for Holocaust Studies, Documentation and Research, 1981. Print.

Hirsh, Michael. The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust. Bantam, 2010. Print.

Sources

https://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/research/online_documents/holocaust.html

https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10006131