On April 4, 1945, Patton’s third army became the first American troops to liberate a Nazi Concentration camp (Ohrdruf Concentration Camp.) On the 12th, Patton was joined by Generals Bradley and Eisenhower to see the Nazi horrors.
Eisenhower wanted to guarantee that people in the future couldn’t deny or forget the revolting atrocities committed by the Nazis.
The Holocaust is unique in its volume and horrors and is a singular event in world history. Yes, there are genocides of other groups, and other horrors, even other atrocities made to the Jewish people. But generally, genocide is waged to suppress a group, to take their territory, for political or economic reasons like enslaving a people. This was different– the Jews targeted by Hitler and the Nazis had no land and held relatively little power. During the Holocaust, Jews were taken from all over Europe just to be killed. And while that was being done, supposedly civilized leaders like Franklyn Roosevelt sentenced hundreds of thousands of Jews to death because he didn’t want more Jews in the U.S.
During the camp inspections with his top commanders, Eisenhower said the atrocities were “beyond the American mind to comprehend.” He ordered that every citizen of the town of Gotha (near Ohrdruf ) 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.
Eisenhower cabled Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall on April 15 to explain the horrors he saw.
On the 19th, he sent a second cable suggesting that Marshall come to Germany and bring the press and members of Congress to see horrors for themselves:
We continue to uncover German concentration camps for political prisoners in which conditions of indescribable horror prevail. I have visited one of these myself and I assure you that whatever has been printed on them to date has been understatement. If you could see any advantage in asking about a dozen leaders of Congress and a dozen prominent editors to make a short visit to this theater in a couple of C-54’s, I will arrange to have them conducted to one of these places where the evidence of bestiality and cruelty is so overpowering as to leave no doubt in their minds about the normal practices of the Germans in these camps. I am hopeful that some British individuals in similar categories will visit the northern area to witness similar evidence of atrocity.
Eisenhower 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 civilian news media and military combat camera units be required to visit the camps and record their observations in print, pictures, and film.
Sadly the General’s prediction proved correct. When some groups, even today, attempt to deny that the Holocaust ever happened or that it wasn’t that bad, 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 the following in his diary after he toured the Camp:
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.
When we began to approach with our troops, the Germans thought it expedient to remove the evidence of their crime. Therefore, they had some of the slaves exhume the bodies and place them on a mammoth griddle composed of 60-centimeter railway tracks laid on brick foundations. They poured pitch on the bodies and then built a fire of pinewood and coal under them. They were not very successful in their operations because there was a pile of human bones, skulls, charred torsos on or under the griddle which must have accounted for many hundreds.
General Omar 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.”
On Yom HaShoah, indeed, on every day, 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 appeased by the rest of the world.