PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Florida –
Each year, our nation observes the Holocaust Days of Remembrance week established by Congress to honor and remember the victims of the Holocaust and their liberators. This year also marks the 75th anniversary of the first German Nazi concentration camp liberated by U.S. forces. The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute is highlighting the significant contributions of special observance groups towards achieving total victory in this watershed event. Read on to discover more in DEOMI’s presentation “Days of Remembrance.
The following DEOMI presentation shares a brief introduction to the Holocaust, the concentration camps and the American liberators.
Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were racially superior and the Jews, deemed inferior, were an alien threat to the German racial community. The Nazis also targeted other groups because of their perceived “racial inferiority” such as Roma also known as Gypsies, individuals with disabilities and Slavic peoples such as Poles, Russians and others. Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological and behavioral grounds.
Establishment of Concentration Camps
The first concentration camps were established soon after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933. In the weeks after the Nazis came to power, the Sturmabteilung “SA” commonly known as the Storm Troopers, the Schutzstaffel “SS,” the Protection Squadrons known as the elite guard of the Nazi party, the police and local civilian authorities organized numerous detention camps to incarcerate real and perceived political opponents of Nazi policy.
German authorities established camps all over Germany to handle the masses of people arrested as alleged subversives. Concentration camps are often compared to a prison in modern society. However, concentration camps, unlike prisons, were independent of any judicial review. Nazi concentration camps served three main purposes:
• To incarcerate people whom the Nazi regime perceived to be a security threat. These people were incarcerated for indefinite amounts of time.
• To murder people and targeted groups away from the public and judicial review.
• To exploit forced labor of the prisoner population. This purpose grew out of a labor shortage.
The Death Camps
As the Nazi regime crumbled under the pressures of advancing Allied armies, American Soldiers made a horrifying discovery as they found the death camps where millions of Jews, political prisoners and other persons deemed undesirable by the Nazis were sent to labor and die. They 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.
"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,” said Private First Class Ladd Roberts.
“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,” said Lieutenant William Cartledge.
The Initial Days
In the days after liberation, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower along with Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley, inspected the camps and saw firsthand the atrocities that had occurred. Eisenhower later wrote to his wife Mamie, “I never dreamed that such cruelty, bestiality and savagery could really exist in this world.”
In a cable to General George Marshall, General Eisenhower wrote about his experiences visiting the liberated concentration camp Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald. 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.’”
General Eisenhower ordered every American soldier in the area who was not on the front line to tour the camps, so that they could see themselves what they were fighting against and why they were fighting. Witnesses included 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:
“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,” wrote Bill Allison, of 14th Armored Division.
“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,” recounted Sgt. Paul Lenger, of 8th Armored Division.
General Eisenhower urged Washington officials to send Congressional delegations and journalists to the newly discovered scenes of Nazi crimes. The U.S. Army Signal Corps cameramen rushed to the camps to document the atrocities for the public and for war crimes trials.
Our modern military was forged in the fight against Nazi tyranny. To defeat Hitler, we mobilized all of the strength that we could muster, and, in that effort, we witnessed many of our finest hours as a military and, indeed, as a country. Today, we carry forward the proud legacy of the men and women of the Armed Forces who played an essential role in liberating the camps at Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenburg, Dachau, and Mauthausen.
75th World War II Anniversary Commemoration Program
The Department of Defense is commemorating the 75th Anniversary of World War II by recognizing the contributions and sacrifices made by service members as well as those who served on the home front. The United States remains forever indebted to WWII veterans, who demonstrated selfless service and sacrifice in defense of global peace and security. We remember the legacy of the “Greatest Generation” by Honoring the Past, Securing the Future.