“Most could never forget what they had seen and experienced . . . ” But will we remember?
Guest post by John C. McManus
Not surprisingly, Anti-Defamation League representatives expressed deep disappointment and alarm at such stark evidence of modern day hatred and ignorance. Abraham Foxman, the League’s national director in the United States, said, “The results confirm a troubling gap between older adults who know their history and younger men and women who, more than seventy years after the events of World War II, are more likely to have never heard of or learned about what happened to the six millions Jews who perished.”
Though no less troubled than Mr. Foxman, I was not especially surprised by the results. For several years now, I have witnessed ignorance of the Holocaust in some of my students and especially in popular culture as a whole. On occasion in that same popular culture, I have seen ignorance mutate into outright denial, sometimes out of rebellion against a perceived popular narrative of historical events, sometimes out of misplaced sympathy for anti-Semitic, anti-western, middle Eastern Arabs, and sometimes simply out of sheer hatred for Jews.
As a professional historian, it is not really my intent to become enmeshed in today’s geopolitical controversies. Instead my purpose is to document, chronicle, and analyze the events of the past, while perhaps offering some lessons for our future. My particular focus is on military history, with a specialization in World War II and the history of American soldiers in battle. In eleven books published over the course of more than a decade, I have explored the combat experience for those Americans who do the real fighting in time of war. If there is one theme that has stood out to me, it is the grim, visceral nature of combat for soldiers, especially amid the meat grinder of World War II, by far history’s deadliest war. Many of these same soldiers who fought for their lives on the front lines also liberated or witnessed concentration camps in Germany at the end of the war. Very few had any previous knowledge of the existence of these camps. Over the years, I have been struck by how many of these men told me or other historians or wrote in memoirs or letters that this experience was their most traumatic and unforgettable during the war. Indeed many were never the same after seeing a camp (or multiple camps in some cases). And yet, even though the Holocaust is one of the most heavily documented events in human history, the literature includes very little material about the liberation experiences of American soldiers.
So, in hopes of filling this void, as well as finding out what could have been worse for soldiers than battle, and combating what I perceived as persistent ignorance and denial of the Holocaust, I wrote Hell Before Their Very Eyes: American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps in Germany, April 1945. The book focuses on the liberation of three camps—Ohrdruf, Buchenwald and Dachau—during that momentous month in 1945. These three places, I felt, represented the larger whole of the Nazi concentration camp system in Germany, and the story of their liberation conveys a narrative of discovery as American soldiers experienced it that spring. Indeed, it is sobering to realize that the Holocaust was not just a crime of genocide; in a larger sense it was a huge slave labor operation targeting a multitude of ethnic groups, not just Jews. The camps liberated by Americans in Germany were designed for enslavement, not industrial killing of human beings in massive numbers like the death camps in Poland (where the majority of Jewish Holocaust victims lost their lives). As such, the majority of the survivors encountered by American soldiers were non-Jewish eastern Europeans.
Thus, Ohrdruf, Buchenwald and Dachau were not even among the worst camps in the Nazi empire. But they were horrible enough. In these three terrible, pestilential places, young American soldiers came face to face with a dark and upsetting world of human degradation, along with its sickening manifestations of terrible sights and smells—emaciated bodies stacked in heaps, ovens full of incinerated human remains, warehouses filled with stolen shoes, clothing, luggage, and even eyeglasses, prison yards littered with implements of torture as well as dead bodies and, perhaps most disturbing of all, the half-dead survivors of these camps. The troops became familiar with the unforgettable stench of these places, a nauseating mixture of dead bodies, feces, dirty clothing, body odor and, at times, burnt flesh. “There’s nothing else I can remember in my lifetime that remains as vivid and horrible as that,” Bob Cleary, a young lieutenant who led a reconnaissance unit into Ohrdruf, later said. William Charboneau, who was a nineteen-year-old infantryman in 1945, opined more than fifty years after the war, “Until you’ve smelled burnt flesh or decayed flesh, you have no idea what the odor is. I can still smell it today.” Not surprisingly, most could never forget what they had seen and experienced. “The scenes were so deeply etched in my memory that it is impossible to cast them aside–or to forget–or to permit time to dull the sharpness of those horrifying images of hell on earth,” Jerry Hontas, a Buchenwald liberator, said. “The only thing that vanished was our innocence.” Some could never talk about these horrors; others felt a sense of mission to tell the world, especially as they grew old and the world’s memory faded. This is their story . . .
John C. McManus is a Curators’ Professor of History at Missouri University of Science and Technology. He is the author of Hell Before Their Very Eyes: American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps in Germany, April 1945 which will be published this month by JHU Press. His previous books include The Deadly Brotherhood: The American Combat Soldier in World War II and Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II Through Iraq.
Read the results of the Anti-Defamation League survey here.
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