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Recalling Holocaust Horrors Area Troops Were Among First On Scene For Liberation Of Concentration Camps

Before they saw the concentration camps, the soldiers who became liberators smelled them.

The stench was a combination of dirt, human waste, sweat and disease. And death.

Phil Slocum of Coeur d’Alene was with the 42nd Rainbow Infantry Division chasing retreating Germans some 50 years ago when he smelled the stench.

His task force was still about a mile away from Dachau.

Ruth Dickson of Spokane was a nurse with the 120th Evacuation Hospital Unit who rode through the blackedout German countryside to a new aid station. The nurses awoke the next morning to the smell - and Buchenwald.

“It was the worst thing I had ever seen,” she said.

In the spring of 1945, thousands of American servicemen and women were nearing a victorious end to a long war, dreaming of reunions with their families. Pushing across Germany and Austria, they confronted a reality that horrified even the most battle-hardened.

Fifty years later, some of these veterans are being asked to dredge up long-suppressed memories and speak up against those who say the Holocaust never occurred.

“They are the only ones who can stand against the revisionists,” said Rabbi Jacob Izakson of Spokane’s Temple Beth Shalom. Sunday night, an ecumenical service at the temple honored the liberators as well as the survivors of the concentration camps.

“The revisionists will say the Jews are all in a conspiracy,” Izakson said. “But who’s going to dare call an American GI a liar?”

Anyone who suggests the Holocaust didn’t happen can get a simple two-syllable reply from Slocum, a retired Washington Water Power Co. employee. The first syllable is “bull.”

Slocum still has the letter he wrote home after Dachau had been liberated.

“It was unbelievable such atrocities could occur,” the 25-year-old sergeant wrote.

Behind the walls of Dachau, whose gate carried the cynically cruel message “Work Makes You Free,” they had found “one of the worst crimes in history.”

Infantrymen, who had landed 11 months earlier on the beaches of Normandy and had seen death almost daily, threw up. Officers wept openly in buildings where bodies were stacked “like some maniac’s woodpile,” he wrote.

Slocum entered barracks full of prisoners who were no more than limp ghosts under filthy blankets. Some tried to salute their liberators with arms that were no bigger than broomsticks or wave little American flags they had made from paper.

Hundreds who were packed in rail cars had died in terrible contortions. One prisoner had amputated his gangrenous leg with his own hands.

Such scenes were repeated across Germany, Austria and Poland in thousands of camps large and small, where as many as 11 million Jews, Gypsies and Poles, political prisoners and homosexuals were killed.

Nazi leaders had ordered the camps destroyed and the prisoners killed. But the retreating Germans lacked the time, the means or the stomach for such a final atrocity.

Eva, a Holocaust survivor who asked that her last name not be used for fear of anti-Semitic reprisals, was arrested in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. First sent to Majdanek concentration camp, she was among the prisoners who were moved from camp to camp - and atrocity to atrocity - as the Soviet army crossed Poland. With each move, many died.

By early 1945, Eva was near death in a camp near Chestochova, making ammunition. One night, prisoners were herded into a hall to be loaded into the cattle cars that would take them to still another camp in Germany. The Soviet army was in the surrounding hills.

“Bullets were flying everywhere. Suddenly the lights went out,” the 76-year-old Spokane resident recalled. “We thought this was the end of us. Then, it got very quiet.”

A prisoner who ventured out discovered the Germans had fled in the train meant for the prisoners. “We are free!” he shouted, but the other prisoners could not believe him.

The liberators could not believe what they found. Like most of the world, Allied troops had little or no knowledge of the camps and often discovered them unexpectedly.

Pfc. Ray Stone and several other members of the 82nd Airborne Division were in a jeep, sent to scout the area outside the German town of Ludwiglust. After the town had surrendered, the mayor and his wife had committed suicide. No one knew why.

The answer lay outside the town at Wobbelin, a camp where prisoners made ammunition before being shipped to other camps for extermination.

Stone’s jeep was the first inside the gates. In the barracks, he found dead and dying prisoners lying on stacked shelves, six or eight high. Those who could speak begged for food.

Ludwiglust’s mayor had been responsible for feeding the prisoners and apparently had given them nothing but turnip soup.

Kamiah, Idaho, rancher Carl Paul, then a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne, was part of a headquarters unit sent to Wobbelin the day after Stone.

Many of the emaciated prisoners were too weak to stand. When one who could stand moved to hug an American soldier, Paul remembers, a fellow prisoner whispered, cautioning: “Do not give our lice to our liberators.”

The prisoners’ emaciated stomachs couldn’t tolerate the high-calorie food the GIs gave them out of kindness. Some died from the shock to their systems. Medics had to feed prisoners intravenously.

Advancing Allied armies suddenly faced the unexpected task of caring for survivors of the Holocaust. Nurses in Ruth Dickson’s hospital unit were sent to one of the largest camps, Buchenwald, which had some 20,000 prisoners.

The nurses rode through the night in a covered truck, then slept in a castle on the hill, which until recently had been the camp’s SS headquarters. They awoke to a glimpse of hell.

Bodies were stacked on wagons, ready to be put into the furnaces.

“Whether they were dead or alive, we didn’t know,” Dickson said.

Some nurses fainted.

The unit’s commander decided the sights at the camp were too atrocious for women and sent them elsewhere.

American soldiers couldn’t believe German soldiers would operate the camps or that civilians in the surrounding towns would tolerate them.

“That was very disgusting and kind of terrifying, deep inside,” said Stone, who later became mayor of Coeur d’Alene.

Gen. James Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne, ordered the residents of Ludwiglust to provide sheets from their homes to cover the corpses and to dig graves in front of the town’s well-kept castle that had served as SS headquarters. Soldiers with fixed bayonets forced townspeople to walk among the rows.

“They said they didn’t know. We made sure they did,” Paul said.

Not reported at the time was the fact that some American soldiers were so incensed by the brutality that they summarily executed some German guards.

Others turned a blind eye to retribution by prisoners. Some guards who were unable to flee had disguised themselves as prisoners.

“We didn’t know who they were, but the prisoners sure did,” Slocum said. “Some of them were beaten to death by the inmates.”

Shortly after the camps had been liberated, Germany surrendered and the war in Europe ended. A few months later, war-weary GIs went home to their families and tried to resume normal lives.

A shocked world convicted Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, and memories of the Holocaust spurred the founding of the Jewish state of Israel.

Stone, who became a history teacher, then a college administrator, said he always felt a responsibility to tell the story.

In 1993, he was invited to the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. There, he met some of the prisoners who had been in the boxcars when his jeep had entered Wobbelin. He didn’t know he had helped them; they thanked him for their lives.

But many liberators buried the gruesome memories.

“I had trouble coping with it. I didn’t discuss it,” said Slocum. “I thought many people wouldn’t believe it.”

Now, they are speaking out. Some who vowed this would never happen again see shocking parallels in Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia or in the rise of anti-Semitic extremist cults.

Izakson said the lessons need constant repeating. As he prepared for Sunday’s memorial service, the rabbi marveled at how quick Americans were to blame the Oklahoma City tragedy on Middle East terrorists.

“We were ready to bomb Iran and Iraq in the last 24 hours,” he said. “These ideas of dangerous nationalism are alive and well.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SOLDIER’S LETTER DESCRIBES CAMP

Editor’s note:This is a portion of a letter from Hollie Baker to his family after his hospital unit had taken care of victims at the Gusen concentration camp in Austria. The letter was provided to The Spokesman-Review by his granddaughter, Holly Hope, of Spokane.

Linz, Austria May 21, 1945 Dear Mom and Sonya: Well, Honey, they have finally raised censorship so maybe I can tell you some of the things I want to. … We were (close to the Rhine River) a little over two weeks then moved to southern Germany, but by the time we got set up there the war was over in Germany. … We came on down in Austria at this Hellhole; that is just what it is. It is a concentration camp they have had ever since the war started with Russia. Anything you read or hear about one of these places, it is twice as bad as that. We got here 1 1/2 days after it was liberated; there were 35,000 prisoners because they were too weak to go far. They were dead everywhere you looked; they had every kind of disease that they can have. They gave us every kind of shot that night; I took nine shots at one time (think for everything but the whooping cough). Anyway, we started in the next morning cleaning up, picking up the dead; putting some in the best buildings as fast as we could clean them out for our hospital. We buried 326 that day; they had them all in a big pen with a stone wall with barbed wire on top charged with electricity to keep them in. Oh yes, there were about 1,800 women and children from Sonya’s size on up. Men or women hadn’t any clothes on; not even a pair of sox. The most pitiful sight you could ever hope to see; and stink! Boy, I never smelled anything like it. Boy, I lost everything I had eaten in three weeks. They were just starving to death; I don’t see how any of them lived three weeks, although, some of them had been here as high as five years. That same morning, a bunch of infantry boys came to act as guards. They rounded up all the German civilians in the country and brought them in to clean up. They sure didn’t like that, but a couple of kicks and a tap on the head with the rifle changed their minds. They caught nine of the SS boys that had worked. They’re prisoners, so they just put them in the pen with the prisoners. Boy, I never saw such brutal things take place; they took one, burned his privates off, broke his arms one at a time, then his legs the same way, then cut his head off with a spade (they put the head in a cell, and put the rest of them in with it and told them that’s what one of them was going to get each day until they were all done that way). I think they finished the last one yesterday; boy that was really something to look at (I only watched the first one). We have got things cleaned up somewhat now. We have 2,862 in our hospital now and about that many in the bullpen now. Some of them were OK to take off; others were sent to other hospitals. I don’t think we will be here over six more weeks. We have cut the dead down to only 32 this morning to bury; not so good, but a lot better than 100 to 200 each morning. … I will send a picture of some of them like we have to bury them. This was taken the third morning after I got here. It will give you some idea; this ditch was dug with a bulldozer. There are 212 in this string. … Well, Honey, bye for tonight. Hope this doesn’t keep you awake like it did me for a night or two.

This sidebar appeared with the story: SOLDIER’S LETTER DESCRIBES CAMP

Editor’s note:This is a portion of a letter from Hollie Baker to his family after his hospital unit had taken care of victims at the Gusen concentration camp in Austria. The letter was provided to The Spokesman-Review by his granddaughter, Holly Hope, of Spokane.

Linz, Austria May 21, 1945 Dear Mom and Sonya: Well, Honey, they have finally raised censorship so maybe I can tell you some of the things I want to. … We were (close to the Rhine River) a little over two weeks then moved to southern Germany, but by the time we got set up there the war was over in Germany. … We came on down in Austria at this Hellhole; that is just what it is. It is a concentration camp they have had ever since the war started with Russia. Anything you read or hear about one of these places, it is twice as bad as that. We got here 1 1/2 days after it was liberated; there were 35,000 prisoners because they were too weak to go far. They were dead everywhere you looked; they had every kind of disease that they can have. They gave us every kind of shot that night; I took nine shots at one time (think for everything but the whooping cough). Anyway, we started in the next morning cleaning up, picking up the dead; putting some in the best buildings as fast as we could clean them out for our hospital. We buried 326 that day; they had them all in a big pen with a stone wall with barbed wire on top charged with electricity to keep them in. Oh yes, there were about 1,800 women and children from Sonya’s size on up. Men or women hadn’t any clothes on; not even a pair of sox. The most pitiful sight you could ever hope to see; and stink! Boy, I never smelled anything like it. Boy, I lost everything I had eaten in three weeks. They were just starving to death; I don’t see how any of them lived three weeks, although, some of them had been here as high as five years. That same morning, a bunch of infantry boys came to act as guards. They rounded up all the German civilians in the country and brought them in to clean up. They sure didn’t like that, but a couple of kicks and a tap on the head with the rifle changed their minds. They caught nine of the SS boys that had worked. They’re prisoners, so they just put them in the pen with the prisoners. Boy, I never saw such brutal things take place; they took one, burned his privates off, broke his arms one at a time, then his legs the same way, then cut his head off with a spade (they put the head in a cell, and put the rest of them in with it and told them that’s what one of them was going to get each day until they were all done that way). I think they finished the last one yesterday; boy that was really something to look at (I only watched the first one). We have got things cleaned up somewhat now. We have 2,862 in our hospital now and about that many in the bullpen now. Some of them were OK to take off; others were sent to other hospitals. I don’t think we will be here over six more weeks. We have cut the dead down to only 32 this morning to bury; not so good, but a lot better than 100 to 200 each morning. … I will send a picture of some of them like we have to bury them. This was taken the third morning after I got here. It will give you some idea; this ditch was dug with a bulldozer. There are 212 in this string. … Well, Honey, bye for tonight. Hope this doesn’t keep you awake like it did me for a night or two.

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