What the Average German Knew About the Concentration Camps -- II
West German Occupation and Ammerican Immigration Documents - Ast, 1945-1950
German Civilian Knowledge of the Concentration Camps
In their oral history testimonies, letters, questionnaires, interviews, and journals American soldiers explain why they did not accept German protestations of ignorance and innocence. GIs from the 42nd, 45th, 71st, 88th, and 103rd Infantry Divisions, and the 11th Armored Division, and the 69th Signal Battalion all referred to the incredible odor emanating from the camps, claiming that they could smell the stench long before they could actually see the facilities.
Private Margol estimated that camp odors could be detected up to two miles away; he considered the stench far worse than any smell of battlefield dead. Dr. Charles Froug serving with an evacuation hospital, discounted the claim by citizens of Rosenheim that the odor came from a nearby fertilizer factory.
Thomas Hale wrote, “disease – typhus, dysentery, and tuberculosis – was universal. The crematory had been operating around the clock….the stench of death and of piles of human excrement was overpowering, yet the townspeople nearby said they knew nothing of the camp.
Staff Sergeant Malachowsky, at Nordhausen with the 329th Medical Battalion, recalled that “the smell covered the entire countryside…for miles around….when we asked these people in the town…how they could permit such a thing, they said they did not know there was a camp like that next to them.”
Frequently GIs mention the proximity of camps to villages, towns, and cities and emphasize that people living nearby would have known something about the camps. PFC Dalton, with the 89th Infantry Division was quite emphatic. “I do not believe anyone could live that close to such a place and not know what was going on.”
Corporal Hansen recorded the following, “On the edge of each industrial village, we saw the concentration camp, the huddle of ugly wooden barracks type building, surrounded with high barbed wire fence, littered with garbage, cold and repelling, sheltering the innumerable kinds of people that lived there and worked for the Germans.”
Irving Lisman, who was at Dachau with the 122nd Medical Battalion, pointed out that the German countryside contained hundreds of subcamps, or aussenkommandos, in addition to the mother camps whose names we know, Buchenwald, Dachau. Bergen-Belsen. He found it impossible to believe German civilians when they denied knowledge of camps or of slave labor activity in their vicinity.
Captain Sol Nichtern wrote, “The concentration Camp at Dachau is built right up against the side of the village; the houses go right up to the outer wall…And the German people who lived on the other side of the street claim that they didn’t know what was going on in the [very] next street”.
Slave laborers were often marched through the village and town streets to their work sites and then back again to the concentration camps where they were housed for the night. As part of a military intelligence team, Staff Sergeant Lenger questioned people living near the concentration camp Ohrdruf. Lenger recalled, “We questioned the people …and they told us they had no idea whatsoever that there was a camp of this sort, despite the fact that when the people from the camp went to work on this castle [nearby]…they had to pass the outskirts of this little town.”
Lieutenant James confirmed this situation as he had several encounters with the Baron of the estate where the camp prisoners were marched to work. Private Eppley spoke with inmates who marched through town twice a day to work in a paint factory outside of their camp.
In some regions townspeople owned businesses which had part of their operations located inside a camp to take advantage of cheap slave labor. Near Buchenwald trucks picked up villagers to do shift work inside the camp itself.
At the Neuengamme camp “labor squads worked throughout the area, in particular on the canal running through town.” The walk to the canal took over an hour and the trip was made twice a day in full view of the local inhabitants. Captain Baker remembered that “the civilian population seemed to claim not to know anything about what was going on at [Ohrdruf], yet it was only a quarter or a half a mile away from civilian populations. They could see it.”
American soldiers also observed the railroad tracks which brought trainloads of prisoners to the camps, many of them running straight through or along the outskirts of German towns and villages. In places where the trains went through the town, anyone looking out of a second story window could see the boxcars passing as they headed into a nearby camp.
Captain Hellerstein, a physician attached to the 40th Tank Battalion, surveyed the camp at Bergen-Belsen. He wrote, “the land is flat…over there you could see the little town called Bergen, and it was impossible for the people in the town not to know what was going on. Because these boxcars used to come in, loaded [with people], and [then] leave empty.”
Tech Sergeant Kushlis who was at Ohrdruf commented on the visibility of the train operations. “If you can just picture a tiny village with railroad cars coming in every other day with [thousands] of prisoners aboard [who were] unloaded and marched into the camp and they never saw anyone leave there.”
Also at Ohrdruf Lieutenant Moore wrote, “The camp was located in a town, in easy view of the citizens…at the end of the compound, I saw two sheds, with stinking naked bodies that were piled about six foot high.”
Konnilyn Feig, a Holocaust historian, verifies that similar situations were common in many towns. “During the war the residents had numerous opportunities to observe Neuengamme’s 10,000 inmates. The trains unloaded their cargo at the station in the center of town. The cargo walked through the center of town to the camp, an hour’s march.” To be continued in parts III and IV.
 Robert J. Weil, 4, Chaplain John B. MacDonald, 2, Fred Leroy Peterson, 4, Ast Project; Monroe Nachman., interview, HMFI; Victor Wiegard, interview, ILC; Robert Zimmer, interview, USHMM; Jack D. Hallett, 11, Robert Perelman, 2, Fred Mercer, 3, A. Lewis Greene, 8, Frank Bezares, 6, Herman Hellerstein, 13, interview transcripts, Emory.
 Howard Margol, 2, interview transcript, Emory, (392nd Field Artillery Battalion, 42nd Infantry Division).
 Thomas Hale, The Cauldron, 97.
 David Malachowsky, Day, 32, (329th Medical Battalion, 104th Infantry Division).
 Robert Eppley, interview, HMFI ; Historical Report, 1st US Army, April 1945, Record Group 331, NARA; Ernest James, interview, USHMM; Gerald McMahon, A Corner of Hell: The Liberation of Gunskirchen Lager, (Fairfax, Virginia: Yadernan Books, 1990), (hereafter cited as Gunskirchen Lager), 3; George Wehmoff, 3, C. W. Doughty, 4, Wilson Freeman, 9, interview transcripts, Emory; Jack R. Blake, 6, Russell W. McFarland, 3, Ralph A. Dalton, 2, Irving Lisman, 5, Carlos Edward Moore, 1, Donald E. Johnson, 2, Ast Project.
 Ralph A. Dalton, 2, Ast Project, (563rd Field Artillery Battalion, 89th Infantry Division).
 Bernard Hansen, 13 April 1945, Papers, 411th Field Artillery Group, MHI.
 Irving Lisman, 2, Ast Project, (122nd Medical Battalion, 42nd Infantry Division).
“The system with its major and official concentration camps and their hundreds of subsidiary camps and work parties stretched like a giant net over the whole of Germany, and then of Austria and Czechoslovakia.” Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps, 24.
 Sol Nichtern, 44, Ast Project, (Physician with Medical Corps, 517th Special Clearing Company).
 John B. MacDonald, 2, Ast Project, (Chaplain with 345th Regiment, 89th Infantry Division); Melvin Rappaport, December 1993, letter to Theresa Ast, (Captain with 6th Armored Division); Frank F. Hamburger, Joseph B. Kushlis , interviews, Emory, (65th Infantry Division).
 Paul P. Lenger, cited in Liberators, 4, (Military Intelligence, 8th Armored Division).
 Ernest James, interview, USHMM, (238th Combat Engineers Battalion, 7th Corps).
 Robert Eppley, interview, HMFI, (89th Infantry Division).
 William Levine, interview, HMFI, (Intelligence Officer, 7th Army).
 John Glustrom, 4, interview transcript, Emory, (333rd Combat Engineers).
 Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps, 211.
 John Henry Baker, 3, interview transcript, Emory, (260th Battalion, 65th Infantry Division).
 Dachau, compiled by Major Alfred L. Howes, G-2 Section, 7th US Army, 1945, 22; William Levine, interview, HMFI, (Intelligence Officer, 7th Army); [Military reports and memoranda are designated as follows: G-1 Personnel/Administration Section, division or higher, G-2 Intelligence Section, G-3 Operations Section, G-4 Supply and Logistics Section, G-5 Civil Affairs/Military Government.]
“The enormous transport system demanded the close cooperation and extensive knowledge of civilians, civil servants, and transportation experts in Germany and in all the countries of Europe. One of the largest Nazi government agencies, the Reichsbahn employed 1,400,000 people in Germany….” Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps, 36.
 Wilson Freeman, 9, interview transcript, Emory, (601st Field Artillery Battalion).
 Herman Hellerstein, 13, interview transcript, Emory, (40th Tank Battalion, 7th Armored Division).
 Joseph B. Kushlis, 10, interview transcript, Emory, (260th Regiment, 65th Infantry Division) .
 Carlos Edward Moore, 1, Ast Project, (Antitank Company, 354th Regiment, 89th Infantry Division).
 Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps, 211.
Dr. Theresa Ast -- August 2013
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