Testimonies on Ohrdruf Concentration Camp

I am not a great believer in posting graphic images, but when it comes to the Holocaust there really is not always a way around it. The above picture was from Ohrdruf, shortly after its liberation. It is actually one of the least graphic photos.

The Ohrdruf camp was a subcamp of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and the first Nazi camp liberated by US troops.

The camp was liberated on 4 April 1945 by the 4th Armored Division, led by Brigadier General Joseph F. H. Cutrona, and the 89th Infantry Division. It was the first Nazi concentration camp liberated by the US Army. There is a scene in The Band of Brothers where they liberate a camp, the name isn’t mentioned but I believe it to be Ohrdruf.

One of the 4th Armored Division soldiers, David Cohen, said: “We walked into a shed and the bodies were piled up like wood. There are no words to describe it. The smell was overpowering and unforgettable.”

The horrific nature of what the 4th Armored Division had discovered led General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, to visit the camp on 12 April, with Generals George S. Patton and Omar Bradley. After his visit, Eisenhower cabled General George C. Marshall, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, describing his trip to Ohrdruf:

“The most interesting—although horrible—a sight that I encountered during the trip was a visit to a German internment camp near Gotha. 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 [bodies] 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.”

Ohrdruf had also made a powerful impression on battle-hardened Patton, who described it as “one of the most appalling sights that I have ever seen.” He recounted in his diary that:

“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 purpose 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 [the camp] 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-centimetre 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.”

John W. Becket was another soldier who entered Ohrdruf that day. On the 17th of April, he documented his experiences and impressions.

“As we came along our way we saw a sign pointing to ‘OHRDRUF,’ 15 kilometres from here, that is where the Germans had a concentration camp. What we saw was enough and at that, it was pretty well cleaned up.”

“… an MP captain was questioning one of the liberated prisoners. He was Polish, spoke German, & as he related it was translated to us by the captain.” The prisoner showed them places where prisoners were beaten, tortured, and executed. Beckett wrote, “As the Polish prisoner talked, tears seemed to come to his eyes but he fought them down.”

“All such atrocities that were known to savages and Roman times and here exist today in 1945, how is it possible, how can a man treat another as such? The question perhaps can’t be answered and I pray they will receive their just rewards, both here & in the life to come. Practically the whole battery went to see it and Patton wanted as many of his men as could go to see it and know that it is real and not propaganda. It’s real, all too grotesquely real.”

Bruce Nickols was yet another soldier who recalled what he saw that day. In 1998 he wrote a report on it.

“Fifty years have passed since this day but I recall my first impression of the camp called Ohrdruf which I found later was associated administratively with the camp called Buchenwald. Ohrdruf was named after the town of the same name, apparently locally famous for its history of being the place where Johann Sebastian Bach composed some of his works.

4 April 1945


The date was 4 April 1945, and I was on a patrol as a member of the I &R platoon attached to the Headquarters Company of the 354th Infantry Regiment, of the 89th Infantry Division, 3rd Army USA.

As I recall it was a beautiful spring morning marred by the fact that we were under mortar attack. I remember very well my surprise when I observed Brigadier General Robertson strolling upright down the road. He was an elderly avuncular gentleman who thought nonchalance under fire characterized the general officer’s role model.

I was impressed but remained prone in the drainage ditch until the attack ceased. Shortly thereafter, an acquaintance let it be known that a camp had been liberated further up the hill.

Fifty years have passed since this day but I recall my first impression of the camp called Ohrdruf which I found later was associated administratively with the camp called Buchenwald. Ohrdruf was named after the town of the same name, apparently locally famous for its history of being the place where Johann Sebastian Bach composed some of his works.

From the outside, the camp was unremarkable. It was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence and had a wooden sign which read, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The swinging gate was open, and a young soldier, probably an SS guard, lay dead diagonally across the entrance. The camp was located in the forest and was surrounded by a thick grove of pine and other conifers. The inside of the camp was composed of a large 100 yards square central area surrounded by one-story barracks painted green which appeared to house 60-100 inmates.

As we stepped into the compound one was greeted by an overpowering odour of quick-lime, dirty clothing, faeces, and urine. Laying in the centre of the square were 60-70 dead prisoners clad in striped clothing and in disarray. They had reportedly been machine-gunned the day before because they were too weak to march to another camp. The idea was for the SS and the prisoners to avoid the approaching US Army and the Russians.

Adjacent to the parade grounds was a small shed which was open on one side. Inside, were bodies stacked in alternate directions as one would stack cordwood, and each layer was covered with a sprinkling of quick-lime. I did not see him, but someone told me that there had been a body of a dead American aviator in the shed. This place reportedly had been used for punishment, and the inmates were beaten on their backs and heads with a shovel. My understanding is that all died following this abuse.

I visited some of the surrounding barracks and found live inmates who had hidden during the massacre. They were astounded and appeared to be struggling to understand what was happening. Some were in their 5 tier bunks and somewhere wandering about.

This was the first camp to be “liberated” by the Allied armies in Germany. Ohrdruf was visited by Generals Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley and there are photographs of them observing the bodies of the machine-gunned inmates. According to Eisenhower, Patton had refused to visit the punishment shed as he feared he would become ill. He did vomit at a later time.

Further into the camp was evidence of an attempt to exhume and burn large numbers of bodies. There was a gallows, although I really cannot remember whether I saw it or not. I don’t remember leaving the camp. I recall being numb after seeing the camp. I had just turned 20 years old and I had read the biographical “Out of the Night.” It was a pale and inadequate picture of a German concentration camp by a refugee German author.

I recall becoming very upset when we got back to our quarters, but the whole experience was far beyond my understanding. I wrote a letter to my parents describing the experience which was read at a local gathering of businessmen. It was widely disbelieved.

—Bruce Nickols






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