Remembering the Holocaust
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 26, 2000 Months of combat couldn’t steel World War II American GI’s for the sights they witnessed when they liberated the Nazi death camp at Nordhausen, Germany, on April 11, 1945.
“We were battle-tired and combat-wise medics, and we thought there was nothing left in the books we didn't know,” said Army Sgt. Ragene Farris, 329th Medical Battalion, 104th Infantry Division, in a history of the division. “Yet in a short period of two days I and many others of the division saw and lived a story we shall never forget.”
Farris never forgot what he saw that day. The purpose of Yom Hashoah -- the Day of Remembrance May 2 -- is so those who did not see the Holocaust do not forget its lessons. The theme for the 2000 observance is “The Holocaust and the New Century: The Imperative to Remember.”
DoD encourages all members to reflect on the lessons of the Holocaust during Yom Hashoah. “The Holocaust is not merely a story of destruction, loss and apathy,” wrote Alphonso Maldon Jr., assistant secretary of defense for force management policy in a memo to DoD departments. “It is a remarkable account of ordinary individuals of extraordinary courage.
“This occasion reminds us that we should continually rededicate ourselves to the principles of equality and justice for all,” Maldon continued. “For our nation, it is an opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of Holocaust victims, survivors and their liberators, and reaffirm into the new millennium our belief in the dignity and worth of every individual.”
Nordhausen was the site of a concentration camp that supplied workers to underground factories that produced the Nazi V-1 and V-2 rockets. Officials estimate that from 1943 until 1945, 60,000 prisoners worked in these factories. Of these, 20,000 had died from various causes including starvation, fatigue and execution.
When the 104th Infantry Division liberated Nordhausen, the call quickly went out for all the division’s medics to help the victims. Many prisoners were near death, and the sheer number quickly overwhelmed the capacity of the division. U.S. commanders went into the city of Nordhausen and ordered the population to help rescue the prisoners of the camp and the accompanying factories.
Army Pfc. John M. Galione was one of the men who discovered Camp Dora -- the underground factory staffed by slave labor. “We thought nothing could hurt us. We were hard from war,” Galione wrote in a post-war remembrance. “But, when we walked in there, we couldn't help getting choked up. Some of the soldiers even got sick to their stomachs -- they turned aside and threw up by the fence. There were dead bodies piled up. The smell was so bad, like nothing you can imagine. We couldn't believe any human being could be so cruel.
“The people were so happy to see us, they were tugging our clothes, thanking us, hugging us, some were even putting their hands together and thanking God. They just wanted to touch us, like we were God or an answer to their prayers. They looked like the walking dead. They were skin and bones. That's all. No meat. Their faces were sunken like skeletons. Some of them were so weak they didn't even live long enough to be rescued. They were so weak, we had to carry them out.”
Nordhausen was just one concentration camp. There were hundreds of others stretched across Germany and Eastern Europe. The largest was Auschwitz, in Poland. Established in 1940, it was really a series of camps, including concentration, extermination, and forced-labor camps.
More than one million people were murdered at Auschwitz, nine of 10 of them Jewish. The Nazis made death a system. It was Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem.” Jews and other “undesirables” -- Gypsies, homosexuals and anyone who disagreed with Hitler -- were moved to the area. Those who could work in the slave labor camps, did so until they died. Those who could not work went straight to the gas chambers and were murdered. The four largest gas chambers could each kill 2,000 people at one time.
General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander and later President of the United States, visited a camp soon after its liberation and witnessed the depravity of the Nazi regime first hand. “The things I saw beggar description,” Eisenhower wrote to General of the Army George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff. “The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were overpowering. 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.'”
But it has been 55 years since the liberation of the camps. Direct witnesses of the atrocities are growing old. Survivors of the camps -- many still suffering from the effects -- are dying. “Time dulls the impact of events,” wrote Leon Karalokian of the 104th Signal Company who helped liberate Nordhausen. “There are those who now maintain Hitler's Holocaust never occurred. Would that it was possible to take the doubters by the hand, back through the years, and point out the tragedy of this minor concentration camp! Sobered and drained each of us eventually left the area [of Nordhausen], in the words of a poet a sadder but wiser man."