Passover 1945: The First Liberation by U.S. Troops of a Nazi Death Camp

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Sixty-five years ago this week, on the very day that Jews around the world were celebrating the liberation of their forefathers from bondage in ancient Egypt, American soldiers were liberating the Jewish inmates of Ohrdurf, the first Nazi death camp to be captured by the U.S. Army.

On April 4, 1945, the first day of Passover, the 4th Armored Division and the 89th Infantry Division came across Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, as they chased the retreating German army. The Nazi guards had already abandoned the camp and forced most of the prisoners to take part in a death march. They left behind piles of emaciated corpses. Among the young GIs who arrived at Ohrdruf was a 20 year-old from Kansas named Charlie Payne. He was the future great uncle of President Barack Obama.

Eight days later, General Dwight Eisenhower, together with Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley, visited Ohrdruf. Eisenhower was so disturbed by what he encountered that he arranged for several delegations of journalists and Members of Congress to view the evidence of Nazi atrocities first hand. “The things I saw beggar description,” he wrote. “The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick.”

Then-candidate Obama spoke of his great-uncle on the presidential campaign trail in 2008. Urging increased funding for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers, Mr. Obama said that when Charlie returned home, “he just went up into the attic and he didn’t leave the house for six months. Now obviously something had really affected him deeply but at that time there just weren’t the kinds of facilities to help somebody work through that kind of pain.”
The horror that Charlie and his fellow-GIs experienced upon seeing the Nazis’ victims was compounded by the fact that they were completely unprepared for what they were about to see. Although the War Department, in Washington, was fully informed about the Nazis’ mass murder of millions of European Jews, ordinary soldiers were never told what they were likely to see as they made their way through formerly Axis-controlled territory.

“A concentration camp at Dachau was a complete surprise to all of us,” recalled Col. Walter J. Fellenz, a commander of the First Battalion, which was involved in liberating that camp on April 29, 1945. Likewise George Oiye, of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion: “We were not ordered to take Dachau; we just kind of stumbled on to it. I didn’t even know it existed.” Staff Sgt. Johnnie Stevens of the 761st Tank Battalion, which helped liberate Gunskirchen, a sub-camp of Mauthausen: “At the time, we did not know those camps existed. Our government lied to us. We were not prepared for what we found.”

Army publications were no help. Consider the experience of Sgt. Richard Paul, a reporter for Yank, an army magazine for soldiers. In October 1944 –six months before Mr. Obama’s great-uncle entered Ohrdruf– Sgt. Paul submitted an article about the mass murder of the Jews in Auschwitz, The editors of Yank turned it down, saying it was “too Semitic.” They told him to rewrite it so that it “did not deal principally with Jews.”

The army’s other magazine, Stars and Stripes, was no different. It was not until April 1945 that Stars and Stripes finally published articles about Nazi atrocities and concentration camps, and even then, the articles did not mention Jews. The average GI reading Stars and Strips had no way of knowing that Jews were the main victims of the Nazis.

The line followed by Yank and Stars and Stripes was unfortunately consistent with the approach of the Roosevelt administration as a whole. Calling attention to the fact that the Jews were being singled out for persecution would have increased pressure on the U.S. government to grant them refuge–something President Franklin Roosevelt did not want to do.

The chiefs of the U.S. Office of War Information instructed their staff that coverage of the Nazi mass-murders would be “confused and misleading if it appears to be simply affecting the Jewish people.” A meeting of the American, Britis h, and Soviet foreign ministers in Moscow in October 1943 issued a statement threatening postwar punishment for Nazi war crimes against conquered populations. It mentioned “French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages…Cretan peasants…the people of Poland”–but not Jews.

In fact, General Eisenhower himself removed all references to Jews from a leaflet the Allies air-dropped over Europe in September 1944, threatening to punish anyone who collaborated in Nazi atrocities against civilians. Even President Roosevelt’s 1944 message commemorating the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt –a rebellion by Jewish fighters– did not mention the Jews.

Arthur Szyk, the famous artist and Holocaust rescue activist, remarked bitterly that Europe’s Jews were being “treat[ed] as a pornographical subject–you cannot discuss it in polite society.”

April 2010