Battle-Hardened GIs Wept at Nazi Death Camp Horrors : World War II: Bodies stacked like cordwood, lampshades made of human skin, starving survivors have haunted liberators for 50 years.


Nothing the American infantrymen encountered battling across Europe and into the German heartland steeled them for what they found at Dachau.

After storming through the gates of the concentration camp near the sparkling snowcapped Bavarian Alps, some of the GIs wept.

Parked at a railway siding were 40 freight cars with 2,000 corpses crammed inside. Thousands more bodies were stacked like cordwood near the crematory, because the SS guards had run out of coal to burn them.

Starving survivors straggled out of filthy barracks to hug the Americans. Some sickly prisoners dropped dead before they could touch the hands of their saviors.

“We’d seen just about everything in combat. But not this. I saw things at Dachau that I have been trying to repress for the past 50 years,” said Scott Corbett of Providence, R.I., one of the GIs who liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945.


Soldiers’ tears were shed not just at Dachau that spring, but also at Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrueck, Mauthausen and other camps liberated in the month before the Nazis surrendered on May 8.

Auschwitz, in Poland, was overrun by the Soviet army on Jan. 26, 1945. But most camps were in the heart of Germany, so many survivors had to wait for weeks as Allied troops fought their way toward them.

Eighteen million people--Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, the handicapped, POWs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, leftists, artists--had been locked up in about 520 concentration camps and sub-camps across occupied Europe, according to generally accepted estimates used to teach German schoolchildren about Nazi crimes.

Eleven million, about 6 million of them them Jews gassed in extermination camps, never saw the outside world again.

During April and early May, ceremonies will mark the 50th anniversary of the shutting down of Dachau and other camps. Elderly liberators will be reunited with prisoners they saved.

Ohrdruf, a Buchenwald sub-camp in the Thuringian woods, was the first camp to be discovered by American troops, who forced their way in on April 4, 1945.

Gen. George S. Patton’s tanks clanked into Buchenwald, on a hill overlooking Weimar, a week later. The Americans found 32,000 survivors and piles of bodies.

They also found lampshades made from human skin.

About 30,000 inmates were freed at the Bergen-Belsen camp near Hanover by British soldiers on April 15.

Josef Kramer, the camp commandant, gave the British a “tour of inspection.” He acted as if there was nothing wrong with what they saw--35,000 bodies piled and strewn around the camp.

The last camp liberated by the Americans was at Mauthausen, Austria. When GIs overran it on May 5, 1945, they found nearly 10,000 bodies in a mass grave and 110,000 survivors.

The Dachau camp’s barbed-wire fences, watchtowers and main gate are still standing. It is a memorial to more than 36,000 prisoners who died there from 1933 to 1945, and a tribute to the American soldiers who saved 33,000.

The rescue at Dachau came after the 42nd and 45th infantry divisions had battled from Alsace, in France, across southern Germany toward Munich. They raced to Dachau, six miles north of Munich, after an escapee from the camp told them about the appalling conditions.

The Americans could not believe their eyes. Their first discovery was the 40 rail cars that had arrived a few days earlier from Buchenwald. Some of the 2,000 dead on the train had died from hunger and disease. Others were shot in the head. The victims had been hauled from Buchenwald to keep them from being rescued by Patton’s troops.

Some GIs cried. Others vomited.

Corbett, at the time a 31-year-old sergeant, arrived at the train in a Jeep with some buddies. An American tank roared up and its commander got out.

“The tank commander heard a faint cry in one of the train cars. He climbed inside and came out carrying a little wisp of a man. That was the only survivor,” Corbett said in a telephone interview from his home in Providence.

GIs then shot their way into the camp. The 42nd, nicknamed the Rainbow Division, entered through the main gate. Men of the 45th Division stormed in through the SS guards’ compound on the other side.

According to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, U.S. documents reveal the GIs were so outraged by what they found that some gunned down SS guards rather than take them prisoner. Estimates of the slain range from 30 to 130.

About 700,000 people visit the Dachau memorial each year, about half of them Germans. Most of the German visitors are children on school trips.

Dachau was Adolf Hitler’s first concentration camp, opened March 22, 1933, and the next-to-last shut down. It has been called the Nazis’ “school for murder” because it was the prototype for all camps that followed.

Many SS medical experiments were developed at Dachau: injecting prisoners with malaria, leaving them naked in the snow to freeze, subjecting them to a pressure-chamber test that drove them insane if it did not kill them.

Max Mannheimer, a 75-year-old Czech Jew, managed to survive Dachau and several other camps.

He was sent to the Theresienstadt camp in January, 1943, to Auschwitz the next month, to Dachau in August, 1944, and to Karlsfeld--a subsidiary camp of Dachau--three weeks after that.

Mannheimer was forced to load murdered Karlsfeld prisoners onto a donkey cart and take them to Dachau for cremation.

“I did this twice a week. There was always an SS guard walking next to me, so there was no question of trying to escape,” recalls Mannheimer, an artist who lives in Munich.

Mannheimer got typhoid fever and was loaded onto a freight train with other prisoners for some unknown destination, probably his intended death.

He was rescued when American soldiers stopped the train in a rural area just east of Munich on April 30, 1945, the same day Hitler committed suicide.


A Nazi Rogues’ Gallery

Nazis’ vast concentration camp system produced some of history’s most sadistic characters. A sample:

* Sigmund Rascher, doctor at Dachau. Performed medical experiments on inmates, such as pressure-chamber tests that killed prisoners or drove them insane. Rascher and wife were executed by Nazis in 1945 after it was discovered that she had kidnaped three German children to rear as her own.

* Josef Kramer, commandant at Bergen-Belsen. Also served at Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Dachau. Asked by British captors how he felt when he supervised gassing of prisoners, Kramer replied: “I didn’t feel anything.” He was tried and executed.

* Amon Goeth, commandant at Plaszow labor camp. Used inmates for target practice, picking them off with rifle from balcony. Polish court tried and sentenced him to hang.

* Horst Schumann, doctor at Auschwitz. Trying to determine whether forced sterilization of Jewish inmates was successful, Schumann burned parts of their bodies with X-rays and ordered men’s testicles and women’s ovaries removed for examination. Many died. He served six years in prison and died in 1983.

* Ilse Koch, wife of Buchenwald commandant Karl Koch. After the war, she was accused of having lampshades made from skin of prisoners she personally selected for execution. She committed suicide in prison.

Source: Associated Press