by Leslie Fish
This is a true story.
Most of my father’s relatives lived in New Jersey, but his oldest surviving brother (after World War Two) was my uncle Paul, who ran a pipe factory (“Dr. Grabow Pre-Smoked Pipes”) in North Carolina. Uncle Paul would come visit us about twice a year, and he always brought toys for me, so I was always happy to see him.
One year, when I was 9, Uncle Paul came to visit. I played happily with the toy horses he brought me, greatly enjoyed family dinner, and then went upstairs to bed while Uncle Paul went off to talk to Dad in the den. Fairly late at night, not yet sleepy and hoping to see Uncle Paul again, I sneaked down the upstairs hallway to the bend of the stairs, where I could see and hear into the den without being noticed.
There I overheard my Uncle Paul talking quietly with Dad about something that he’d seen years ago, during the war, when he was a tank-corps commander.
Now this was during Patton’s mad dash across Europe, when the Allied troops ran clean off the maps and had to stop at each town for directions. Uncle Paul’s tank corps came down a road outside of a sizable town, and came across what the locals had told them was a “prison camp”. Uncle Paul and his troops were hoping to find and free some POWs. As fortune had it, they also brought along with them a bunch of photographers from the US Army Signal Corps.
Well, it wasn’t a common prison camp. It was a concentration camp. Uncle Paul mentioned the name only once, and I didn’t remember it, but after doing some research years later I suspect that the camp was either Ohrdruf or Nazweiler-Struthof.
In any case, the Allied advance had been so fast that the first warning the concentration camp guards had was when they saw the tank corps come rolling down the road toward them. They barely had time to run and alert the camp commandant. The commandant had time only to shoot himself, not even to burn his records. The Allied troops marched in, unopposed, to an undisguised concentration camp in the middle of a typical working day, with all the records – and witnesses – intact.
The first thing Uncle Paul and his troops saw was the cluster of fat, obsequiously smiling Nazis, in their crisp, pressed uniforms, surrendering without a fight at the gate, expecting to be treated like proper Aryans. The next thing they saw were the 20,000 starved-skeletal corpses littering the ground and filling the storage sheds. The third thing they saw was the crowd of still-living skeletons, lying three-to-a-board in the barracks. After that they found boxes of human teeth, bales of human hair, rolls of tanned skin, ovens full of ashes -- and all the meticulous records, intact and complete. Among those records, Uncle Paul found names of some of his distant cousins who’d stayed behind in Europe when Grandpa came to America.
The first order of business was to get food, medicine, clothing and blankets for the victims. That involved grounding the troops where they were, sending for supplies, and – where necessary – doing some commandeering from the local town. The town elders, of course, were appalled to learn the facts about the camp, and gave no trouble about providing the necessary supplies. Resettling the victims was more of a problem, and the army called in the Red Cross – which took a good while dealing with them. Army Intelligence, to whom he gave the records, acted much faster.
That left the problem of all those starved corpses littering the yard. Uncle Paul commandeered the loan of a bulldozer, and a driver, and had him dig several mass graves. Then he rounded up the guards and made them pick up all those corpses and carry them to the grave-sites, and throw them in. To encourage them, he told the guards that they wouldn’t get to eat until they’d finished their task – which, the troops unanimously agreed, was only fitting. By the time the guards had finished toting and hauling all those bodies, their uniforms were no longer so clean and crisp and pressed, and the guards were no longer so smug and smiling.
But right from the beginning, there was the question of what to do with the appalling evidence of the slaughter.
What Uncle Paul decided to do was to document everything. Those Signal Corps photographers were squeamish and didn’t want to photograph what they saw, but Uncle Paul chewed their asses until they took pictures of every last horror. A lot of the classic pictures of the concentration camps were taken because my Uncle Paul damn-well ordered them. He also sent off a personal report to General Eisenhower himself, detailing what he’d found. I know from historical sources that Eisenhower later visited Ohrdruf, and then gave his famous order: to photograph and record everything found at the concentration camps – because, he said, no doubt at some time in the future “some son of a bitch will try to say it never happened”. Prophetic man.
Needless to add, after Uncle Paul had finished his story – and Dad offered to refill his drink – I tiptoed back to my own room, leaving no evidence that I’d been out of it after bedtime. I lay awake for a long time in the dark, thinking over what I’d heard, and soon after that I took up a lasting interest in history.
Not many years later, a professional bigot tried to claim that the Holocaust never happened. Being also a fool, he never considered that there might still be survivors of the concentration camps who could take him to court and were willing to serve as witnesses. Yes, some of those photos taken at my Uncle Paul’s insistence showed up at the trial. The judge’s decision made it official; according to American law, yes, the Holocaust really did happen, no matter who tries to deny it.
That’s my connection to history.