Witness to the Liberation

April 18, 1995|By KENNETH ZIERLER

In April 1945, while battalion surgeon to the 399th Armored Field Artillery, I became, through no special effort of my own, the first Allied officer to enter a slave-labor concentration camp, Langenstein-Zwieberge,

It was a balmy spring, linden in fragrant flower, birds singing, rolling green hills. There was an air of optimism, relaxation and happy thoughts of going home soon. Headquarters battery and the medical detachment, with the battalion aid station, were set up in a large manor house, about 200 feet long, four stories high, the main house of the estate of the von Rimpau family, in whose kitchen, where the aid station was established, we found centuries-old account books.

In this atmosphere there appeared on April 17 or 18, I'm uncertain which, a jeep containing two war correspondents, Howard K. Smith, a network radio reporter, and Lou Azrael, from my home town, reporting for the now defunct Baltimore News-Post.

They told me that there was a concentration camp nearby and that we could liberate it because, they had heard, the guards had fled.

It turned out that the guards had fled two days earlier at the sound of our tanks rumbling down the road. They had demobilized themselves simply by changing into mufti and melting into villages.

The ambulance driver, Cpl. Henry Mertens, the two newsmen and I took off.

The gate was open. There were no guards. A handful of men, in the vertical striped uniform of the concentration camps, had placed themselves near the gate, but no one had been able to bring himself to cross the line past the open and unguarded barrier to the world outside.

As we descended from the ambulance, they kissed our shoes. We lifted them to their feet. These walking skeletons were young men, looking aged. They told us we were the first Allied personnel they had seen.

Some were covered with lice. Their faces were drawn, pale and gray. Most of the living huddled in their huts on cots, too weak to stand. From a tree swung the corpses of two inmates, hanged just days before. No one had had the energy to climb the tree and cut them down.

Until the guards had fled two days earlier, they had been working at their job 12 hours a day, digging what was to become an underground factory in the Harz Mountains for Messerschmitt fighter planes and V-2 rockets.

The Nazis had selected the slave laborers from the large concentration camps. They had calculated the economy of slave labor as dispassionately as a packing house calculates how to RTC get the most out of a pig. They gave the men rudimentary housing, just enough food to keep them working and no medical attention. Thus they had the benefit of their labor for about a year at a cost of a few pfennig a day, until the men died of exhaustion or disease.

Martin Adends, from Amsterdam, age 55, guided us about the camp. He had been captain of a Dutch freighter. When the Nazis overran Holland he joined the underground and participated in acts of resistance and sabotage. He was caught distributing an underground newspaper and ultimately sent to this camp.

Many survivors were barely alive. They showed us a large pit, one of several, covered with earth and lime, containing, they said, about 350 bodies of those who had died during the course of their labors. We were told that most had died of weakness and disease, but that about 50 had been hanged as disciplinary examples.

A Hungarian man was eager to display his back covered with bruises and welts. He said that two weeks earlier he had been beaten by a guard with an iron rod for the crime of eating potato peelings he found on the floor of the guards' kitchen.

Lou Azrael spoke with one 20-year-old, a skeleton of a man who weighed about 80 pounds. His face was green with jaundice, his skin stretched taut over his skull. Lou asked him what his offense was. ''I am a Jew,'' he answered.

Those who were able to walk swarmed about us in a variety of moods, many speaking at once, or trying to. Some voices were so feeble we could scarcely hear them. Some seemed to be mumbling madly. Most blessed us, thanked God, wanted to know when there would be food, when they would go home.

Our aid station could not handle this catastrophe. I was in a hurry to return to base to call division headquarters' to send evacuation units for the survivors.

The day after we four entered the camp, two young men, both Polish, walked from the camp to the manor house. They attached themselves to the headquarters battery mess truck. They were skinny and haggard. They said they were 19 but looked like old men. They instantly became mascots of the enlisted men in the headquarters battery.

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