“Oh, No, It Can’t Be”
When the Allied Forces invaded Germany at the end of World War II, few of the combat veterans were prepared to cope with the horrors they encountered during the liberation of the concentration camps. The inhumane conditions and the torturous treatment of the prisoners only further revealed the true cruelty and brutality behind Hitler’s leadership and the reign of the Nazi Party.
The Allied troops encountered countless survivors who were so weak, diseased, and malnourished that they could barely walk or carry out their basic life functions. On April 14, 1945, the British freed Beelines and found some 55,000 still alive, but they also discovered the dead by the thousands everywhere: in mass graves, stacked as firewood, scattered about the grounds, and even sharing bunks with the living. While touring the camps, the Allies exposed the gas chambers, the rooms for medical experiments, and the crematories used by the Nazis to enforce the “Final Solution,” Hitler’s decision to exterminate the Jewish “race.”
Each discovery deeply penetrated the hearts and the minds of the soldiers. Grown men and veterans of battle broke down and wept at the horrors seen in the camps. The pain and suffering felt by the inmates was universal: it superseded any language or ethnic barrier.
The prisoners also reacted in many different ways to their liberation. In some camps they ran out to joyously meet their emancipators and to see if their release was true. Others stayed within their living quarters, afraid to come out, like timid animals insecure with their new freedom. Many prisoners took revenge on the captured SS soldiers and still others retreated to their religion. Above all, the inmates had been stripped of their humanity as well as their personal identities, and what remained was merely a shell of a human being.
The Allies offered to the survivors what guidance and support they could. The liberators were also deeply moved by the experience. The Allied reactions included tears, horror, denial, patriotism, and hatred for the Nazis, Overall, a cold anger welled up in the Allied troops for the German citizens. As camp after camp was liberated, the civilians insisted that they had not known of the atrocities that lay within. It was obvious, however, that the camp’s stench and the odor of’ the crematories had carried for miles over the countryside. Below are some American reactions to the Nazi concentration camps.
“My first impression of it was the odor The stench of it was all over the place and there were a bunch of very bewildered, lost individuals who came to me pathetically at the door in their unkempt uniforms to see what we were doing and what was going to be done about them. They were staying at the camp even though their guards and staff had fled because they didn’t know where to go or what to do. They had heard news that the Americans had taken over that area and they were waiting for somebody to turn theirs back straight again and they were just lost souls at that time. Well, my feeling was that this was the most shattering experience of my life,”
“We walked inside and saw these skinny people who were still living, and one of my enlisted men who walked in with me realized they were starving. We had nothing but some candy bars, which we got in a ration, and one of my men gave the candy bar to one of these people who grabbed it and ran away and gulped it down so fast that he became unconscious and probably choked on it when he tried to swallow it before someone took it away from him. These Jewish people and these Polish people were like animals. They were so degraded, there was no goodness, no kindness, nothing of that nature, there was no sharing. If they got a piece of something to eat, they grabbed it and ran away in a corner and fought off anyone who came near them.”
liberator of Woebbelin
“Well, after seeing the train and then standing there looking through that fence at these people, you couldn’t believe what you saw. It gave you a lost, sick feeling… Well, it’s haunted me as I say for 36 years. I mean, who are they? What’s their name? What nationality are they? What is their religious faith? Why were they there? You just can’t comprehend it.”
liberator of Dachau
Of all the horrors of the place, the smell, perhaps, was the most startling of all. It was a smell make up of all kinds of odors –human excreta, foul bodily odors, smoldering trash fires, German tobacco — which is a stink in itself — all mixed together in a heavy dank atmosphere, in a thick muddy woods, where little breeze could go.
The ground was pulpy throughout the camp, churned to a consistency of warm putty by the milling of thousands of feet, mud mixed with feces and urine. The smell of Gunskirchen nauseated many of the Americans who went there. It was a smell I’ll never forget, completely different from anything I’ve ever encountered. It could almost be seen and hung over the camp like a fog of death.
As we entered the camp, the living skeletons still able to walk crowded around us and, though we wanted to drive farther into the place, the milling, pressing crowd wouldn’t let us. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every inmate was insane with hunger. Just the sight of an American brought cheers, groans, and shrieks. People crowded around to touch an American, to touch the jeep, to kiss our arms — perhaps just to make sure that it was true. The people who couldn’t walk crawled out toward our jeep. Those who couldn’t even crawl propped themselves up on an elbow, and somehow, through all their pain and suffering, revealed through their eyes the gratitude, the joy they felt at the arrival of Americans.
Captain J.D. Pletcher,
71st Division at Gunskirchen
“We all stopped the trucks to find out what in the world was going on. They all the inmates being taken to displaced persons camps] got out of the trucks and sat down in a field alongside the road and said it was Shabbos. This was Friday night and the sun had just gone down. Of course, this was the Austrian mountains there and the sun went down a little early if anything. They said that they were not going anywhere until the sun went down Saturday night. So I went to some of them and I said. ‘Look, I’m Jewish; I know what you’re talking about, but it’s only it’s only another 20 to 25 minutes and we’ll be at the hotel — and with everything you’ve been through, what’s the big deal… so it’s another 20 or 24 minutes, you know. You can’t stay out here all night in the fields, because the nights get pretty cold in the mountains.’ But they said they weren’t going anywhere and the result is they just laid down in the fields. Of course, we went into town and came back and brought back blankets for them and set up food kitchens and fed them that night and all the next day and — when the sun went down Saturday night, they loaded back in the trucks and went the rest the of the way….that had a tremendous impact on me.”
“[The prisoners] were so thin they didn’t have anything didn’t have any buttocks to lie on; there wasn’t any flesh on their arms to rest their skulls on…one man that I saw there who had died on his knees with his arms and head in a praying position and he was still there, apparently had been for days.
“William B. Lovelady,
Commander of the Task Force of the Third
Armored Division and liberator of Nordhausen
“When we walked through those gates…1 saw in front of me the walking dead. There they stood. They were skin and bone. They had skeletal faces with deepset eyes. Their heads had been clean shaved. They were holding each other for stability. I couldn’t understand this. I just couldn’t. So I walked around the camp; I wanted to…understand more. I went to a building where they stored body parts from ‘medical experiments’ in jars of formaldehyde. I saw fingers and eyes and the hearts and genitals. I saw mounds of little children’s clothing. Little children who didn’t survive. I saw.. all of those things that belong to little children. But I never saw a child….If this could happen here, it could happen anywhere. It could happen to me. .1 often wonder what I would have done if. in 1939, my family and I had been caught up in this and for all those years nobody, hut nobody, would help us. I would have been a bitter man…
Leon Ball of the 183rd
and liberator of Buchenwald
“We pulled into Dachau, after the medium tanks had taken it. .. I was commanding a platoon of five light tanks. One of my drivers says, ‘Sarge go in there and see what’s happening.’ So I got down and went into a building, and the smell of burnt bodies stifled you. I said, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t stand this.’ I put my handkerchief to ax nose and walked to a furnace. I opened it and I saw a burnt body….I said, 0h, no, it can’t be.’ I went to the next one and opened it and… ‘it can’t be.’ Against the wall were people, I guess the ones who would have gone into the furnaces if we hadn’t got there, and they were moaning and groaning. I just looked at them; they were dying from malnutrition, Then I went in the back to the shower room. I didn’t go in, I just peeked through the window… I came out and went to my tank, and I sat and cried. My gunner says, ‘What’s happening?’ I said, ‘Oh, nothing.’ The tears came out of my eyes. I cried and I said to God, ‘How could man give such an order, so cruel to human beings?’ “Regardless of the war.
“My driver didn’t want to go into the camp. He said, ‘Colonel, I can’t take it here anymore. I said, ‘Well, you, stay here with your jeep.’ I found a young captain who took me over to the camp…the enormity of the number of bodies around, thousands of bodies. Then we came to piles that had been heaped up, orderly in some cases, like a stack of logs; other places, helterskelter. Many people died before my eyes. I stood beside one medic who was working on a victim, and the man finally died. The medic said to me, ‘Why is it that there’s no respect for life?’ We both said a prayer together. Mine was partly in Hebrew and partly in English. I said the prayers for the dying and the dead, the Sh’ma Israel and the Kaddish. When we finished, we threw our arms around each other and he said, ‘Why do humans have to do this to other humans? Why can’t they just be human?'”
Colonel Lewis Wienstein
member of General Eisenhower’s Staff
and liberator of Dachau
“All I have is a picture — a picture of three people that is now 15 years old. I’m here, so that accounts for one of the three people in the picture, but what of the other two? The other two are children, but let me here correct myself for now 15 years ago they were men too — men at the ripe old age of 10 or 12 years — for when you have spent four or five years of your life in a Nazi Prison Camp, manhood comes early!! It’s self survival, but it’s still manhood for under Nazi terror children learned quickly the arts of survival or they didn’t survive.
I started this story because for 15 long years, years that have brought me two wonderful children and left me a Korean War Widow, I have been plagued by a thought — what has happened to the two boys in the picture? They were both Jewish, one Italian — one Polish.
Fifteen years ago I was a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army Nurses Corps — one of not too many who cared for the liberated victims of Nazism’ Concentration Camps. Horror makes a deep impression on ones mind and heart — be it young or old — but is said that nurses, though born with a heart, lose it in training or they don’t stay nurses.
I have a special love for a boy, a boy in a picture, now a man, whose name I’ve never known and I doubt he ever knew mine for he called me “Sistra,” meaning nurse and I called him “Junior,” a good G.I. name you use for the lack for something better. Language is a barrier, but the looks and deeds of a child speak volumes — for the bouquet of wild flowers he gathered each day from the wheat fields and for my boots that he kept immaculately shined, he knew I said, “THANK YOU,” but he little knew the years of memory of those small deeds I would have. On a damp Austrian night while we watched a movie beneath the stars, I shook with chill from the dampness and the words, “Sistra cold,” still ring in my ears — in a flash he was gone — to return with his one blanket off the air mattress on which he slept on the ground beneath a tent (the best conditions we could offer when a 400 evacuation hospital takes in 1,945 sick patients) — to put on “Sistra” because she was cold — while he sat down again clad only in faded, oversize, summer khakis that covered his small, thin body. His main concern was for me and not for himself. His goodness, his kindness, his gentleness, reflect not the 4 or 5 years in a Concentration Camp but his Mother’s love and teaching before she was put to death.
I know even less of the other boy in the picture, and I still don’t know what has happened to either of them in the past 15 years. War is a terrible thing, people are torn quickly apart, and when at last you have time to think — the chance to leave a means to “keep in touch” is lost.
May I say “THANKS” for some wonderful but sad memories of two small boys that help to blot out my horrible memories of nursing the victims of Mauthausen Concentration Camp and of whom….ALL I HAVE IS A PICTURE.”
Marie Knowles Ellifritz
“If you didn’t know what it was, you might take it for the entrance to a third rate amusement park. In a sense it was like that to the S.S….. It probably won’t be believed even with the dozens of photographs, but there it is. Take it or leave it. Leave it and there will be another war in ten years.”
Lt.Colonel CR. Coleman,
U.S. Third Army
TABLE of CONTENTS
- Introduction and Program Goals
- Holocaust Background Information Holocaust Chronology
- Adolf Hitler: A Study in Tyranny
- The Swastika: A Sign of Good Luck Becomes a Symbol of Evil
- Lebensraum: Living Space for the German Race
- Translation of a Property Confiscation Order
- Auschwitz: The Camp of Death
- “Oh, No, It Can’t Be”
- In The Liberated Camps
- Pursuing the Killers
- Europe’s Displaced Millions
- Vocabulary List
- Questions on Hitler
- Swastika Questions
- Auschwitz Questions
- Oh, No, It Can’t Be – Questions
- Thinking it Over
- Holocaust Videography
- Holocaust Bibliography