Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What Obama's Uncle Charlie Saw

Comments made on Memorial Day by Barack Obama concerning his uncle's role as a liberator of a concentration camp in World War II have attracted considerable attention. Obama told the story of his great-uncle being among the liberators of a death camp he erroneously identified as Auschwitz (read here). Republican blogs (read here and here) immediately pounced, stating correctly that Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, and charging Obama with lying . Fox News followed suit, absurdly claiming that the fact that the uncle was in fact a great-uncle was scandalous (read here). The Obama campaign replied that, in fact, the story was true and that the concentration camp involved was a satellite camp of Buchenwald.

This news story revealed in some of Obama's opponents a sad lack of interest in the truth and willingness to distort an honest mistake into a deliberate lie. It also betrayed a lack of knowledge of the history of the Holocaust. The true history behind the story is so astounding and so important that it merits much more attention than this manufactured controversy. Anyone knowing the history of the liberation of the concentration camps would readily understand how the trauma of what he saw caused Senator Obama's uncle to isolate himself at home for several months after returning from the war. What he saw was the outside world's first view of what came to be called the Holocaust.

Obama's great-uncle Charles Payne served with the 89th Infantry Division (read here and here and here). Strictly speaking, this division didn't liberate either Auschwitz or Buchenwald. Obama's uncle Charlie was one of the liberators of Ohrdruf (read here and here), a subcamp of Buchenwald which was famous at the time both for being the first camp liberated by the Allies and because of the actions of General Eisenhower who visited the camp a week later. Eisenhower was said to be more deeply shocked and angered by what he saw there than by any other experience of the entire war.
Robert Abzug wrote the following in his book entitled "Inside the Vicious Heart" (read here):

Soon after seeing Ohrdruf, Eisenhower ordered every unit near by that was not in the front lines to tour Ohrdruf: "We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against." Eisenhower felt it was essential not only for his troops to see for themselves, but for the world to know about conditions at Ohrdruf and other camps. From Third Army headquarters, he cabled London and Washington, urging delegations of officials and newsmen to be eye-witnesses to the camps. The message to Washington read: 'We are constantly finding German camps in which they have placed political prisoners where unspeakable conditions exist. From my own personal observation, I can state unequivocally that all written statements up to now do not paint the full horrors."


Survivors told Eisenhower prisoners were hung with piano wire



(Film of Generals Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Patton and other U.S. officers inspecting the camp is viewable online here and here.) Eisenhower also ordered that German civilians in the area tour the camp to see exactly what the Nazi regime had done.


Civilians from town of Ohrdruf were forced to view the bodies

Seeing these films and photographs and reading the following eyewitness accounts by some of the camp's liberators, one can see why what Obama's uncle saw at Ohrdruf was so traumatic.

from the website of the Society of the 89th Infantry Division of World War II: "Ohrdruf / Reimahg"

The 89th Infantry Division in World War II was the first unit to actually come upon a Nazi concentration camp. The discovery of the Ohrdruf camp, by the 89th Infantry Division, is memorialized in the Holocaust Museum located in Washington, DC.

Ohrdruf was a work camp, not an extermination camp, but the difference is difficult to discern. Prisoners were literally worked to death and disposed of by burning in incinerators, which was the most "cost-effective method". As the Allies approached, panic set in for the guards. Those inmates who couldn't walk were shot. Others were forced to march towards a "safe haven", with most of them dying in the effort. It was a horrible and unbelievable scene which seared its way into one's memory.

The following comments were written by Carl Peterson, President of the Division Society (read here):

The Ohrdruf hellhole was one of many sub camps of the nearby Buchenwald Concentration Camp outside (the town) of Weimar, Germany, which is located about 32 miles ENE from Ohrdruf. The Buchenwald camp had been established back in 1938. Buchenwald had it all including an execution facility and crematorium. From what I had been able to determine, the Ohrdruf Camp dated back to June of 1944, when 1000 men were sent there presumably from Buchenwald. These men were immediately put to work digging tunnels into the nearby hills. Gun emplacements and more tunnels were later built at a point eight miles from the camp at a place that had been set aside to become an underground headquarters for Adolph Hitler and his government. Some of the tunnels were designed to contain railroad tracks, which would allow a train from Berlin carrying Hitler, and key members of the government to be parked under ground. After five months only 200 of the original 1000 men remained alive due to very poor working conditions and shortage of food and proper clothing. However as time passed more and more inmates were provided from Buchenwald and other locations. As the hospital in Ohrdruf became jammed with sick, a series of "death transports" routinely and as often as twice a week were used to transport the dead to Buchenwald's crematorium. There are reports of a crematorium at Ohrdruf; however that effort came late and was primitive compared to the capability of the Buchenwald camp to dispose of dead bodies, and to dispose of very sick persons by injections followed by a trip to the crematorium. Some of the inmates were Yugoslav prisoners of war, a matter against the rules of international law. As of 25 March 1945, a report from Buchenwald reflects a total of 9943 inmates, about 6000 of whom were Jews, were at Ohrdruf all working on tunneling and construction of underground facilities. In early April of 1945, during the afternoon of April 5th, which was one day after the liberation of Ohrdruf, 9000 prisoners from Ohrdruf arrived at Buchenwald in desperate and starving condition, after a forced death march over the approximately 32 miles separating the two camps. Hundreds of others had collapsed along the route of march from weakness. They were shot without mercy by the SS. At Buchenwald, the Jews. if they could he identified, were immediately taken away for execution. By this time there was some open resistance at Buchenwald, which worked to the advantage of some of the Jews and others.

At Ohrdruf, generally the only inmates that remained as the American forces were closing in, were those who were unable to make the forced march to Buchenwald for a few reasons such as being too weak to do so. The SS was disposing of these inmates with a shot to the back of the head or neck; or in some reports, they had been machine gunned to death. However, earlier at Ohrdruf before the proximity of the American forces created panic: many inmates had been put to death by hanging, after which the bodies were shipped to Buchenwald for disposal. But in the panic situation of the pending liberation, bodies had been dumped into makeshift pits one of which was a crematorium which did not do its job very well - and became the object of photographs which some of us have seen and others have viewed the scene in person.
The following is from Bruce Nickols, one of the liberators of the camp (read here):

From the outside, the camp was unremarkable. It was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence and had a wooden sign which read, "Arbeit Macht Frei." The swinging gate was open, and a young soldier, probably an SS guard, lay dead diagonally across the entrance. The camp was located in the forest and was surrounded by a thick grove of pine and other conifers. The inside of the camp was composed of a large 100 yards square central area which was surrounded by one story barracks painted green which appeared to house 60-100 inmates.

As we stepped into the compound one was greeted by an overpowering odor of quick-lime, dirty clothing, feces, and urine. Lying in the center of the square were 60-70 dead prisoners clad in striped clothing and in disarray. They had reportedly been machine gunned the day before because they were too weak to march to another camp. The idea was for the SS and the prisoners to avoid the approaching U.S. Army and the Russians.

Adjacent to the "parade ground" was a small shed which was open on one side. Inside, were bodies stacked in alternate directions as one would stack cordwood, and each layer was covered with a sprinkling of quicklime. I did not see him, but someone told me that there had been a body of a dead American aviator in the shed. This place reportedly had been used for punishment, and the inmates were beaten on their back and heads with a shovel. My understanding is that all died following this abuse.

I visited some of the surrounding barracks and found live inmates who had hidden during the massacre. They were astounded and appeared to be struggling to understand what was happening. Some were in their 5 tier bunks and some were wandering about.

This was the first camp to be "liberated" by the Allied armies in Germany. Orhdruf was visited by Generals Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley and there are photographs of them observing the bodies of the machine-gunned inmates. According to Eisenhower, Patton had refused to visit the punishment shed, as he feared he would become ill. He did vomit at a later time.

Further into the camp was evidence of an attempt to exhume and burn large numbers of bodies. There was a gallows, although I really cannot remember whether I saw it or not. I don't remember leaving the camp. I recall being numb after seeing the camp. I had just turned 20 years old and I had read the biographical "Out of the Night." It was a pale and inadequate picture of a German concentration camp by a refugee German author.

I recall becoming very upset when we got back to our quarters, but the whole experience was far beyond my understanding. I wrote a letter to my parents describing the experience, which was read at a local gathering of businessmen. It was widely disbelieved.

American soldiers of the Fourth Armored Division survey the dead at Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Germany, April 1945.

Soldiers of the U.S. Fourth Armored Division survey the dead at Ohrdruf, April 1945.

According to General George Patton's diary (read here):

It was the most appalling sight imaginable. In a shed . . . was a pile of about 40 completely naked human bodies in the last stages of emaciation. These bodies were lightly sprinkled with lime, not for the purposes of destroying them, but for the purpose of removing the stench.
When the shed was full--I presume its capacity to be about 200, the bodies were taken to a pit a mile from the camp where they were buried. The inmates claimed that 3,000 men, who had been either shot in the head or who had died of starvation, had been so buried since the 1st of January.



Americans view cremation pyre at Ohrdruf on April 13, 1945

Captain Alois Liethen, who was one of the first American soldiers to see the camp, wrote the following to his family in a letter dated April 13, 1945 (read here):


As long as I am writing a horror tale I might as well describe some of the people who were in charge of this camp. The commandant (a man whose name I knew bak (sic) in the states and who I am looking for now more than ever was an SS Hauptsturmfuhrer BRAULING, and his right hand man was another SS man by the name of STIBITZ. Their favorite pasttime together with one or two other camp officials was to go out to the burning pit with a bottle of whisky each where they would sit and watch the burning of the weeks accumlation (sic) of dead bodies while they joked and drank their whiskey. Personally, the stench of the pit was enough to drive me nuts and a bottle of whiskey might have been a good thing for me while I was there. I have smelled a lot of foul odors -- like out at the rendering works and other places -- but this one was the worst. Evidently they were in such a hurry that they didn't get enough tar and wood on the last pyre for there were about fifty half burned cadavers lying there in chars.

Here are some excerpts of a speech by Rabbi Murray Kohn, a survivor of the camp, to a reunion of the 89th Division (read here):

It has been recorded that in Ordruf itself the last days were a slaughterhouse. We were shot at, beaten and molested. At every turn went on the destruction of the remaining inmates -- indiscriminant criminal behavior. Some days before the first Americans appeared at the gates of Ordruf, the last retreating Nazi guards managed to execute with hand pistols, literally emptying their last bullets on whomever they encountered leaving them bleeding to death as testified by an American of the 37th Tank Battalion Medical section, 10 a.m. April 4, 1945...

I must tell you something about Crawinkle, (a satelite camp of Ordruf). It was recently discovered after the reunification of east and West Germany that in nearby Crawinkel, the Nazis were preparing the Fuhrerbunker, the final headquarters of Hitler from where he planned to strike a deal with the Americans to join in fighting the Red Army. We worked around the clock, the project was known as the Olga Project. We were excavating inside the hills a bunker. Ten thousand people died there and it was completed with rivers of blood right down to the cutlery to embellish Hitler's table.

Conclusion

The current U.S. presidential campaign has already featured the bizarre spectacle of President Bush, in a speech to the Knesset, drawing an analogy between Obama's desire for diplomacy with our enemies and Neville Chamberlain's abandonment of the Sudetenland. That sort of campaign by false historical analogy misuses history. Now we see the Republican campaign stoop to distortion and innuendo utterly misusing history again. I say to the Republicans look at the true history of the liberation of the camps in which Uncle Charlie took part and soberly reflect on the humanity involved. Anything less would be a disservice to those who suffered in the camps and to the troops who liberated them.

4 comments:

Randy said...

Geo W Bush commented on the appeasement naming no one particularly. But Senator Obama retorted as if he were the object of the speech comments. This was only days before Jimmy Carter meeting with Hamas, so it could well have been former President Carter that Bush was pointing to without saying so.

Adam Holland said...

Randy:

Thanks for your comment.

I've heard that argument made, but it has some problems. One problem: in the run-up to the speech, Bush aides were spinning the speech as an argument against Obama's proposed diplomacy with U.S. enemies. (I'm looking for the reports of this and will post them when I find them. If any readers of this blog know where those reports are, feel free to post them here.) Moreover, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson published an editorial in the Washington Post the week before the speech which stated "By simultaneously embracing appeasement, protectionism and retreat, President Obama would manage to make Jimmy Carter look like Teddy Roosevelt." This piece also fantasizes an anti-Obama demonstration in Tel Aviv "(t)ens of thousands protest.. carrying signs reading 'Chamberlain Lives!'"(
READ HERE
)

After the speech, when objections were raised to the propriety of a sitting President campaigning oversees, especially in such negative terms, Bush aides began spinning in the opposite direction, saying that Obama WASN'T the target -- it was Jimmy Carter. The beauty part of that defense is that while it doesn't say that Obama isn't Neville Chamberlain, it implies that he is Jimmy Carter.

It really stretches credulity to claim that this isn't a deliberate attack on Obama. I just don't believe that Bush considers Carter that big an issue. Let's face facts: Carter is yesterday's news. Bush, and everyone else, is a lot more interested in the next President than that 70's guy.

May I say once and for all that argument by analogy, especially broadly drawn historical analogy (person A = person B) is so logically flawed as to be virtually useless. Let's analyze the underlying principles before declaring Obama to be Chamberlain and McCain to be Churchill. You must admit that that equation is frankly laughable.

And then there's this from the Huffington Post:

According to 29-year CIA veteran and former NSC official Bruce Riedel, Wednesday's announcement of joint peace negotiations between Israel and Syria revealed President Bush's diminished standing in Middle East affairs.

"Think of the irony," Riedel said. "George Bush goes to Jerusalem last week. He gives an impassioned speech about never dealing with nasty regimes [that sponsor terror]. He basically says 'don't make agreements that appease [them].' And less than a week later, the Israeli government announces it is engaged in peace negotiations with the Assad dictatorship in Syria. We're talking about a rather distasteful regime that likely had a hand in the murder of [former Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri. I guess [Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert didn't think the speech was meant for him."

not the river in egypt said...

Gerson is now a private citizen and he writes like he thinks, and Geo W Bush still is in office, so the Gerson point is a loser on the face of a rhetorical argument

Bush says what he wants to say, aides spin to support the campaign and , the two maybe are related and maybe not, politics is a huge pool and everyone gets tainted, to say the least, that plays in that pool

So, did he mean Obama or Jimmy? doesn't matter really, he was speaking to the Knesset to calm them and the rest of the world was listening, of course; so, dissect the speech all you want; what difference does it make unless... Obama is a potential appeaser?

I personally think that Bush has tried to have it too many ways by not offending everyone, and so he's making an overture to Israel and its governing authority that the US will not abandon Israel though there have been many, many things that would say otherwise (GOSH! let me count they ways, but now here...)

so, about appeasement: okay, I will paint in a BROAD brush and say openly...

whether Obama or Chamberlain's heir apparent wants to sit down and talk with anyone and cease conflict with the same party who are determined to blow up our buildings or massacre our civilians or seek to disrupt our economy for a political or religious change and not without conditions going into such an environment is either naive or inexperienced and is showing his lack of ability to the before-mentioned hostile party and they already have the upper hand emotionally

And anyone wants or needs I could cite several historical references besides Chamberlain going to talk with Hitler

I am I being "nice"? Maybe not... I don't think nice is warranted; and who wants to play "nice" when the future of the country is at stake?

randy said...

Gerson is now a private citizen and he writes what he thinks, and Geo W Bush still is in office, so the Gerson point is a loser on the face of a rhetorical argument

Bush says what he wants to say, aides spin to support the campaign and , the two maybe are related and maybe not, politics is a huge pool and everyone gets tainted, to say the least, that plays in that pool

So, did he mean Obama or Jimmy? doesn't matter really, he was speaking to the Knesset to calm them and the rest of the world was listening, of course; so, dissect the speech all you want; what difference does it make unless... Obama is a potential appeaser?

I personally think that Bush has tried to have it too many ways by not offending everyone, and so he's making an overture to Israel and its governing authority that the US will not abandon Israel though there have been many, many things that would say otherwise (GOSH! let me count they ways, but now here...)

So, about appeasement stuff: okay, I will paint in a BROAD brush and say openly...

Whether Obama or Chamberlain's heir apparent or anyone wants to sit down and talk with someone and cease conflict with the same party who is / are determined to blow up our buildings or massacre our civilians or seek to disrupt our economy for a political or religious change and not without conditions going into such an environment is either naive or inexperienced and is showing his lack of ability to the before-mentioned hostile party and they already have the upper hand emotionally

And anyone wants or needs I could cite several historical references besides Chamberlain going to talk with Hitler

I am I being "nice"? Maybe not... I don't think nice is warranted; and who wants to play "nice" when the future of the country is at stake?

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