Ohrdruf was a forced labor camp which was a sub-camp of the Buchenwald concentration camp. It was the first Nazi camp of any kind to be discovered by American troops while prisoners were still in the camp. Previously, in September 1944, Americans had discovered the abandoned Natzweiler camp in Alsace, which is now in France, but it was in the Greater German Reich at that time.
General Eisenhower visited the Ohrdruf camp on April 12, 1945. Who could forget that date? It was the day that President Roosevelt died. Eisenhower was accompanied by General Omar Bradley and General George S. Patton. Their interpreter was a German-American named Captain Alois Liethan.
In a new book by Michael Hirsch, entitled The Liberators: American’s Witnesses to the Holodcaust, Private Don Timmer claims that he interpreted for General Eisenhower until the arrival of Captain Liethan, who was late because he was on a different plane.
Don Timmer was a soldier with the 89th Infantry Divison of the U.S. Third Army, commanded by General Patton. Timmer was stationed at Gotha, a city near Ohrdruf, which would soon be General Eisenhower’s new headquarters. On the day of his visit to Ohrdruf, General Eisenhower flew in from Belgium.
General Eisenhower wrote that after his visit to Ohrdruf, he returned with General Patton to Patton’s headquarters in the city of Weimar.
So on the day of the Generals’ visit on April 12th, General Eisenhower was on a plane from Belgium while General Patton probably drove from Weimar to Ohrdruf in a vehicle. Where would Captain Liethan have been coming from? He could have been in the town of Gotha, which was the closest large city to Ohrdruf. Or he could have been in Weimar which was about 30 miles from Ohrdruf. General Bradley could have arrived separately from God knows where.
Before going to Ohrdruf, the three generals went to see a salt mine where German gold and art treasures were stored. So the three generals arrived at Ohrdruf together after their visit to the salt mine.
On April 4, 1945, American soldiers of the 4th Armored Division of General Patton’s U.S. Third Army were moving through the area south of the city of Gotha in search of a secret Nazi communications center when they unexpectedly came across the abandoned Ohrdruf camp.
A few soldiers in the 354th Infantry Regiment of the 89th Infantry Division of the U.S. Third Army reached the abandoned camp on April 4th, after being alerted by prisoners who had escaped from the march out of the camp, which had started on April 2nd. There were 9,000 prisoners evacuated from Ohrdruf that day and marched 32 miles to the main camp at Buchenwald. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, there had been 11,700 prisoners in the camp in late March 1945 before the evacuation began.
Here is a quote from this website in which Don Timmer explains his role in the visit to Ohrdruf:
Like most veterans, silver-haired Mansfield resident Don Timmer enjoys telling war stories.
Stories about how, as a “goof-off” of 18, he was drafted in 1945 and became a private in the 89th Infantry Division of the Third Army under General George Patton. How he was among the first troops to land directly in (occupied) France; how his company went through France “like a hot knife through butter.”
But what the army private didn’t talk about, except to his family, was the two days he spent in the German town of Ohrdruf and vicinity.
Recently, however, something happened to make Timmer, a Protestant, break his silence. As he describes it, last spring, at a Board of Education meeting in Loudonville, Ohio, a high-school teacher was reviewing her itinerary for the senior class trip to Washington, D.C. Proposed stops included the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the Smithsonian and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
One of the school-board members “flew into a rage,” as Timmer was later told, stating that the Holocaust was grossly exaggerated and that the students shouldn’t be forced to go to the museum and listen to “a fabrication.”
“When I heard what the guy said, it made me go back to my memory” of those April days in 1945, says Timmer, anger rising in his voice. His company, stationed in Gotha, Germany, at the time, was getting ready to penetrate deeper into the country when the call came to move south, instead, to Ohrdruf. There were conflicting reports about a concentration camp there, and the soldiers were to “investigate.”
Timmer remembers it was one of the first nice days of spring as they drove the 10 miles to Ohrdruf. German fighter planes strafed them along the way, but no one was hurt. As they entered the town of Ohrdruf, home to some 20,000 people, “No one came out to greet us.” Less than two miles past town they understood the reason.
“We came up to a 15-foot-high barbed wire fence and could see unmanned wooden shacks (barracks) behind it,” recalls Timmer. “We drove in and between the gate and the barracks were 30 dead … the blood still wet from the departing German guards” who had shot the prisoners before fleeing in trucks.
Seeing the American soldiers, the surviving prisoners who could still walk (about half of the 500 who were there) “cautiously” came out of the barracks.
Timmer, the son of Dutch-born parents, had taken German in high school, and suddenly he was thrust into the role of company interpreter. He would be the first to hear and tell others the tales of unspeakable horror that were already evident in the sights and smells surrounding them.
To hide the evidence of what transpired at Ohrdruf, the guards, he learned, had been trying to dispose of about 2000 bodies, mainly slave laborers. Half had been exhumed from a mass grave, and half had been stacked in several buildings awaiting incineration.
Since Ohrdruf was the first concentration camp to be liberated, “we were ordered to leave the bodies where they lay,” recalls Timmer. “The division commanders would be notified of what had been found and would probably want to see for themselves.”
Meanwhile, the GIs shared their rations with the living and looked around, stunned, at the scene before them. At noon, Timmer continues, the division commanders arrived, and Patton himself came at 3:30. Within half an hour, fearless “Old Blood and Guts,” as Patton was known to his men, was so sickened by what he saw that he “threw up.” [There are also stories that Patton threw up on the day that he was with General Eisenhower and General Bradley.]
General Eisenhower flew in from Belgium early the next morning to witness the carnage firsthand. “Even Ike looked pale, and he wasn’t a pale guy,” says Timmer. The supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe had brought his own interpreter, so Timmer was temporarily relieved of his duties. “Ike stayed until dark,” Timmer recalls, talking at length to one of the articulate prisoners.
When Eisenhower left, Patton brought the mayor of Ohrdruf and his wife to the camp to see for themselves what they undoubtedly already knew. (When they were off duty, the guards would come into town to “brag, womanize and drink,” notes Timmer, “so how couldn’t townspeople know?”) Then Patton ordered the mayor, his wife and all the other able-bodied townsfolk to come back the next day and dig individual graves for the dead prisoners. [Other sources say that it was General Walton Walker who ordered the people in the town of Ohrdruf to see the camp.]
The citizens did as they were told, completing 80% of the burials and promising to come back the following day to finish the job. That night, the mayor and his wife hanged themselves.
Timmer was called upon to translate their suicide note. It said, simply, “We didn’t know! – but we knew.”
According to Don Timmer’s account, as quoted above, Eisenhower had brought his own interpreter, implying that Eisenhower and his interpreter arrived together. Captain Liethan probably did not fly in from Belgium on the plane with Eisenhower, but perhaps he had met up with Eisenhower at the salt mine and they continued on to Ordruf together. The whole story is confusing to me, but it seems to me that Don Timmer served as an interpreter before Eisenhower arrived and he did not interpret for Eisenhower while waiting for Captain Liethan to arrive on another plane. Most likely, Captain Liethan drove from Gotha or the town of Ohrdruf to meet up with the Generals.
Update: Dec. 5, 2011
In response to a comment, I am adding photos which show that the bodies of prisoners were first buried in mass graves, then dug up and burned.
Five years after seeing the Ohrdruf camp, General Bradley recalled that “The smell of death overwhelmed us even before we passed through the stockade. More than 3,200 naked, emaciated bodies had been flung into shallow graves. Others lay in the streets where they had fallen. Lice crawled over the yellowed skin of their sharp, bony frames.” The presence of lice in the camp indicates that there was probably an epidemic of typhus, which is spread by lice.
In a letter to his family, written 13 April 1945, Captain Alois Liethan wrote the following:
Then, about 2 kilometers from the enclosure was the ‘pit’ where the germans had buried 3200 since December when this camp opened. About 3 weeks ago the commandant of the camp was ordered to destroy all of the evidence of the mass killings in this place and he sent several hundred of these inmates out on the detail to exhume these bodies and have them burned. However, there wasn’t time enough to burn all of the 3200 and only 1606 were actually burned and the balance were still buried under a light film of dirt. I know that all of this may seem gruesome to you, it was to me too, and some of you may think that I may have become warped of mind in hatred, well, every single thing that I stated here and to the generals yesterday are carefully recorded in 16 pictures which I took with my camera at the place itself.
The reason for burning the bodies may have been that the Germans did not want to contaminate the ground water at Ohrdruf. Remember that Himmler had a degree in agriculture. He would have known that burying 3,000 diseased bodies in shallow graves without caskets would not have been a good idea.