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December 5, 2011

African-American soldiers were among the Liberators of Buchenwald

Filed under: Buchenwald, Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 11:05 am

Yesterday, the New York Daily News published a story about Irving Roth, a 16-year-old starving prisoner from Czechoslovakia, who was liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945. One of the liberating soldiers was Rick Carrier, a white soldier in the U.S. Army.

This quote is from the New York Daily News story which you can read in full here:

Rick Carrier was a U.S. Army corporal, utterly stunned by the sight of so many living skeletons crammed inside the barracks of the Nazi death camp (Buchenwald).

Irving Roth was one of those skeletons, a starving 16-year-old Jewish prisoner from Czechoslovakia.

But Roth’s strongest memory of that fateful day is not of Carrier but of the African-American soldier who stepped into his barrack and handed out chocolate.

“I had never seen a black person before,” Roth said. “I tell people you may not know what the Messiah looks like, but I do. One is black and one is white.”  […]

As for the kind black soldier, he is lost to history.

“I remember there were black soldiers there,” said Carrier. “But it was a long time ago.”

The U.S. Army was segregated during World War II, with white soldiers fighting in exclusively white divisions while black and Asian soldiers had their own separate divisions, commanded by white officers.  However, there are several stories of black soldiers being among the liberators of Buchenwald and also the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

Black soldiers from Headquarters and Services Co. of 183rd Engineers Combat Battalion, 8th Corps, Third Army view bodies at Buchenwald on April 17, 1945

The 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion was attached to the 1126th Engineer Combat Group in April 1945. On April 12, 1945, the 1126th Engineer Combat Group was sent to the town of Eisenach, around 100 kilometers from the Buchenwald concentration camp. Five days later, on April 17, 1945, several black soldiers were sent to Buchenwald to deliver some supplies. For most of the liberated prisoners, this was the first time they had ever seen a black man, and many of them would recall it later in their survivor accounts.  

Gunther Jacobs was a survivor of Buchenwald who had spent three and a half years in Nazi concentration camps. In an interview with Jeff Bradley of the Denver Post in 1989, Jacobs said: “The first Black people I ever saw in my life were the Black soldiers who liberated us on April 11, 1945.” Jacobs told Bradley that he had never been able to speak out about what happened at Buchenwald, but he wanted to speak now “on behalf of his Black liberators” whom he had never thanked.

In 1989, Henry Kamm visited the former Buchenwald camp and then wrote an article about it for the New York Times. He quoted Elie Wiesel, Buchenwald’s most famous survivor, regarding the black liberators of Buchenwald. In a telephone interview, Wiesel told Kamm : “The most moving moment of my life was the day the Americans arrived, a few hours after the SS had fled. It was the morning of April 11…I will always remember with love a big Black soldier. He was crying like a child — all the pain in the world and all the rage. Everyone who was there that day will forever feel a sentiment of gratitude to the American soldiers who liberated us.”

Gunther Jacobs and Elie Wiesel were both seventeen years old when Buchenwald was liberated. Irving Roth was 16 years old.  Jacobs told Henry Kamm, the New York Times reporter, about the Black soldiers “coming to the camp with half-tracks and armored personal carriers. About a half dozen vehicles. These Black GIs came out and gazed at us — we were very malnourished and dehydrated and I was hardly able to walk.”

The following is the story of the liberation of Buchenwald, as told by Dr. Robert M. Frank, who wrote this account in an e-mail to me on September 3, 2008:

It is amazing how history can be written and re-written, although probably well-intended often misses the mark by the proverbial mile!

This writer is now 83 years old. but remembers only too well what happened at Buchenwald! 63+ years ago, I was a 19 year old radio-operator in the 87th Infantry Division – third Army! After the Battle of the Bulge – have a long scar on the left thigh to remind me of same — thanks to an unfriendly German mortar shell — we fought across central Germany to meet the on-coming Russians some fifteen miles above the Czech border on a line slightly east of Berlin. I personally witnessed the following:

It was April 10, or was it April 11 or 12? Memory of this character — at best is questionable. But the following is accurate: At first we were NOT permitted to write home about these events — our letters were thoroughly censored by our officers — until Eisenhower lifted all restrictions on April 16th — I have the letters I wrote home to my family!

Having written the above, I can aver that the following is accurate:
1: Which ever date it was, it was tanks of the 761 Combat Unit – ironically an all Black outfit — the U.S. Army was segregated during WWII — that were the first American troops into the camp! Here come the Americans — and they are black?
2: Note that the extermination camps in Poland were first freed by the 422 Combat Unit — a Japanese unit of the American army! How is that for a bit of irony?

Hope that above clarifies what has been so often mis-stated during these past 63 years!

Robert M. Frank, M.D. — ( the G.I. Bill gave me a good medical education)

Soldiers from the 87th Infantry Division were at Buchenwald in April 1945, but this division is not recognized by the U.S Army and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as “liberators” of the Buchenwald camp.  Only soldiers who arrived within 48 hours of the first liberators are recognized as liberators.

Clock on Buchenwald gate house stopped at 3:15 p.m., the time that the camp was liberated by the prisoners themselves

Actually,  the prisoners in the Buchenwald concentration camp liberated themselves at 3:15 on April 11, 1945 when they took over the camp, killing some of the guards while the rest of the guards fled into the nearby woods. The clock on top of the Buchwald gatehouse has been permanently stopped at 3:15 p.m. the time when the prisoners took over the camp.

The first soldiers who arrived at the Buchenwald camp on April 11, 1945 were with the 6th Armored Division of the US Third Army. The next day, soldiers from the 80th Infantry Division arrived in Weimar, five miles from the camp, and saw prisoners roaming around the town. The soldiers followed the prisoners to the camp where they joined in as the prisoners beat to death the SS guards who had been captured.

Pfc. James Hoyt has been credited with driving the M8 armoured vehicle which brought Capt. Frederic Keffer, Tech. Sgt. Herbert Gottschalk and Sgt. Harry Ward to the Buchenwald camp on the day of liberation, April 11, 1945. He parked the vehicle outside while Capt. Keffer and Sgt. Gottschalk went through a hole in the barbed wire fence.

Buchenwald was surrounded by an electrified barbed wire fence

This website tells more about the story of Irving Roth:

On January 18, 1945 Irving and his brother were on a “death march” (from Auschwitz) to Buchenwald. Many prisoners died from exhaustion and were shot on the way. Irving and his brother were among the minority that survived. One day, Irving’s brother was sent (from Buchenwald) to Bergen Belsen where he later died. Now Irving was with other teenagers in the “Kleinlager” the children’s camp but without his brother. He was fifteen years old. (The Kleinlager was the “Small Camp,” where the “orphans’ barrack” in Block 66 was located; it was here that 904 young boys and teenagers were protected by the older prisoners.)

[Irving] may have been alone, but the spirit of resilience was burning in his chest.
Climbing into sewers, toilets and under buildings, he managed to avoid a series of death marches that took place in March.

Survival seemed impossible on the 10th of April. Guard dogs and equally ferocious Nazis sniffed out all the Jews and lined them up for a final death march. Roth knew that a death march would surely end his life because he was weak and hungry and afflicted with lice and starvation. Finally, the long awaited deliverance came to the Jews of Buchenwald on April 11th when the US Army entered the camp.

Buchenwald orphans after the camp was liberated

The photo above shows child survivors of Buchenwald who are dressed in clothes made from German uniforms.  This photo was taken after the camp was liberated; the children wore blue and gray striped uniforms while the camp was in operation.

One of the youngest survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp, shown in the center of the photograph above, was four-year-old Josef Schleifstein. The Communist prisoners, who were in charge of the day-to-day administration of the camp, made sure that the children were well cared for. Note the adult man in the back row wearing a beret to identify himself as a Communist.

Another heart-warming story of a prisoner and an African-American liberator of  Buchenwald being re-united is told here.  This quote is from the article:

Robbie (then Romek) Waisman was a 14-year-old Jewish kid from Poland wasting away from malnutrition in Buchenwald. Leon Bass was among the U.S. soldiers who liberated the hellhole in April 1945. He’d never heard of a concentration camp.

Waisman had never seen a black person. “Since I’d been tormented by white people, I went to touch (some of the black soldiers) and they were real. I said ‘they must be angels.’”

He ran up and touched Bass, speaking to him in Yiddish and Polish. Bass spoke a few words of English back. There was no understanding and yet a visceral human connection. Waisman couldn’t believe he’d survived and Bass was stunned at what he saw.

“I’d seen death and dying but nothing like this,” says Bass, now 86. “They were skin and bones with ragged pyjama-type clothing on and sores on their bodies. I just couldn’t understand it.”

For a black soldier raging over discrimination he was experiencing in the army, Buchenwald was a place of unimaginable horror.

“I thought about what my pain was … and I realized the Nazis had taken (racism) to another level,” he recalls. “I came into that camp thinking that I didn’t have anything to fight for. I was angry at my country for what it was doing to me as a black soldier,” he explains. “But after this episode, I realized I wasn’t the only one to suffer,” says Bass. “I knew something had happened to me. I wasn’t the same anymore.”

The records for the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion are stored in the National Archives at Suitland, Maryland, filed under Record Group 407, Vol.33, ENBN-183 -0.##. Strangely, the unit records for April 1945 are missing. Because of this, Leon Bass can claim that he were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 12, 1945, not April 17th. The rules of the U.S. Army state that a liberator is a soldier who arrived at a concentration camp within 48 hours of the first soldier to enter the camp. If Bass arrived on the 12th, that means that he is officially considered a liberator of Buchenwald.

1 Comment

  1. Wow!

    Comment by Darrell Hines — July 3, 2013 @ 11:14 am

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