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What the Average German Knew About the Concentration Camps -- II

Theresa Ast, PhD in Modern European History, has taught at Reinhardt University for 25 years. "Confronting the Holocaust" @ AMAZON Books.

West German Occupation and Ammerican Immigration Documents - Ast, 1945-1950


German Civilian Knowledge of the Concentration Camps

In their oral history testimonies, letters, questionnaires, interviews, and journals American soldiers explain why they did not accept German protestations of ignorance and innocence. GIs from the 42nd, 45th, 71st, 88th, and 103rd Infantry Divisions, and the 11th Armored Division, and the 69th Signal Battalion all referred to the incredible odor emanating from the camps, claiming that they could smell the stench long before they could actually see the facilities.[1]

Private Margol estimated that camp odors could be detected up to two miles away; he considered the stench far worse than any smell of battlefield dead.[2] Dr. Charles Froug serving with an evacuation hospital, discounted the claim by citizens of Rosenheim that the odor came from a nearby fertilizer factory.

Thomas Hale wrote, “disease – typhus, dysentery, and tuberculosis – was universal. The crematory had been operating around the clock….the stench of death and of piles of human excrement was overpowering, yet the townspeople nearby said they knew nothing of the camp.[3]

Staff Sergeant Malachowsky, at Nordhausen with the 329th Medical Battalion, recalled that “the smell covered the entire countryside…for miles around….when we asked these people in the town…how they could permit such a thing, they said they did not know there was a camp like that next to them.”[4]

Frequently GIs mention the proximity of camps to villages, towns, and cities and emphasize that people living nearby would have known something about the camps.[5] PFC Dalton, with the 89th Infantry Division was quite emphatic. “I do not believe anyone could live that close to such a place and not know what was going on.”[6]

Corporal Hansen recorded the following, “On the edge of each industrial village, we saw the concentration camp, the huddle of ugly wooden barracks type building, surrounded with high barbed wire fence, littered with garbage, cold and repelling, sheltering the innumerable kinds of people that lived there and worked for the Germans.”[7]

Irving Lisman, who was at Dachau with the 122nd Medical Battalion, pointed out that the German countryside contained hundreds of subcamps, or aussenkommandos, in addition to the mother camps whose names we know, Buchenwald, Dachau. Bergen-Belsen. He found it impossible to believe German civilians when they denied knowledge of camps or of slave labor activity in their vicinity.[8]

Captain Sol Nichtern wrote, “The concentration Camp at Dachau is built right up against the side of the village; the houses go right up to the outer wall…And the German people who lived on the other side of the street claim that they didn’t know what was going on in the [very] next street”.[9]

Slave laborers were often marched through the village and town streets to their work sites and then back again to the concentration camps where they were housed for the night.[10] As part of a military intelligence team, Staff Sergeant Lenger questioned people living near the concentration camp Ohrdruf. Lenger recalled, “We questioned the people …and they told us they had no idea whatsoever that there was a camp of this sort, despite the fact that when the people from the camp went to work on this castle [nearby]…they had to pass the outskirts of this little town.”[11]

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Lieutenant James confirmed this situation as he had several encounters with the Baron of the estate where the camp prisoners were marched to work.[12] Private Eppley spoke with inmates who marched through town twice a day to work in a paint factory outside of their camp.[13]

In some regions townspeople owned businesses which had part of their operations located inside a camp to take advantage of cheap slave labor.[14] Near Buchenwald trucks picked up villagers to do shift work inside the camp itself.[15]

At the Neuengamme camp “labor squads worked throughout the area, in particular on the canal running through town.” The walk to the canal took over an hour and the trip was made twice a day in full view of the local inhabitants.[16] Captain Baker remembered that “the civilian population seemed to claim not to know anything about what was going on at [Ohrdruf], yet it was only a quarter or a half a mile away from civilian populations. They could see it.”[17]

American soldiers also observed the railroad tracks which brought trainloads of prisoners to the camps, many of them running straight through or along the outskirts of German towns and villages.[18] In places where the trains went through the town, anyone looking out of a second story window could see the boxcars passing as they headed into a nearby camp.[19]

Captain Hellerstein, a physician attached to the 40th Tank Battalion, surveyed the camp at Bergen-Belsen. He wrote, “the land is flat…over there you could see the little town called Bergen, and it was impossible for the people in the town not to know what was going on. Because these boxcars used to come in, loaded [with people], and [then] leave empty.”[20]

Tech Sergeant Kushlis who was at Ohrdruf commented on the visibility of the train operations. “If you can just picture a tiny village with railroad cars coming in every other day with [thousands] of prisoners aboard [who were] unloaded and marched into the camp and they never saw anyone leave there.”[21]

Also at Ohrdruf Lieutenant Moore wrote, “The camp was located in a town, in easy view of the citizens…at the end of the compound, I saw two sheds, with stinking naked bodies that were piled about six foot high.”[22]

Konnilyn Feig, a Holocaust historian, verifies that similar situations were common in many towns. “During the war the residents had numerous opportunities to observe Neuengamme’s 10,000 inmates. The trains unloaded their cargo at the station in the center of town. The cargo walked through the center of town to the camp, an hour’s march.”[23] To be continued in parts III and IV.

[1] Robert J. Weil, 4, Chaplain John B. MacDonald, 2, Fred Leroy Peterson, 4, Ast Project; Monroe Nachman., interview, HMFI; Victor Wiegard, interview, ILC; Robert Zimmer, interview, USHMM; Jack D. Hallett, 11, Robert Perelman, 2, Fred Mercer, 3, A. Lewis Greene, 8, Frank Bezares, 6, Herman Hellerstein, 13, interview transcripts, Emory.

[2] Howard Margol, 2, interview transcript, Emory, (392nd Field Artillery Battalion, 42nd Infantry Division).

[3] Thomas Hale, The Cauldron, 97.

[4] David Malachowsky, Day, 32, (329th Medical Battalion, 104th Infantry Division).

[5] Robert Eppley, interview, HMFI ; Historical Report, 1st US Army, April 1945, Record Group 331, NARA; Ernest James, interview, USHMM; Gerald McMahon, A Corner of Hell: The Liberation of Gunskirchen Lager, (Fairfax, Virginia: Yadernan Books, 1990), (hereafter cited as Gunskirchen Lager), 3; George Wehmoff, 3, C. W. Doughty, 4, Wilson Freeman, 9, interview transcripts, Emory; Jack R. Blake, 6, Russell W. McFarland, 3, Ralph A. Dalton, 2, Irving Lisman, 5, Carlos Edward Moore, 1, Donald E. Johnson, 2, Ast Project.

[6] Ralph A. Dalton, 2, Ast Project, (563rd Field Artillery Battalion, 89th Infantry Division).

[7] Bernard Hansen, 13 April 1945, Papers, 411th Field Artillery Group, MHI.

[8] Irving Lisman, 2, Ast Project, (122nd Medical Battalion, 42nd Infantry Division).

“The system with its major and official concentration camps and their hundreds of subsidiary camps and work parties stretched like a giant net over the whole of Germany, and then of Austria and Czechoslovakia.” Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps, 24.

[9] Sol Nichtern, 44, Ast Project, (Physician with Medical Corps, 517th Special Clearing Company).

[10] John B. MacDonald, 2, Ast Project, (Chaplain with 345th Regiment, 89th Infantry Division); Melvin Rappaport, December 1993, letter to Theresa Ast, (Captain with 6th Armored Division); Frank F. Hamburger, Joseph B. Kushlis , interviews, Emory, (65th Infantry Division).

[11] Paul P. Lenger, cited in Liberators, 4, (Military Intelligence, 8th Armored Division).

[12] Ernest James, interview, USHMM, (238th Combat Engineers Battalion, 7th Corps).

[13] Robert Eppley, interview, HMFI, (89th Infantry Division).

[14] William Levine, interview, HMFI, (Intelligence Officer, 7th Army).

[15] John Glustrom, 4, interview transcript, Emory, (333rd Combat Engineers).

[16] Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps, 211.

[17] John Henry Baker, 3, interview transcript, Emory, (260th Battalion, 65th Infantry Division).

[18] Dachau, compiled by Major Alfred L. Howes, G-2 Section, 7th US Army, 1945, 22; William Levine, interview, HMFI, (Intelligence Officer, 7th Army); [Military reports and memoranda are designated as follows: G-1 Personnel/Administration Section, division or higher, G-2 Intelligence Section, G-3 Operations Section, G-4 Supply and Logistics Section, G-5 Civil Affairs/Military Government.]

“The enormous transport system demanded the close cooperation and extensive knowledge of civilians, civil servants, and transportation experts in Germany and in all the countries of Europe. One of the largest Nazi government agencies, the Reichsbahn employed 1,400,000 people in Germany….” Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps, 36.

[19] Wilson Freeman, 9, interview transcript, Emory, (601st Field Artillery Battalion).

[20] Herman Hellerstein, 13, interview transcript, Emory, (40th Tank Battalion, 7th Armored Division).

[21] Joseph B. Kushlis, 10, interview transcript, Emory, (260th Regiment, 65th Infantry Division) .

[22] Carlos Edward Moore, 1, Ast Project, (Antitank Company, 354th Regiment, 89th Infantry Division).

[23] Konnilyn Feig, Hitler’s Death Camps, 211.

Dr. Theresa Ast -- August 2013

Additional Articles of Interest

World War II immigration

Comments - German Civilians and Nazi Concentration Camps

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on March 14, 2015:

Thank you Lee, for such an encouraging comment. I spend most of my time writing about the Holocaust and teaching college students about European history since the 1600's. Keeps me very busy. :) Hope you are doing well.

Lee Cloak on March 12, 2015:

Very important, very interesting hub, you should be very proud of your work, thanks for the education!

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on September 01, 2012:

Hendrika -- Thank you for visiting and commenting. I think you may well be is entirely probable that many people feigned ignorance out of fear of the Nazis. After the war I think they may have been acting out of guiilt or fear of being held responsible. Thanks again.

Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on August 31, 2012:

It is scary to realize how people will ignore things that is unpleasant. I am just wondering if many of the faked ignorance out of fear?

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on August 24, 2012:

Thank you Anjo. I appreciate the read and the encouraging comments. Have a great weekend.

Anjo Bacarisas II from Cagayan de Oro, Philippines on August 23, 2012:

truly amazing and very interesting hub, keep posting.. blessed!

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on August 11, 2012:

Nate - The tendency to obey heavy-handed authorities is indeed a distressing human trait, sometimes out of sincere fear and even worse to me, at other times out of a desire for "security at any cost" or as you aplt described it "advantage."

Thanks for the read and the comments. Glad to have your political science background and voice here on HP.

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on August 11, 2012:

This illustrates the human being's unfortunate tendency to obey, because of fear and because it is to their advantage. Very fascinating subject and hub.

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on July 23, 2012:

Thank you Jennzie. When I am writing about my graduate school research area, I try to be especially thorough and complete. You are certainly right. Probably the great majority of the German people lived in fear, because really horrendous things were happening all around them. Such a terrible time. I appreciate the comments and the votes.

Jenn from Pennsylvania on July 23, 2012:

Very well-researched article about a terrible period in human history. I also believe that a lot of people lived in fear at that time so they were unwilling to speak out about it.

Voted up and more!

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on June 23, 2012:

Good evening Audrey and thank you. My professors would be so pleased by your comment - they just hammered us about the importance of research and proper evidence. :)

I am sure it must have been a difficult time for your father. Although I am convinced most Germans knew "something" I am totally convinced that after the first few years of Nazi rule they all lived in terrible fear. It was a terrible time.

I hope all is well with you and your family. Theresa

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on June 23, 2012:

Thank you MG. I appreciate your encouraging comments.

Audrey Howitt from California on June 23, 2012:

Gut wrenching! Such a great article though--well-researched and well-written. My father was living in Germany with two small children at the time--a singer--He never talked about all of this--and I wonder how much he knew---makes my heart wrench for everyone

MG Singh from UAE on June 23, 2012:

Another fine post. Good show

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on June 22, 2012:

Hello Nell Rose. You had living history in your household - your two parents. Amazing. I think your parents were probably right. There will always be some people who want to change the story or cover it up, no matter how much evidence and testimony there is. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. :)

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on June 20, 2012:

You are very welcome. It did take eme awhile to decide to share my families papers. My father died in December 2010 and I cam into possession of a large trunk of papers. It was full of everything, letters, grocery lists, paid bills, old calendars, and on and on...going back forty years. In the very bottom was an old envelope that had papers they had to obtain in order to leave Germany after WW II and immigrate to America. They were things I had never seen before. Very fragile after sixty plus years. I realized they might disintegrate so I scanned them into my computer before carefully storing them in a file cabinet. Several months later I decided to use them in a Hub. Glad the Hub was informative. Thank you for commenting, voting, and sharing. It is much appreciated. :)

Nell Rose from England on June 20, 2012:

I always remember a German boy in my school who claimed that the Holocaust did not exist. I got so angry with him, as my mum and dad served in the War. My mum was a Sergeant in the Airforce, and so was my uncle, my dad was in the army. I told them about the boy and they said that these days the Germans totally tell a different story of what happened, in other words they try to cover it up by changing history, but we know the truth. Very informative hub, thanks

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on June 20, 2012:

I appreciate you sharing such personal documents with us -- primary sources to be sure -- but personal nonetheless.

This hub was very informative. Voting up, across and sharing.

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on June 06, 2012:

Thank you sen. I appreciate your taking the time to read my hubs and you make wonderfully encouraging comments. Documentation does take time and diligence and not many people are willing to put in the time and effort. Good for you! :)

Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on June 06, 2012:

We have LOTS OF THOSE ARCHIVES and retired soldiers were and still are the national heroes in Russia. In a Soviet times we were all so proud of the fact that WE won the war. Not Americans, not the troops of coalition but WE, the Soviet country with help of americans and coalition. Even the war was called not the WW2 but a Great Patriotic War. But in Ukraine not so many people WANT to know it. Many ukrainian scientists give too much national colouring to the events of the WW2. They try to show the Soviet army as the army which killed the spirit of freedom in UKraine. The soviet Army is often (not always) called the "Army of invaders" in Ukraine. In many cities on the west of Ukraine the red flags are totally forbidden on a legislative level during celebration of the Victory day.

Recently they talk much more about consciliation of those who fought on the side of a red army and those who fought on the side of german troops to free Ukraine from the Soviet regime.

Sorry, too much just for a comment . Probably I write one day a hub devoted to this :-)

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on June 06, 2012:

Thank you Pavlo. I appreciate your visit and your comments. Like you I am so aware that the participants in, and witnesses to, World War II will not be with us much longer. Sad.

In many areas of the US, a real effort has been made to interview retired soldiers and get their testimony down on paper. Does that happen much in Russia?

Are there archives devoted to WW II and the Soviet soldiers who served? Have a great day. :)

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on June 06, 2012:

Good Morning dmop. I think you are right. It is an all too common response in most people to look the other way and disavow responsibility when things are difficult or dangerous.

Which is one more reason we should oppose wrongdoing and bad people/government as soon as possible before they become unbelievably strong and oppressive. Thanks so much for the comments and the votes.

Sushmita from Kolkata, India on June 06, 2012:

Wonderfully well written second part. I must say you are setting a standard of writing researched historical article on the Hub Pages, and I am learning from you to be diligent in documentation. Waiting for more and voting up and sharing too.

Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on June 06, 2012:

Great article. Facts about WW2 are valuable bacuase every year we have less people who can tell their own experience of that time. Thank you.

dmop from Cambridge City, IN on June 05, 2012:

I suppose it was easier to claim ignorance rather than accept some form of responsibility. In most situations it seems that most people will just look the other way, so they can go on about their own lives as normally as possible. I'm sure they knew, but were fearful and unwilling to take any sort of action. Great article, voted up, useful, and interesting.

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on May 11, 2012:

Thank you Kebennett1. I appreciate your dropping by and your comments. :)

Kebennett1 from San Bernardino County, California on May 11, 2012:

And the Monkeys begin to drop! There goes See no evil! Awesome article. I find it very interesting! Voted Up!

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on February 24, 2012:

My sentiments exactly. How appalling, Of course everyone, even the German population lived in fear of the Nazis. It was a terrible time. Thank you for the comments.

mours sshields from Elwood, Indiana on February 24, 2012:

How could people of the towns not know? And, no one did

anything?! How apalling!!

Theresa Ast (author) from Atlanta, Georgia on February 09, 2012:

RT - These are heavy and difficult periods in history to deal with, but like you, I think they are important and presenting history clearly and objectively to each new generation is a necessary and worthwhile objective. You are very welcome and thank you for reading and commenting.