Victory in Europe Day

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | May 7, 2015

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Between 1939-1945, The New York Times ran 24,000 front-page stories. The Holocaust was mentioned in 26 of them. Its victims were referred to, almost always, as “refugees” or “persecuted minorities.” In only six front page stories, were Jews identified as the primary victims. In Europe itself, where the Holocaust raged full blast, it was impossible not to run into one of the 42,500 ghettos and camps spanning Germany and the 21 countries, from France to Russia, it controlled. Trains too, of cattle cars packed full, ran day and night. No one, however, saw a thing. It would take the liberation of Europe to make darkness visible. By then, two out of every three European Jews – men women children infants – had been murdered. Those who survived, did so, barely. But everyone, everywhere, finally saw, on VE-Day, May 8th, that Hitler had done exactly what, in broad daylight, he said over and over again, that he would do. Shoah.

On April 12, 1945, Generals Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton were taken to inspect Ohrdruf Nord concentration camp near Gotha. It was not one of the most gruesome camps: just an ordinary slaughterhouse, stinking of death, with 3,000 or more naked and emaciated corpses barely in or on the ground, rotting, lice crawling over them.  Bradley was revolted; Patton withdrew to vomit; Eisenhower, his face frozen white, forced himself to examine every nook and cranny of the camp. Three days later, in his first letter home, Eisenhower wrote this account of his experience:

“The other day I visited a German internment camp. I never dreamed that such cruelty, bestiality, and savagery could really exist in this world! It was horrible.”

While on an inspection tour of the newly liberated Ohrdruf concentration camp, General Dwight Eisenhower and a party of high ranking U.S. Army officers, including Generals Bradley, Patton, and Eddy, view the charred remains of prisoners that were burned upon a section of railroad track during the evacuation of the camp. April 12, 1945. Courtesy of Harold Royall. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Soon after seeing Ohrdruf, Eisenhower ordered every unit near by that was not on the front lines to tour Ohrdruf: “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for,” Eisenhower said. “Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.”

Eisenhower never visited another camp. Nor, after the shock of his visit, did he ever write a letter about it again.

Ohrdruf was the first camp to be liberated by the United States – but was not, by some three months, the first Nazi death camp to be liberated. That was  Auschwitz. On Saturday, January 27, 1945, at around 9.00 A.M., a Russian soldier from a reconnaissance unit appeared at a prisoners’ infirmary in Auschwitz – and by afternoon,  the Soviet army had liberated its 7,000 remaining prisoners.  Ill mostly, and dying, they were all that was left of the 1.3 million people deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945;  of whom, at least, 1.1 million were Jews;  and of that number, almost a  million, murdered.

Auschwitz, because it was the first death camp to be liberated; because its barbarity was, by dint of surprise, unmasked; because it was huge –  a man-made hell three times the size of, say, Beverly Hills, California –  it has come to symbolize the Nazi killing machine. But, in awful fact, Auschwitz was only a minuscule fraction of the entire German murder network. There were, incredibly, 1,127 concentration camps, Auschwitzes all.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER. 1890 – 1969. The 34th President of the United States. In World War II, he served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.

MAMIE DOUD EISNEHOWER. 1896 – 1979. First Lady: the wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. She had a career, she liked to say, and his name was Ike.

Autograph Letter Signed (“Ike”), as General of the Army, 3 pages, quarto, no place [Rheims, France], April 15, no year [1945]. To his wife, Mamie Doud Eisenhower.

– This Shapell Manuscript Foundation original autograph will be on display at the Oregon Historical Society Museum’s “World War II: A World at War, A State Transformed” exhibition in Portland, and may be viewed there, June 26, 2015, to December 7, 2015.

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