I find it very difficult to reconstruct events accurately when they happened more than 60 years ago, even though they were of importance historically and to me personally. What does stand out is a number of visual, auditory, and even olfactory impressions which, taken together, remind me of what I experienced in the first half of May 1945 in the Concentration Camp Mauthausen in Austria. It was a glorious warm and sunny day in the first week of May when my driver, Edwards, and I wound our way up the serpentine road from the village of Mauthausen on the Danube to the top of the hill where the camp stood. About half way up we noticed a sweetish odor, which became stronger as we approached the summit, and which was unmistakably that of decaying bodies.
As we entered the imposing gate which opened onto a large parade ground we were greeted by bedlam: A mixture of wild shouts, snatches of band music and singing. The square was packed with a crowd of jubilant inmates, some of them in their grimy and tattered striped uniforms and many almost naked. In the center stood a raised platform on which a pitiful group of German bandsmen in their grey-green army uniforms (not the black SS ones) were made to play Nazi marches and songs and whatever else the crowd demanded. While this went on they were also beaten and jeered. We were witnessing a picture of uninhibited release of joy to have survived unspeakable horrors and to be finally free and alive, mixed with hatred of their fallen torturers who were now as defenseless as they had been just hours ago. I felt like witnessing some macabre and grotesque opera with the performers barely resembling human beings. We were so stunned and shocked by what we were witnessing that none of us, and there were a few more men from our unit and other units of the 11th Armored Division in the crowd, was able to react in any way to this spectacle for what seemed like a very long time. Eventually the musicians were rescued and locked up before being torn to pieces by the crowd.
Within the next few days I received orders from division to oversee the evacuation of the surviving inmates to the evacuation hospitals which were being set up in the neighborhood. There they were to be sorted out, treated and, if they survived, discharged and if possible repatriated. I owed this assignment to the fact that I was known to speak Russian, German, Italian, and French. The prisoners of Mauthausen represented every nationality of Nazi-occupied Europe; including even about a dozen survivors of the Spanish Republican Army, defeated by Franco in 1939 and turned over to the Germans by Vichy France. They had been used as waiters in the SS officers mess. they were also the first ones to drape a touching message of thanks to us for liberating them onto one of the building, along with a flag of the Spanish Republic. I had ample opportunity to use all the languages I knew during the ensuing two weeks.
It was only when I began my work in the camp that the immensity of the horrors committed by the Germans and their multinational henchmen against the rest of humanity began to sink in. But even so, the suffering and deaths were of such a magnitude that expression of normal human grief or courage became impossible. I simply froze emotionally and did my job. We went from barrack to barrack. (I worked with one of my sergeants.) We found many dead lying on the triple tiered bunks, along with people who had been too weak to have crawled out, and most of whom died after we found them and carried them into daylight. We also found a huge number of rigid corpses, stacked like so much cordwood. these were the ones the Germans had not been in time to burn.
The townspeople of Mauthausen were brought up and given a tour of what had been taking place on the hill overlooking their homes for several years. There were emotional outbursts and hysterics. Some women fainted, and all of them denied any knowledge of the terrible things being done to people just above their heads. We had a number of crude coffins made, without lids and with carrying bars on each side, and made the men from the village carry the bodies to the long trenches which our division engineers were bulldozing for them. There they were laid to rest while several of our chaplains said prayers for them. The sad labor went on for several days, because people continued to die in considerable numbers, even after. the liberation.
As for the living, I found out that they had been housed by nationalities and that each barrack had a spokesman with whom I dealt. They were men of authority and education and all of them wanted their group to be evacuated right away as soon as they saw the ambulances appear. I settled all arguments by telling them that we would proceed systematically down each row of buildings and empty them as we went along. No exceptions were made to that rule. Fortunately the weather remained lovely and warm throughout. I made the men strip and leave their rags behind. They had no possessions. We packed them standing up into the ambulances for the short trip to the hospital. A pitiful and yet happy human cargo. They were the live ones at least. Of these survivors many were in more or less reasonable conditions. They were the fittest, or else they would have been in the mass graves or ashes in the crematoria. The vast majority of the survivors were not Jews, because the thousands of Jews brought to Mauthausen were dead by the time we arrived, having been singled out for special consideration by their Nazi hosts. What did I, a Jew, think or feel all those days I spent on Mauthausen hill? I don't think that I was able to feel much in the face of this much cruelty and horror. One is left with a sense of dull pain and a perpetual hatred for those who conceived and perpetrated all this, with inhuman efficiency and discipline.
Another sad and regrettable fact with which we had to deal at Mauthausen was the animosity which
I have decided to conclude my Mauthausen recollections with the story of a young Russian inmate named Eugene, because it has a potentially happy ending arising out of all the preceding horror . It is dedicated to the men of the Medical Detachment of the 41st Armored Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized), of the 11th Armored Division. They served with me through the entire Battle of the Bulge and saved many lives bravely and cheerfully, never losing compassion, kindness and their sense of humor. Toward evening of the day when Mauthausen was liberated our group was driving along headed for a village where we were to set up our aid station. Someone spotted a body sprawled In the roadside ditch and we stopped to investigate. It was a young man wearing the tattered Uniform of the .Inmates. He was covered with many infected wounds which turned out to be dog bites. He was unconscious, feverish, with a barely perceptible pulse and rapid shallow breathing.
I gave .In, and was actually a bit ashamed of my rashly negative decision..So we picked him up and took him with us to a farm house which we picked out, and which had quite a nice sofa in the main room. The men stripped him, bathed him, tended to the innumerable wounds and gave him some intravenous fluids which we happened to carry. I started injections of the precious penicillin, the first I ever used. The results were miraculous. Within 24-48 hours our dying patient regained consciousness. He began looking around and observing us, without saying a word for a long time. He began taking liquids which the men fed him carefully.
I had decided that he was probably Russian. He was blond, and had high cheekbones. I began by asking him in Russian what his name was. After a surprised silence he said "Eugene" Some time later He asked if I was a doctor, having spotted the caduceus on my collar. He was obviously very bright and observant, which we all realized as he was gaining strength under the excellent care he was getting. It turned out that he had been a sergeant in the Signal Corps of the Red Army, taken prisoner and thrown Into Mauthausen. Shortly before the liberation. He had been punished for some little infraction by being chained to one of the rings in the wall of the main square which we had seen. Then, specially trained police dogs were sicced on him, until he collapsed and was left to die. He had somehow managed to crawl away after the liberation, only to lose what little strength he had left, until we found him.
During the days which followed and while he was recovering he and I had many Interesting and revealing talks. At first he had to overcome the reticence and distrust of a person of rank and authority which had been drilled into him from childhood and brought to extremes by the rigid army discipline. It was hard for him to understand the rather informal and friendly relations between my men and myself. Once he grasped the significance of our true democracy, he was very deeply impressed and decided there and then never to return to the Soviet Union. He told me how he and his own father with whom he had worked in some big factory had not dared to discuss any subjects which could have been interpreted as been critical of the authorities, because father and son were not trusting each other.
Eugene learned quickly and adapted himself to our daily routine, showing his gratitude by helping with chores as soon as he became strong enough. Time went fast and we soon received orders to more to a new location in Austria. My commanding officer, the late Lt. Colonel H. Foy, who was a very fine and understanding man, reluctantly denied my plea to take Eugene with us until he was fully recovered, it being against army. regulations. I was not in favor of turning this still weak and helpless young man loose Into the maelstrom of recently liberated Austria, swarming with displaced persons of many nationalities, most of them destitute and hungry. Fortunately, however, I ran Into a fellow medical officer in the evacuation hospital with whom I had served in the Pacific Theater before being sent to Europe. I asked him to take Eugene under his wing for awhile until he grew stronger and able to fend for himself. As an inducement I offered. him a trophy Luger pistol which at the time were highly prized souvenirs. Reconnaissance Squadron had many, having taken large numbers of German prisoners during the final stages of the war.
When the last day came, we took our friend Eugene to the evacuation hospital, shook hands and embraced almost tearfully, and sadly parted forever. He was smiling bravely, looking fine in the GI uniform with which he had been fitted by our guys. He was alive, and had a future before him, thanks to the caring and kindness of a small group of American medics.