by Ragene Farris
Note: Sergeant Ragene Farris served in the 329th Medical Battalion. He describe in this text the horrors the American troops had to face during the liberation of the "Boelcke Kazerne" in Nordhausen concentration camp. This testimony has been published in German and French in two books: "Schickalstage im Harz Das Geschehen im April 1945" ( 5th edition, Germany, 1985) by Manfred Bornemann and in "Dora 1943-1945" by Brigitte d'Hainaut and Christine Sommerhausen, Editions Didier Hatier, Belgium, 1991.
"Days, weeks and even months later, this simple word "Nordhausen" was still frightening us. We were from the hospital troops, we were used to combat and we thought nothing could surprise us anymore. This war was hell and all of its different aspects were our daily work: surgical operations, nervous breakdowns and death. Personally, I thought I was tough enough to deal with that.
But what all of us we have faced during some days in this place is something we'll never be able to forget.
Liberation of Nordhausen on April 12th, 1945. The US soldiers found two survivors in this building... All the other prisoners were died.
The Nazi town of Nordhausen surrendered on April 11th. Our Captain Johnson told us that we were assigned to a new mission. We had to take in charge all the ill inmates of a concentration camp. This camp was located in a huge industrial complex outside of the town. He also told us that the sickest were lying amongst dead and that there were only small chance to find any "human beings" who could be saved with the help of medical care.
Early in the morning of April 12th, Colonel Taggert assigned this new mission the whole medical team as well as other soldiers who were not on duty. Our trucks were on the way to an incredible mission, an awful mission, a creation from the inhuman and fanatic Nazi system. After this mission we have understood more than ever the real meaning of the word "Konzentrationslager".
Upon arriving at the camp, we saw first the uniformity of the buildings surrounding a huge complex. Some months before, these two storied buildings were military installations used by the Luftwaffe and the SS. Then the buildings were used for housing political prisoners of all nationalities, forced to work as slave labor in the underground factories located near the camp. They worked fabricating parts for V1 and V2 rockets. With stretchers in our hands, we ran into the nearest building. As soon as we entered, we had to face the ugly reality. There was human flesh and bones everywhere on the pavement. We found rows of skeletons just covered by a yellow skin which looked like paper. There was group after group of men, lying on the ground, starved, pitiful and covered with human excrement. They wore stripped uniforms with a register number on it, a last symbol of the men who tortured them or reduced them to slavery. No sign of life in this huge building, they were all dead.
We walked to stairs leading to the second floor. Under the stairway, we found a pile of 75 corpses, a vision of horror I'll never be able to forget. On the second floor, there were 25 other men - we learned that after the detailed account of victims was made - all dead. Then we found some others lying on wooden bunks. Strangely they didn't move. They were fighting against death but they were still alive. At this moment, we understood what was our main mission. We'd better hurry! This was the start of a day made of rescues, medical cares and surgery. But there was nothing to compare with our normal work.
It was very soon clear to us that our small group was unable to deal with this situation. There were hundreds of sick and dying inmates we had to take care of and to feed, and we had also to install a field hospital. Under the command of Colonel Taggert and priest Steinbeck, who both spoke German, we went to the Nazi town and ordered the all the inhabitants we found in the street to help us. The order was "You have to help us now!!!". This way, +- 100 Germans were transferred to the camp and ordered to remove all the corpses.
Because I spoke French, my mission in this ugly place was totally changed. I was called by a inmate who was not as weak as the others. He asked me if I spoke French. I answered that I did, and he told me that a group of French prisoners was in the cellar of a near building and he asked me if I could - s'il vous plaît - rescue them. The building was in a place devastated by the bombs. When I entered in the building, the first thing I saw was a young girl. She seemed about 17. She was lying on the ground, naked and burned. I was scared, I just couldn't understand how, even in war time, such thing was possible to happen. But I had no time to think, I had a job to do. It is only later that I had time to think about all I have seen on that day.
We just reached the stairs leading to the cellar where the French prisoners were grouped when I heard a weak voice. "Monsieur!". Just lying by my feet, I saw an old, starving man, he looked dead to me, but he managed to lift his head and he told me in his best French from Paris that he wanted to kiss me but he was unable to do it... he was too weak. He told me that he was an officer from the famous French Military Academy of Saint-Cyr and also that the SS treated him sadistically. I though he was 75 but in fact he was only 45. He was covered with filth. We carefully laid him on a stretcher and sent him to the ambulance.
Once we entered in the cellar, we found ourselves in the middle of an indescribable amount of filth.. The air was filled with the odor of death, foul human waste and almost unbearable. I saw inmates in their bunks, unable to move, with the bodies of their dead comrades lying on them. I saw a French prisoner, curled on the corpse of one of his friends, unable to move, and it seemed to me he wanted to warm him. But his friend had been dead for 2 or 3 days... There were others prisoners, grouped in the middle of the cellar, lying in dirt and germs of different diseases. They were grouped there because of their diarrhea. Walking in this cellar, searching for survivors, was to me like being thrown in the darkest times of the past, it seemed to me I was in an other world. Our only way to escape from this hell was to get these "semi-alive" souls to the American ambulances.
From what I have learned from the most healthy survivors, they received a large chunk of black bread for 7 men once a week. Later, while I was walking in the camp, I discovered a huge cooking pot and just beside a pile of potatoes. The prisoners told me that a guard used this pot for cooking the prisoners' soup.
Some of our men talked German, Polish or Russian. They were assigned to the same mission with me. We learned very soon to shout to the Germans who were removing the bodies "School!" or "Tempo! you d...Bs!"... and the Germans had no problems to understand what we meant.
We found 20 dead bodies in a bomb crater. There were only 3 or 4 survivors in this crater. During 6 days they had tried to crawl out of the crater but the weight of the other corpses was to heavy for them. They were incredibly weak and starved. We saw several bodies of prisoners who were shot by machine guns while they tried to escape the fury of their SS guards
I remember something poignant: while I was transferring the ill prisoners to the ambulance, I saw a man who was in a very bad state, weak and starved who was trying to catch our attention. He was crying and he saluted us. The only concern of this man, who was too weak to be able to walk, was to show us his gratitude because we were helping him. For the very first time since years, he was hearing friendly words...
Some of the inmates were unable to stand up. Their feet were swollen and injured. They had no shoes and their feet were filthy. We saw ugly scars on several of these poor men. This was the proof of how their torturers treated them.
I remember a French business man. He told me that before the war started, he worked for Renault. Because he was in the camp since only 3 months, his health was not so bad as the other prisoners. He told me that during his stay in the camp, he was beaten everyday. He talked to us in a perfect English he told us that it was "funny" to him to see such young, clean American soldiers. He also told us that amongst the 3,000 deaths of the camp, many of them had to worked until they simply died of starvation or weakness.
We worked hours after hours, trying to save as much human lives as we could. We transferred this day 300 inmates to the temporary hospital, as well as 400 others who were able to walk.
Sergeant Leutz, who served in the Officer Mess, was ordered to feed the survivors. Never, I say never before I have seen a man looking at food like these poor men did when they saw the coffee, the soup, and other food prescribed by the doctors.