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Walt's Daughter

“Private” by Lester Atwell

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John McAuliffe, 87th Inf Div, sent me this excerpt from a book. Here is his email to me this morning:

 

====================

 

From pages 395-397 of the non-fiction novel, “Private” by Lester Atwell, Second Battalion Medical Aid Station, 345th Infantry, 87th Division, Third Army: Written in 1955, published 1958 by Simon and Schuster: Received National Book Club award, 1982.

 

 

 

“Stutzhaus, or what we saw of it, might have been anywhere in the country, in any country: a dirt road bordered by trees, some fields, a few houses such as a child draws. An aid station had been set up. Phil and I left Preacher minding it and went down into a nearby field. The battalion had halted and Regimental Headquarters had also arrived in the town.

 

“It was the first time we had seen the litter bearers in several days, and, while talking to them, I was told that in the next town, Ordruf, just outside our sector, there was a large concentration camp with the remains of hundreds of starved dead and mangled bodies lying unburied in the yard: the gas chambers and crematoriums had been operating at full speed until the very last moment, but there had been no time for the S.S. to bury all the ghastly signs of their guilt.

 

“Some of our guys over there saw it. They were pukin’. They said it was awful! But they’re going to let everyone over to see it. If you wanna go, they say you ought to see it before they clean everything up.’

 

“The field in which we were standing was overgrown with knee-high dead, bleached weeds, and the sounds of men trampling on them made constant loud cracking signs. Nineteen-year-old Konrad Hausner, one of the regimental interpreters, a refugee who had been born in Germany and had spent his childhood there, came quickly through the straw-colored weeds with his superior officer, a man in charge of Military Government. Letting the officer go past, he stopped to shake hands and talk for a few minutes. He said ‘I’ve just come from Ordruf, from the concentration camp.’

 

‘I hear they’re going to let us all go over and see it.’

 

‘Don’t. Don’t go. Do yourself a favor-stay away! It’s the most horrible thing—worse than anything you ever heard of. Bodies all over the place—women, kids, men—all heaped together, half-burned. They must have been living skeletons. God, what bastards to do things like that! I tell you I’m sick! Take it from me, it’s all there. Nothing’s exaggerated, but don’t go.

 

“As it turned out, we were not permitted to go over, but toward evening Jimmy McDonough and his friend Horseface Fogarty returned to Stutzhaus. Fogarty was slack and expressionless; Jimmy McDonough looked awed. ‘You’re lucky you didn’t go,’ he said, passing me. ‘God it was awful. Honest, I’m sick.’

 

“We had our mess kits out, getting ready to line up, and someone asked if he were going to eat.

 

‘Eat?’ He put his hand on his stomach and turned his head away. ‘Listen, I don’t even wanna think about eatin’. He went on into the aid station to lie down as Fogarty had done. When we were going to sleep that night, he was still lying on his stomach, his head buried in his arms. They didn’t eat all the next day, but sat in the aid station, dazed and silent.

 

“About a week later, some rear elements of our division were present at Ordruf when the burgomaster led his townsfolk out to the concentration camp for a burial ceremony. By then the place had been considerably cleaned up. The starved and half-consumed bodies had been gathered together and placed in coffins, and there were even a few floral offerings. When the people saw what the camp was like and were led through the torture chambers and past the ovens, men and women screamed out and fainted; others were led away crying hysterically. All swore that during the past years they had no idea of what was going on in the camp just outside their town.

 

“And yet one heard other stories. One heard that it would be impossible not to know what was happening, that the greasy black smoke and the unmistakable odor of burning bodies could be detected for miles around such concentration camps, that villagers got up petitions to have the camps moved elsewhere.

 

“I never knew what to believe.”

 

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