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The Soldier who Liberated Ohrdruf-Buchenwald

 

Captain, and later Colonel, George Fairbanks smoking a Chesterfield cigarette and saying his farewells before deploying to Europe with the 4th armored division in the Spring of 1943 (Reiff Center)

Captain, and later Colonel, George Fairbanks smoking a Chesterfield cigarette and saying his farewells before deploying to Europe with the 4th armored division in the Spring of 1943 (Reiff Center).  Colonel George Fairbanks never talked about the war in Europe.  He only mentioned that following the infamous Battle of the Bulge, “I could never keep my feet warm again.”

George, 24 years old, was hours away from graduating as part of Norwich University’s class of 1939 when he and the rest of his class received their marching orders.  They were shipped off to Texas that afternoon to train for a war they now believed was coming.

3 months later, Hitler invaded Poland.  America prepared for the worst.

Young and determined, George would become one of the first American “iron soldiers” to operate the modern M4 Sherman tanks as part of the United States’ newly created 4th armored division.  Although the rolling hills of Texas provided an ideal training ground for American G.I’s to drill their tanks, nothing could prepare George and his young classmates for the horrors that laid in store for them in Belgium and Germany.

5 years later – winter 1944 – Captain Fairbanks’ 4th armored division breaks through the German lines in Bastogne, Belgium.  The German counter-offensive ends.  The Allies continue their push into the heart of Germany.

You actually may of heard of the “breakthrough” 4th armored division due to the recent popularization of its twin division, the 2nd armored, in the latest film, Fury (2014), starring Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf.  Above is the movie trailer that includes Sergeant Collier’s (Brad Pitt) famous quote:

Ideals are peaceful, history is violent.

Holocaust rumors are confirmed and documented as ‘worse than ever imagined’  

George, 30 years old, was by this time a seasoned fighter.  He had spent the past winter carrying and burying the bodies of his fallen Norwich classmates in the frozen dirt.  But now spring had finally come, and the soil began to thaw into mud as the 4th armored division rolled into the first Jewish concentration camp to be liberated by American troops.

Here is the actual footage of what George saw in 1945 but never talked about:

4th armored and 89th infantry divisions liberate Ohrdruf, the first discovered concentration camp on the Western Front. Upon entering, American G.I's immediately find 70 dead bodied scattered in the courtyard on April 4, 1945 (yadvashem.org)
4th armored and 89th infantry divisions liberate Ohrdruf, the first discovered concentration camp on the Western Front. Upon entering, American G.I’s immediately find 70 dead bodied scattered in the courtyard on April 4, 1945 (yadvashem.org)

1.)  70 starved bodies shot dead by machine guns laying in the courtyard

According to survivors, 150 died daily, mainly from shooting or clubbing.  The Nazis fed prisoners a crust of bread each day, worked them until they were exhausted, exterminated them, and then replaced them with 150 new prisoners.

“It was a beautiful spring morning…[the camp] was surrounded by a by a high barbed wire fence and had a wooden sign that read ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work makes you free)…As we stepped into the compound, one was greeted by an overpowering odor of quicklime, dirty clothing, feces, and urine.  Lying in the center of the square were 60-70 dead prisoners clad in striped clothing and in disarray.” – Bruce Nickols; 89th Infantry Division, 3rd Army U.S.A

“The Americans who went through the camp looked quietly at the dead and spoke softly to the living…Colonel Hayden Sears, [Captain Fairbanks’ commander and longtime friend] assembled the leading citizens of Ohrdruf and took them to visit the camp of death.  Col. Sears spoke to them through an interpreter, ‘You have been brought here to see with your own eyes what is reprehensible by any human standard…we hold the entire German nation responsible because of its support and toleration of the Nazi Government.” – Sgt. Saul Levitt; May 18,, 1945

2.)  65 naked bodies cross stacked like ‘cordwood’ in a nearby shed

“[There] was a small shed which was open on one side.  Inside, were bodies stacked in alternate directions as one would stack cordwood, and each layer was covered with a sprinkling of quicklime.” – Bruce Nickols; 89th Infantry Division, 3rd Army U.S.A

“[The] bodies were piled in one place…tumbled together on top of each other in a nearby shack…some of the bodies were clothed in rags and some were completely naked…Blood had caked the ground around the bodies into puddles of red mud” – Sgt. Saul Levitt; May 18,, 1945

3.)  10 bodies laid on a grill made of railroad lines, burned to ashes

“Does this meet with your conception of the German master race?” – Col. Sears; April 8, 1945

One German officer answered, “I cannot believe that Germans did this.”  George and his division seized Ohrdruf’s townspeople from their homes by gunpoint and forced them to dig the graves of the thousands slaughtered during the carnage.

The mayor and his wife committed suicide later that day.

General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and later president of the United States, tours the Ohrdruf concentration camp shortly after its liberation by U.S. forces on April 12, 1945 (Ron Johnson/Matthew Nash/onlinepublishingcompany.info)
General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and later president of the United States, tours the Ohrdruf concentration camp shortly after its liberation by U.S. forces on April 12, 1945 (Ron Johnson/Matthew Nash/onlinepublishingcompany.info)

Generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley arrive to tour the camp and witness the horror for themselves

Get it all on record now – get the films – get the witnesses – because somewhere down the track of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened. – General Dwight D. Eisenhower; April 1945

According to the 80 survivors, 3000 – 4000 prisoners had been slain by SS troops.  The rest were marched back to Ohrdruf’s mother camp – the infamous Buchenwald.

This site, although small compared to other internment camps such as Auschwitz, made strong impact on General Eisenhower, who requested that American journalists and members of Congress thoroughly document the atrocities taken place.

Eisenhower wrote:

“We continue to uncover German concentration camps for political prisioners in which conditrions of indescribable horror prevail.  I have visited one of these myself and I assure you that whatever has been printed on them to date is an understatement.” –Eisenhower; April 1945

General Patton was also personally affected by Ohrdruf.  In fact, he refused to enter the ‘punishment shed’ due to nausea, which eventually left him vomiting later that afternoon.  In his diary, Patton recounted the site being, “one of the most appalling things that I have ever seen.”

70 years later – winter 2015 – International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi Germany's largest concentration camp, is now a museum. Photo taken September 24, 2009 (FaceMePLS/Creative Commons/Flickr)
Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camp, is now a museum. Photo taken September 24, 2009 (FaceMePLS/Creative Commons/Flickr)

Remembering those slain during the Holocaust

January 27, 2015.  President Obama today marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a statement:

“[Today] demands from us the courage to protect the persecuted and speak out against bigotry and hatred.  The recent terrorist attacks in Paris are a painful reminder of our obligation to condemn and combat rising anti-Semitism in all its forms, including the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust.”

The president also said:

“This anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on the progress we have made confronting this terrible chapter in human history and on our continuing efforts to end genocide.” David Jackson, USA Today

See Related:  Anti-Semitism and Islamic Extremism in Paris

Senior politicians, dignitaries and religious leaders will join survivors at a national commemoration ceremony in central London.  There, 70 candles, representing the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, will be lit at the ‘Death Wall’ near Block 11  to remember those who were lost. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron will be present among other world leaders.

See Related: How to Remember the Victims

The only question really left now is why George never talked about what happened.

One of many survivors from Auschwitz, Mr. Knoller, may be able help answer this question.  As part of the same ‘Greatest’ generation, Knoller like George, never spoke about the war and for years tried to suppress the memories of what he experienced:

“I didn’t talk about it for 35 years, Knoller said. “But one evening my family forced me to. We stayed up until 4:00am talking. “Before I ever spoke about it I had lots of nightmares, but after that the nightmares stopped.”

Reportedly, George never had extreme nightmares. But he did smoke Chesterfield cigarettes and drank Early Times bourbon before going to bed every night, which may have actually helped him sleep better.

One thing was certain, like many from his generation, he never wanted to talk about it.

Perhaps the despair of burying his dead ’39 classmates and the reality of Ohrdruf was too much for him to bear to remember, let alone talk about.  After 30 years of service, Col. George Fairbanks retired from the army and spent the last decade of his life baking and building wooden clocks and furniture.

Maybe this lifestyle of creating instead of destroying was his way of reconciling with a past filled with death, destruction, and sadness.

At his funeral, shots were fired in the air as it began to snow.  In a white symbolic scene, very much reminiscent to the Battle of the Bulge, George was lowered into the frozen dirt to join his dead classmates.  On the other side, it is possible they were already waiting for him to attend their prolonged graduation ceremony –  Norwich University, Class of 1939.

A memorial stone marks the place where millions died at Auschwitz-Birkenau at the hands of the Nazis. Photo taken September 24, 2009 (FaceMePLS/Creative Commons/Flickr)
A memorial stone marks the place where millions died at Auschwitz-Birkenau at the hands of the Nazis. Photo taken September 24, 2009 (FaceMePLS/Creative Commons/Flickr)

For George, Doris, and Jeff.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.