It is not clear if a brief and slightly confused summary, the story of an escaped inmate by the name of Antoniak was written before the American soldiers reached the site of the massacre or whether they found him, one of the few survivors, after witnessing the consequences of the deed itself. Nonetheless, when they continued their patrol, they climbed a small hill not far from the town. From there, they spied, some distance away, a burnt brick structure, which as still smoking. When they approached the building, a nightmarish sight met their eyes. Hundreds of charred corpses, dressed in the remnants of prison camp uniforms, were lying in several trenches that had been dug hastily alongside the building. The doors of the building, which was revealed to be a large barn, were also charred, and from beneath the doors were protruding the heads or hands of murdered prisoners. When the soldiers opened the doors, they discovered hundreds of horribly distorted charred corpses inside, all glued together. It was the most harrowing experience those men underwent throughout the war. One of them wrote to his mother several days later about the event.
Yesterday I saw something I'll never forget. It was one of those war crimes that the Germans are noted for. This time the Americans came up to fast and they weren't able to cover up their crime. It took place in a large barn in the town of Gerdelegen. It started out that the Germans were bringing some two thousand Russian prisoners of war from East Prussia on a march to Hannover. While marching to their destination, about one thousand Russians weren't able to continue the march on account of the light meals they were getting. By that I mean two potatoes for each meal. As they dropped out, they were killed where they fell. The balance were taken to Hannover, but the Americans were already east of Hannover, and put about five hundred of these prisoners of war in a large barn in which the floor had a light layer of straw and potatoes soaked with gasoline.
They closed the doors and put the place on fire and BURNED THEM ALIVE. The balance of them were told to dig trenches around the barn and when they got through digging, they were lined up along the trenches and shot and buried. Some were buried alive.
The Americans moved up so fast that they weren't able to get rid of the evidence. Only two men escaped and that is how the story was told.
I was up to see the mass[sic] and words can't explain how bad it was. I took a few pictures of the place and bodies. Now I wonder how many American boys met the same death.
It would be a good idea if you told some of the people about it so that they will know just rotten these Germans are. Even a dead German isn't good because he stinks.
I guess this story must already be in the newspapers back home. It's the real dope and much worse than I can explain in a letter. I don't think the Japs are half as bad.
I hope you didn't get sick reading this. I just thought I'd let you know what's going on
The details and facts reported by the young soldier are not necessarily exact, but every line in his letter reflects his deep emotional shock and his burning rage at the murderess and the entire German people. In the first hours and days after the discovery of the barn and the adjacent pits with hundreds of charred corpses of prisoners, it was impossible to clarify the details and answer the grim questions underlying the bloody massacre: who had they been, these individuals slaughtered so cruelly several hours before the Americans arrived? What were the circumstances that led to this deed and, of course, who were the murderess and what were their motives?
[The discovery of the massacre seems to have been by chance. The consensus account is that American Lieutenant Emerson Hunt, a liaison officer between Ozark HQ and the 701st Tank Battalion, was captured by German forces on April 14, 1945, that he bluffed the German forces defending the town of Gardelegen into believing that American tanks were approaching the city, and that this induced the German commander to surrender to the American forces. The Americans arrived at the site before the Germans had time to bury all of the bodies.sic]
|The barn set on fire in the Gardelegen Massacre|
|pictures of the dead|
|The accused Erhard Brauny receives his judgement on 30 December 1947.|
On Saturday, April 14, 1945 the 102nd Infantry Division's 405th Regiment 2nd Battalion approached Gardelegen from the north. The Luftwaffe had a large airfield within the perimeter of the ancient, moated town. To capture Gardelegen would be a big prize. But first they had to get through the village of Estedt, which guarded the entrance to Gardelegen.
A battle group of German paratroopers, with small arms and 20mm flak, occupied Estedt. The 405th, accompanied by eight tanks from the 701st Tank Battalion, swiftly overran the paratroopers. On Sunday, the 15th, they had no sooner emerged from Estedt, than they found themselves under heavy automatic weapons fire from the woods adjacent to Gardelegen. Meanwhile earlier in the day, LT. Emerson Hunt, a liaison officer between Ozark HQ and the 701st Tank Battalion, had been captured. When questioned by his captors he demanded, that as an officer, an officer of rank equal to or greater than his own interrogated him.
He was taken to the German Air Force colonel commanding the Gardelegen garrison. He promptly informed the colonel that American tanks were ½ hour away and they would blow Gardelegen off the map. It would be wise for him to surrender to the nearest American commander. In reality LT. Hunt had no idea how close the 2nd Battalion was. The Luftwaffe colonel, not aware of the ruse, immediately lost all desire to defend the fatherland any longer. He sent LT. Hunt back to his own lines with a Luftwaffe major, to assure his safe passage through German lines, to offer surrender.
LT. Hunt returned to Estedt and the German major surrendered to Colonel Williams, C.O. of the 405th. Colonel Williams sent the Luftwaffe major back to Gardelegen with specific surrender orders. Per orders, the Gardelegen garrison commander drove into Estedt, in his white flagged staff car, and escorted Colonel Williams back into Gardelegen where the entire garrison, its' arms stacked, awaited surrender. By nightfall Gardelegen was in the hands of the Americans.
The surrender however was ill timed. On the outskirts of town the SS had not yet completed disposing of the evidence of a horrendous crime. On April 4th a transport train carrying 2000 religious, political, and military prisoners pulled out of Nordhausen, Rottleberode, Wieda and Ilfeld Concentration Camps and headed northwest. All these camps occupants were slave labour in air-plane parts and V-weapons production. The knowledge these slave labourers possessed would be detrimental to the Germans if they fell into Allied hands. The SS therefore was forced to move them away from the advancing Allied Army.
On Wednesday, April 11th the train could travel no further than Letzlingen. Allied bombers had destroyed the railway lines ahead. The prisoners were unloaded from the train and forced to march toward Gardelegen. The sick and lame who could travel no further were shot where they fell. The remaining prisoners that reached Gardelegen were temporarily housed in the stables of the Remonteschool Garrison. Upon learning the American Army was quickly advancing from the west the SS began to implement recognized Nazi policy for disposing of their human freight.
On Friday, the 13th, the SS guards, with the help of some Luftwaffe troops, marched the prisoners to a masonry barn on the nearby estate of Isenschnibbe. They were herded into the hay storage shed and ordered to sit down on gasoline soaked straw scattered on the floor, knee deep. Nazi policy stated that the prisoners were to be killed to prevent any possibility of having them turn on their guards in the event of liberation. By order of the Gardelegen Nazi Party leader, Kreisleiter Thiele, policy was carried out. Shortly thereafter, an SS corporal set fire to the straw with incendiary bombs (phosphorus grenades). Luftwaffe guards encircled the building and shot down any prisoners that tried to escape to freedom. The remaining prisoners burned alive.
Seven prisoners successfully escaped. One, a Pole named Eugene Sczwincz, lay buried under a mass of charred bodies for three days.
"I stumbled, and others coming behind me were mowed down. Some of the Germans firing the machine guns were Luftwaffe troops. I could see their uniforms. I lay under a pile of dead from Friday until Sunday morning without moving, because on Saturday the Germans came in and asked who needed medical attention. When someone moved and asked for help, the Germans shot them. I got out when the Germans left and the Americans arrived".
Local civilians heard the machine gun fire. They saw the flames and smoke rising from the barn and heard the screams of the dying. The next morning, April 14th, the SS gathered together some civilians to dig trenches behind the building to bury the dead. The SS, SA, Volksstrum and Hitlerjugend successfully buried some 700 bodies before the garrison surrendered. Another day and all evidence of one of the most overwhelming Nazi crimes yet discovered in Western Europe would have disappeared.
On Monday, April 15th, members of the 405th Regiment F Company were searching the area around the airfield. In nearby wheat fields they found several bodies, clad in prison striped clothing. A little further along they came upon the large masonry storage shed. Scattered about were bullet-riddled bodies. Opening one of the large wooden doors they were greeted with a cloud of smoke and the stench of burned flesh. There were some 300 charred and smoking bodies inside.
Behind the barn were six trenches, eight feet deep and eight feet wide and varying in length from 15 to 65 feet. Some of the trenches were covered over; others partially covered, entombing some 700 burned bodies. Later investigation disclosed 1016 religious, political, and military prisoners lost their lives in that building. One military prisoner was American, the remainder Russian. Ed Motsko, of the 2nd Battalion 548AAA witnessed the atrocity's aftermath firsthand.
"I saw these people charred black from the smoke and fire. Most had the Star of David on their clothes. Some seemed very young, fourteen or sixteen years old. There were piles of bodies in front of the doors, still smouldering. The barn floor was dirt and some prisoners tried so hard to dig under the barn doors that they wore down the flesh and bone on their fingers up to the second joint".
General Frank Keating, Commander of the 102nd Infantry Division, ordered all the residents of Gardelegen taken to the barn to view the crime committed by the German Army. He then ordered the townspeople to create a military style cemetery. They had to unearth the bodies from the mass graves and dig a separate grave for each victim. A cross or Star of David was constructed for each grave and a white fence enclosed the site. At the entrance to the cemetery a large sign was erected immortalizing the dead and ordering the residents of Gardelegen to forever maintain the cemetery under penalty of Military Law.[sic]
ESCAPING INMATES ON THE MARCH
As they advanced into the forest area between Breitenfeld and Estedt there was unrest in the column. The guards, soldiers from the nearby paratroopers base and local Volkssturm men, were terrified that by dawn they might be captured by the advance units of the U.S. force that was approaching Gardelegen. The prisoners realized that liberation was only a few hours away. Hundreds of them fled into the forest under the cover of darkness, and about 120 suddenly found themselves unguarded. The guards had either simply taken to their heels or had allowed the prisoners to escape amidst confusion. The prisoners could not grasp where their guards had gone and why they were now free. They split into small groups of five to seven men each and began to seek shelter, and above all, food. Some were unfortunate enough to be caught during the savage manhunt conducted in the forest. Others succeeded in gaining another few days grace.
On April 11 Wilhelm Berlin, mayor of Estedt, was already aware that the prisoners were crossing his village on their way to Gardelegen. He saw the first group pass through on its way south, and so did local farmers. Berlin, who was 66, had served mayor since 1927. He had been a member of the NSDAP (Nazi Party) since 1940, but was not involved in political activities. The fact that escaped prisoners were roaming the forest around the village and that the American Army was due to arrive at any moment was a source of great anxiety for him and for the 400 or so inhabitants. They felt that their public safety and security were being threatened. [Due to their striped prison uniforms, escaped prisoners was called by the civilian population "Zebras",sic]
At about 3 a.m. on April 12, Helmut Hockhaup, a paratrooper officer from Gardelegen area, came to Estedt and called out the members of the local Volkssturm Unit. They were ordered to join in the hunt for prisoners hiding near the village. Several of them refused because they realized the practical implication of the order, while others joined unhesitatingly. A nocturnal manhunt was launched in the forest around Estedt and in the village itself. Forty-year-old Henryk Kostrzewa, a former Polish soldier, was one of a small group of Polish slave labourers who was working for local farmers.[Note: This statement by researcher in general that they were slave labourers is false, they worked "voluntarily" in a civilian capacity and were able to bring their families from Poland, we had them on our estate as well at Briesnitz, county of Crossen on the Oder, until the end of the war. H.K.S,sic] He had been labouring in Germany since 1939, when he was taken prisoner in September 1939 campaign. At 5 a.m. he heard shots from the forest near the village. After a short time, some people he had never seen before came to the house of his employer and demanded that Kostrzewa be sent with a shovel to the little restaurant in the centre of the village. When he arrived there, he found another eight forced labourers, all equipped with shovels. A man in SS uniform and another group of soldiers were waiting for them. The nine labourers were taken to the forest, and there the soldiers told them to begin digging a pit. At the same time a wagon arrived with 15 corpses of prisoners and another 20-25 who were still alive. The soldiers ordered Kostrzewa and his comrades to unload the corpses. The surviving prisoners refused to climb down, but the soldiers shoved the Poles aside and dragged them off the wagon. The Poles then threw the corpses into the pit they had dug. Kostrzewa described the horror he witnessed: The prisoners who were alive were lined up on the edge of the ditch, and were ordered to kneel down facing the ditch. The soldiers then came along and shot the prisoners in the back of the head. Those who did not fall into the grave after being shot were pushed in by the soldiers with their feet. Then the second wagon came with about 30 prisoners and five dead prisoners. They were taken off the wagon and we had to give them our shovels and they had to throw a thin covering of dirt over the bodies in the ditch. Even then, legs, arms and heads still showed. These prisoners were then lined up along the ditch and had to kneel down. They also were shot in the back of the head. I saw a Polish brother[sic] who told the soldiers they didn't do anything why do you want to shoot us. The soldier said "keep quiet" and shot them both... All the soldier were enjoying themselves and smoking cigarettes.
|Namering exhumed bodies of SS murdered slave workers WW 2|
After some time another wagon arrived with 15 prisoners. They too did not want to climb down and pleaded with the soldiers to spare them. They were dragged off the wagon and murdered in the same fashion as the previous group. When the nine slave labourers finished burying victims they returned to the village. On the way they met a local farmer driving a wagon carrying another six to seven prisoners. He had found them hiding in his barn and immediately informed the soldiers, tow of them came and took them. The nine Poles were taken back to the forest and witnessed the murder of these prisoners, who were shot in the back of the head. Then they covered the corpses with soil and returned to the village. On the way they they saw yet another wagon with six prisoners, but this time they succeeded in keeping their distance from the soldiers. The Poles feared that if they were again forced to bury victims, their luck would no longer hold and they, in their turn, would be killed in order to cover the traces of the crime. On their way back to their employer's farms, Kostrzewa and his friend witnessed another murder, this time of two prisoner caught in the village street and shot on the spot by the soldiers. Not only foreign labourers but local farmers as well were summoned to bury the dead. In several cases, corpses of the murdered prisoners were heaped onto wagons and transported to the burial trenches in the local forest.
Word of the massacre at Estedt reached the Americans on April 19, when they interrogated captured German soldiers. The following details appeared in the report of the interrogation:
'POW's consistently denied any connection with either of the foregoing, but admitted having seen the bodies of two political prisoners (identified by the striped clothing) in the woods by Estedt... 6 km, of Gardelegen. his information was transmitted through the channels to Div CIC, who visited the area with PW Nachtigall on19 April 1945,and and there found the bodies and graves of a large number of prisoners who had been killed by shooting or having their skulls cracked. CIC questioned the Bürgermeister of Estedt as well as a number of other local people and French and Polish liberated prisoners, and found that knowledge of the affair was quite widespread. Among other facts ascertained was that a 3rd Co of an unidentified Para Unit from Gardelegen had furnished escort guards for the prisoners killed at Estedt and the man directing the affair was Helmut Hockhau.' The interrogator, Lieutenant Kenneth Russ, conducted a thorough inspection of the mass graves of prisoners murdered at Estedt on May 9, 1945. He discovered two pits to the west of the village, identified through the fresh mounds of soil above them. They were located only about 295 yards (270 meters) from farmhouses. hen they began exhuming the graves, the interrogators found it difficult to estimate the number of corpses. It was decided to transfer the victims to the local cemetery for proper burial. The mayor, Wilhelm Berlin,was ordered to supply the necessary manpower for the task. The graves were exhumed on May 11, with 60 corpses found in the first pit and 30 in the second. A third burial pit was discovered, containing four corpses. Others were discovered in pits dug by the farmers, which were scattered over various sites around the village. In all, 110 corpses of victims of the Estedt massacre were laid to rest in the village cemetery.
|May 11, 1945 German civilians are forced to walk past bodies of 30 Jewish women starved to death by German SS troops in a 300-mile march across Czechoslovakia.'|
THE JUSTICE SYSTEM AND IT'S PREDICAMENTS
The East German authorities exploited the Thiele affair in the 1960's in their propaganda against the Federal Republic, claiming that West Germany was evading the task of bringing Thiele to justice, although they knew he was living under false identity. This claim was part of the DDR official line, which asserted that the Federal Republic was not doing enough to uncover the identity of thousand of Nazi criminals living within its borders. In practice however, the DDR failed to hand over the information in its possession to West German investigators.
It was known in East Germany that Rosemarie Thiele played a central role in preparing the infrastructure that enabled her husband to escape to the West. After the war she engaged in illegal trading in gold and sent her husband considerable sums of money after the escape. This money enabled him to fabricate a solid identity as Gerhard Lindemann, respectable businessman, backed by the necessary documents, fake family ties, accommodation, and source of income. His common-law wife Margaret-Gertrude Glandien, knew nothing about the Gardelegen affair. He told her about his career in the Wehrmacht and his capture by the Americans after the war, but naturally said nothing to suggest that he had been a Kreisleiter. Nor did she know that from the 1960's on, he transferred monthly sums to his wife and children, who were still living in Thale [East Germany,sic]. Only in 1997, when Thiele was no longer alive and the Criminal Police of Magdeburg filled in the missing details regarding his evasion and punishment, did she learn about the massacre for which her life partner had been responsible almost 40 years earlier.
In those places where it was Germans who perpetrated the murders (in contrast to gangs and civilians, such as Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Poles in the eastern territories), the killers wee usually uniformed men. They included camp guards and men of the Waffen-SS, Wehrmacht, the Gendarmerie,the Order Police, Auxiliary Units of Volksdeutsche, and others. Most of the murderers during the evacuation and death marches were concentration camp personal and hence belonged to the uniformed category. Service in defined military or semi-military frameworks promoted a certain sense osf shared destiny and collective responsibility, which helped considerably to expand the circles of accomplices in murder. The unique 'Kameradschaft' (brotherhood and shared destiny) that evolved among members of the same Unit was not confined to combat frameworks. It also existed in those uniformed Units that did not take part in specifically military operations but, owing to local circumstances, became involved in terror operations against civilian populations or in the murder of Jews.
Two distinct groups that were serving in the concentration camps in early 1945 fulfilled separate functions during the evacuation of the camps. The first consisted of the senior camp-SS administration (Konzentationslager SS), and included the camp commandants, their deputies, or senior functionaries, namely department heads (Abteilungsleiter). One can describe them as a group of murderers, their political, professional, and even socially had a common denominator. This group, which consisted about 320 individuals, displayed all the political and ideological characteristics of senior functionaries of the regime. They had usually served in the concentration camp system from its early days and were promoted from post to post during the 1930's and after the outbreak of war. They constituted a relatively stable element within the system, although some members left in order to serve in the SS fighting Units.
The vast number of guards who were given the task of evacuating hundreds of thousands of prisoners from camp to camp in the final months of the war left behind very little documentation of their conduct. It is very difficult to investigate and expose the motives and motivations of the ordinary men who perpetrated horrific crimes during this period of the war. They did not belong to the higher echelons of a clearly defined organisation identified with perpetration of war crimes, they were moved from place to place within the system, and they were not part of an orderly bureaucracy. Even when they joined an organisation that committed war crimes, it was in the capacity of reserve units, which took part in later stages and were junior elements in the system.
Although the murder of the Jewish women prisoners near Stary Karomierz, illustrates the central role these guards played in the massacre that occurred in those months. The Polish farmer Florjan Drymala, who witnessed the murders, recalled vividly that the uniforms of the guards were identical to those of the Wehrmacht troops and that he saw no SS-men in the vicinity: "I stress that the guards who committed the murder were relatively elderly and they were wearing green Uniforms." Thirty years after his first testimony to the Polish commission of inquiry, Drzymula recalled clearly that they were elderly (stare dziady), although he was not entirely sure whether they were soldiers or older Volkssturm men.
Violence, terror, and killing of Jews or Soviet partisans were important components in the operational activity of their Units, even if they had not been specifically trained for such missions. The system encouraged them and created awards and acknowledged their action. Most of them naturally regarded their victims as a marginal inferior group, and it was immaterial to them whether they survived or were savagely exterminated. What was important to them was the fact that their actions, the cruel manhunts, the killing of Jews and of other enemies of the state, had been legitimized by the system they served and that approval was granted lavishly.
Even when the prisoners set out on their evacuation marches, the older guards tried to avoid over-involvement in dealing with them and left the important decisions to those in charge of the evacuation, namely, the veteran camp-SS. The instructions they received before setting out did not include more than a general directive to shoot any prisoner who tried to escape. However, when, as often occurred, the columns they were guarding were wandering aimlessly and various prisoners were lagging and holding up the column, the permission to shoot escaping prisoners was expanded into far-reaching license to kill indiscriminately whoever they chose.
Many of them had Party careers spanning more than a decade, and, from early stages of those careers, they were inspired by the National Socialist spirit. In spring 1945 men such as Thiele, Meissle, Schmidt, or Anton wielded extensive powers in the civilian and security matters in the new hierarchy of responsibility created in the final months of the Reich. Once the framework fell apart, the Kreisleiters or Ortsgruppenleiters remained the sole authorities in charge of the security of the population. Those prisoners who were roaming freely were a threat to the safety of their townspeople and so it was only natural for them to take decisions that were coloured by their Weltanschauung and their understanding of their responsibility. The consequence was elimination of the prisoners in order to eradicate the threat they posed.
These functionaries could not have succeeded so fully in implementing their decisions without the extensive aid of other factors.
The graves of these nameless victims are strewn along paths, forests, and villages of Germany and Austria. In the last stage of Nazi genocide, the burial sites of its victims spilled beyond the traditional territorial borders, such as the crematoria in Death Camps in Poland, the burial trenches in Lithuania and Byelorussia, and the snow-covered POW camps in the Ukraine, they were dug on the very doorstep of the society that had produced the perpetrators from its midst.
The Death Marches by Daniel Blatman, translated from Hebrew
Signed Affidavit dated 14. August 1947, regarding the trial of Josef Bielmeier, my father in law, by about 15 Dachau inmates on a 'Death March' until they met up with American Forces and returned to Dachau. As ardent Marxist/Communists they had rather seen the Red Army and were disdainful of American opulence.Their signature and KZ numbers attached as follows,
K.Tobias - Guard
E. Rippelt - Guard
|Josef Bielmeier 1941,|