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    A trial, a Nazi guard & a soldier’s letter

    I was reading an article in my local newspaper yesterday about a trial in Munich, Germany, of a man accused of helping to murder 27,900 Jews at a Nazi camp in 1943. It reminded me of a 1945 letter I had come across last week among my auction finds.

    The letter was from a doctor-soldier recounting what he had experienced at a liberated concentration camp in Austria, near Salzburg. The remnants of humanity he found in the Nazi’s aftermath were heart-wrenching – even for a man who had endured the horrors of war for the past few years.

    His letter was a carbon copy, neatly typed and folded, dated May 24, 1945. The soldier, a medical doctor named Irv, had been sent to the camp to evaluate and report on the “tremendous medical emergency” there.

    Right now, the man on trial in Munich is accused of being an accessory to murder at another camp, Sobibor in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943. That camp, though, was no concentration camp where Jews were put to work. Prosecutors say that defendant John Demjanjuk served at an extermination camp – its sole purpose was to kill.

    Demjanjuk, 89, a retired Ohio autoworker deported from the United States in May, is accused of being an SS guard at Sobibor. Prosecutors say that he and fellow guards guided Jews from the trains into the gas chambers. On Oct.14, 1943, Jews there revolted and half of the 500 people escaped. The camp was closed and trees were planted to hide what had transpired.

    Demjanjuk, who is wheeled into his trial in a wheelchair, has denied the charges, saying he was a Russian soldier taken prisoner by the Nazis and actually spent his time in prison camps during the war. In 1987, the Israeli government tried him as the SS guard Ivan the Terrible who inflicted suffering at the Treblinka death camp in Poland. He was convicted and sentenced to death. The conviction was overturned in 1993 by the Israeli Supreme Court, which found that he was not that man.

    During World War II, some six million European Jews died at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis in a systematic and brutal plan to exterminate a race of people. The total does not include the non-Jews who were also killed.

    Some families of Jews who died at Sobibor don’t know if Demjanjuk was complicit in the extermination or not, but they say they want to make sure the world knows what happened at the camp. And they are right.

    That’s why letters like the one that Irv sent back home to his family and that I picked up at auction are very important. His is an impartial observer’s view of what he saw and heard and smelled at that Nazi concentration camp near Salzburg, Austria:

    This letter from a doctor-soldier recounts the horrific scene he saw during liberation of a concentration camp in Austria, near Salzburg, in 1945.

    And what I saw there, I can’t get out of my mind, and I shall never forget! But, believe me, when I say that of all the experiences that I’ve had so far, this was by far the most horrible. What a masterful, brutal, systematic method of eradicating whole races of people the Nazi’s had! The human misery, I’ve never actually conceived it! Believe me – you must actually see, smell, feel these wretched masses of beings, have them touch you, speak to, or scream at you with their parched throats, before you realize what has actually gone on here in Europe. They cry with joy – they are so dehydrated from lack of food and water that no tears come out. Their tear glands are even dry. They have been given a daily ration 1 slice of bread and a glass of water. Their tales of misery, you can hardly bear listening to – you get so choked up – but are almost ashamed to cry.

    “I take back what I said in my other letter about the Jews being extinct. There were a thousand of them in this camp of ages ranging from about 12 to 70 years old. They were the worst treated of all. The Gentile political prisoners tell me that their only crime was the fact that they were Jews. The average Jew lived no more than 6 weeks here. He was treated brutally and if he didn’t die before the 6 weeks were up, he was clubbed to death and burned. The Jews slept 4 or 5 to a single bed, the rooms were so crowded, the heat from their feverish bodies plus the stench of infected, infested, ulcerated bodies – almost knocked you down. In one bed I noticed one Jew dead. The other three bed-mates were too weak to remove him – so he was left there to occupy the precious space. In that same bed the other three had defecated. The excreta was all over them and everywhere. They were wretched with hunger and pain. I saw them fall down and die everywhere. Some “skin and bones” ran out into the woods to die, some died on the camp roads. I gave adrenalin to one that collapsed – it was hopeless, he died a few minutes later. Many more collapsed and died – I estimate about 300 during the time I was there. One made his way to a nearby village and begged for food. He ate a lot and then fell dead – the strain of eating and the dilatation of his stomach was too much for his weakened body. Two men fell over dead into the reservoir while trying to get water. Other men, dying of thirst, washed and drank from this same reservoir.

    I went to bed last night, as I said, but couldn’t get it out of my mind. However, one thing is sure, now I really know why we fought.  I thank God, we did.”

    I was thinking about Irv’s letter last night while watching the Academy Awards on television, particularly the mention of Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Inglorious Basterds.” It’s the story of a team of Jewish-American soldiers called “The Basterds” that terrorized and slaughtered Nazi troops in 1941. For me, one of the best lines in the movie was uttered by Brad Pitts’ character, Lt. Aldo Raine:

    “We’re going to be doing one thing and we’re going to be doing one thing only: killin’ Nazis.”

    I’m sure Tarantino loved writing that line; it made the movie. The film had always been my “go-see list” but I never saw it. Now I will.

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