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Gardelegen, Germany - Site of Nazi Genocide During the Holocaust of World War ll
Gardelegen - Becomes a National Memorial
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 interrogate 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 transport trains 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 labor in airplane parts and V-weapons production. The knowledge these slave laborers 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 smoldering. 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.
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