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What Midwest Soldiers Found in Nazi Concentration Camps

Strangely, just as Iowans, Minnesotans and Dakotans were the first U.S. troops to fight in Europe in World War II, a large number of Upper Midwesterners also were at hand at the war's end, as the U.S. Army liberated Buchenwald, Dachau and other Nazi concentration camps in April and May of 1945. Some of the men photographed what they saw; others glimpsed images on those first days of liberation that would remain indelibly burned in their minds for the rest of their lives.

Vernon Tott | Jack Kriegel | Eugene Rinkey photos and his story | other photographers

Midwest Liberators
Vernon Tott
Sioux City, Iowa

Before the war a meat-packer in Sioux City, Iowa, 20-year old Vernon Tott served as a radio operator in the U.S. Army’s 335th Infantry Regiment, the 84th “Railsplitters” Division. On 10 April 1945 he was among the first to spy and enter a slave-labor camp in Hannover-Ahlem. A desperate place, the camp’s inmates consisted largely of men and boys transported from the liquidated Lodz ghetto in Poland and put to work digging bomb-proof tunnels and industrial facilities. What the young Iowan discovered and filmed inside the camp gates haunted him for over five decades—until, by chance, he ran across an appeal by one of the camp survivors to locate his liberators… In 2005 former inmates visited him in his Iowa home. Today, Vernon Tott’s name hangs in honor in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum—and his photos bear witness.

In Vernon’s own words, he has described what he saw and how it later affected him.

To explore the implications of the Holocaust for today's world, as well as how to use history as a means to address contemporary issues, click on Facing History and Ourselves.


Jack Kriegel
Tama-Toledo, Iowa

In the summer of 2004, TRACESBUS-eum visited the Tama-Toledo Pow-Wow Days, in East Central Iowa. During the course of the busy, loud happenings of the festival, a quiet man approached Michael Luick-Thrams and shyly produced an old envelope full of tattered photos

This ritual repeated itself in town after town as the exhibit Behind Barbed Wire: Midwest POWs in Nazi Germany exhibit toured Iowa and later Nebraska in 2004. It seems that hundreds—likely thousands—of Midwest soldiers were present at the liberation of Buchenwald, Dachau and many other Nazi concentration camps. Time after time, the men described how the horrific scenes they saw in those camps tormented them for half a century—yet only now, late in their lives, are a few able to speak about them. Jack Kriegel is one of them... It seems that the very act of “telling the secret” heals decades-old emotional wounds—pain that no human being should have to carry.

South Dakota soldiers—by the score—also
witnessed the aftermath of Nazi concentration camps

Minnesota soldiers were present at Dachau soon after liberation; for photos and text, visit
Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
University of Minnesota 

Harry Herder, Jr. of rural Minnesota described, in depth, the remains of Buchenwald
| photos of Buchenwald |

German POWs' reactions to Nazi atrocities at Buchenwald

Russell Eugene Hicks of Royal Center/Indiana was present at the "clean up" of a
former Nazi concentration camp

Eugene Rinkey of Saint Paul, Minnesota

The below color photographs were taken by Eugene Rinkey of Saint Paul. Rinkey became a medical doctor upon his return from the war in Europe. In 1987 he wrote about what he had seen and experienced at Dachau:

         It was Tuesday, May 1st 1945, in western Germany. I arrived by Jeep along with Charlie and "Chappie" (our chaplain) to a new bivouac in some of the most beautiful countryside I had ever seen. It was a pastoral scene that brought with it a relaxing sense of peace… 
         The next day, Wednesday, May 2nd, [other soldiers] and I rode down to Dachau, about 15 miles north of Munich. We had been hearing on our radios horror stories of the Nazi death camps. When we parked our vehicle about 200 feet from the entrance, all appeared peaceful. The fences were high and topped by barbed wire. There were masses of people milling about inside the fence, but still there was an air of quiet. The grounds were neat outside the fence and the sky was a beautiful blue with just a few clouds. As we walked closer, the pastoral beauty was marred by two jarring sights.
         Before us, lying in the ditch, was the battered body of a Nazi S.S. soldier, who had been snatched away from the U.S. troops who were protecting him from the prisoners, and was beaten to death with clubs, rocks, fists! Even though he was lying there nude, one could tell he was not a prisoner, since he was the only one around who had any fat on his body.
         On our left was a railroad siding with a boxcar providing a most gruesome sight. The door was open and countless nude bodies could be seen in the car, some hanging half out of the door, while numerous others were lying on the ground. There [also] were many little children. They, as well as the adults, had all the earmarks of longstanding malnutrition. The expression "skin and bones" applied perfectly.
         Entering the camps we saw thousands of persons, nearly all male, mostly dressed in prison garb with black and white vertical stripes. Most of them appeared to be anemic, showing the profound weight loss associated with starvation. Within moments of entering the gates the crowd of prisoners surrounded us. They caressed our woolen short coats as though to garner some strength or sustenance from the contact.
         As we attempted to move along, one bedraggled fellow looked at me questioningly and asked, "Bist der un yid?" "Are you a Jew?" When I nodded "yes" he was so overjoyed it was impossible to describe. It was as though a spark had ignited a flash fire. In moments I was surrounded by fifty Jews all talking at once and "shushing" each other. They stated that there were 2,000 Jews in the camp and expressed fears they would not be treated equally. I tried my best to reassure them that everyone would be treated well and equally by the American troops.
         The subservient attitude, the deference shown us was both pathetic and embarrassing. As we walked by men doffed their hats, bowed or saluted. Others shouted, "Macht Platz!" ("Make way!") as we walked along. A Polish priest born in Connecticut acted as our guide. He had left for Poland in1932. Then in 1942 he became a prisoner in this camp. Can I ever forget his exuberant "My Gosh, we were happy when the Americans came on Sunday." To hear that Americanism contrasted with his broken English was heartwarming.
         He went on to inform us that the census was 32,000, mostly political prisoners [as well as] some soldiers. Included were Poles, Dutch, Russians, Yugoslavs, Czechs, French and Jews. "Two to three hundred die daily of malnutrition and disease" he said. "There was a flare-up of typhus in January and February. In addition there is much TBC [Tuberculosis]!" Of the original 30,000 prisoners in 1939, there remained only six persons.
         The priest went on to say that 5 million Jews were killed in Poland, that none remain. We couldn't comprehend such numbers. He continued: "Of 2,200 priests of all nationalities, few are alive. All priests but Poles are permitted to use the chapel at Dachau. If a man is found with a rosary, he is forced to kneel in the street and others must spit on him as they pass by."
         In Block 24 we saw fresh inmates from Buchenwald, who differed from the corpses only in the fact that they still moved, groaned and breathed. A little one lay on the floor on a narrow passageway, recently expired. Eight men sleep in a space designed for three. The space from the bottom of a bunk to the top still reminds me of a bakery with barely enough space for each loaf.
         Gangrenous hands and feet bedsores and wounds were all untreated. A horrible sight never to be forgotten! They were used as human guinea pigs. They were inoculated with various diseases and experimental drugs were used. There was a separate compound with 300 Jewesses. There were eleven whores living with the men. The S.S. officers took pleasure in watching them cohabit. The whores were promised freedom but were shot before the S.S.
         On our left as we entered, there was a one story brick building. As we faced it, there were two tall chimneys with dark gray smoke drifting upward. In front of this building was a pit about 25 feet square, 15 feet deep and surrounded by a strong wire fence about 10 feet high. On the wall of the pit, adjacent to the brick building were several small doors. Imbedded in this wall about 8 feet high were several meat hooks such as are seen in packing plants. We were told that in another camp, live prisoners were thrust on the hooks and starving dogs were set loose to devour as much of the prisoners as they could reach!
         Next we walked around the pit described above and entered the "shower" room. It appeared to measure about 30 feet square. It was neatly tiled and the ceiling was low with about 10 or 20 "shower" heads. The floor had a number of drains scattered about. The only oddity was the two doors, made of steel and diagonally opposite each other, constructed to make an airtight closure. The victims were headed into the room, instructed to remove all their clothing, then they were given a piece of soap and a towel. The doors were then closed and the gas was turned on. An observation window allowed the Nazis to watch the death struggles (in the interest of science, perhaps?).
         Our tour next took us to the other side of the building, below the smokestacks. Before us were four giant ovens, one of which had a brisk fire burning. On either side of the ovens were stove rooms containing, on the left, dozens of nude bodies and, on the right, bodies partially clothed (another example of Nazi efficiency?). Again, one saw extreme emaciation and countless sores. The eyes! Those that were open seemed to reflect accusation, an indictment of a world that could overlook such cruelty.
         It is estimated that at least 100,000 persons had been murdered in this camp.
         The priest quoted a recent message from Himmler ordering evacuation of the camp on Monday, April 30th, 1945, with instructions to murder all the prisoners before leaving. The S.S. were busily engaged in following orders by machine gunning the prisoners when the Americans arrived. They showed me a penciled memo purportedly from Himmler that confirmed the priest's statement.
         With some difficulty I tore myself away after giving them a package of cigarettes and taking some pictures. Before leaving, we visited the surgery where there were three well-equipped operating rooms. There were three surgeons-one Pole, one Slav, one Czech and five assistants. The Polish doctor, Myer, told of spending 12 hours in surgery daily.
         Thus ended "A Day in the Country." Although this was 42 years ago, the scenes I have attempted to describe, albeit inadequately, remain burned indelibly in my memory.


images by other photographers

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