Investigating Nazi Concentration Camps

Benjamin B. Ferencz

Nazi camps were identified by the name of their location and the nature of their mission. Official correspondence was filed under a code that identified both the town and function. Some were work camps (Arbeitslager), some were general concentration camps (KZs or Konzentrationslager). To make sure there was no mistaking their function, some were clearly labeled “Extermination Camps” (Vernichtungslager). Orders to all camps came from the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin.

It must have been around April 1944 when Third Army HQ War Crimes Section received a report that a tank battalion had stumbled upon a scene of horror. It was in a small town called Ohrdruf. Hundreds of dead bodies, naked or clad only in tattered rags that looked like pajamas, had been found in a large area encircled by barbed wire. Many others seemed to be on the verge of starvation or death. I hopped into my jeep and raced to the scene. Signal Corps photographers were already there. A medical unit was administering first aid. I collected photographic evidence from the signal corps and continued to search for more proof of what had happened. Very few of the survivors were in condition to report coherently. The SS guards had fled before the advancing American army. I learned that Ohrdruf was only one of many Nazi slave labor camps in the area that were controlled by the main camp at Buchenwald. I took off for Buchenwald, near Weimar.

The Buchenwald concentration camp was a charnel house of indescribable horrors. General Eisenhower himself had shown up to view the incredible scene of death and inhumanity deliberately imposed by the Nazis on helpless civilians. He noted that American soldiers could now see why they had to leave home to fight in Germany. These scenes have been adequately depicted in media reports and histories, and do not need painful repeating here. There is no doubt that I was indelibly traumatized by my experiences as a war crimes investigator of Nazi extermination centers. I still try not to talk or think about the details.

I went on to investigate many concentration camps, and they were all basically similar: dead bodies strewn across the camp grounds, piles of skin and bones cadavers piled up like cordwood before the burning crematoria, helpless skeletons with diarrhea, dysentery, typhus, TB, pneumonia, and other ailments, retching in their louse ridden bunks or on the ground with only their pathetic eyes pleading for help. Few had enough strength to muster a smile of gratitude. My mind would not accept what my eyes saw. It built a protective barrier to enable me to go on with my work in what seemed an incredible nightmare. I had peered into Hell.

My first target on entering a Concentration Camp was always to secure the records of the camp. In the “Schreibstube,” the camp office, I located the “Totenbucher,” the death registries recording the names of inmates who had perished in the camp. After each name, a date and cause of death was given. The reasons stated were obviously fictitious. There would be pages listing the same excuses: typhoid, or the popular “auf den flucht erschosssen”—shot while trying to escape. The most accurate English translation of the causes of death would have been just plain “murdered.”

Correspondence between Berlin and the KZ auxiliary camps showed how many prisoners had arrived on which transports, from which countries, where they had been re-routed for labor, and how many had been returned to Buchenwald or Auschwitz to be “eliminated” when they were no longer fit for work. There was plenty of evidence available to prove beyond doubt that atrocious war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed in the camp. Lamp shades made of human skin, to please the SS Commandant’s wife, Ilsa Koch (later tried and convicted as “The Bitch of Buchenwald”), was only a sample. I took back with me two small black shrunken heads with full manes of human hair still on the scalp. The press, of course, widely distributed the photos, reporting that they had been prisoners in Buchenwald, whose shrunken heads were kept by SS officers as ornaments. Proof that crimes had occurred was only the beginning of my task. To prosecute the offenders, you must know the identity of the perpetrator and he must also be in custody. There must be a court competent to try the accused. Until all of these vital components are in place, you cannot have justice. All you have is endless rage and sorrow.

One of the inmates who worked in the Schreibstube at Buchenwald, approached me soon after I entered the camp. I believe he was a French national who had fought in the Spanish civil war. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said. He then led me to a spot near the electrified fence that surrounded the KZ. He dug up a small wooden box, which he handed to me. The SS men in the camp had formed a club where they could come and drink their beer and frolic. Each had a membership folder showing his photo, date of birth, home address, and similar personal particulars. Every attendance at the club was marked by placing a stamp on the back page. When the folder was filled, a replacement had to be issued. My anonymous inmate friend had to prepare the new identity document. Instead of destroying the old ones, as directed, he secretly hid each one. He must have known that every time he did so he was risking his life. His “gift” to me was priceless evidence in identifying perpetrators and accomplices. His outstanding courage marked the faith, shared by many other suffering victims, that there would one day be a day of reckoning when justice would be done.

On my way to the next liberated camp, I met some advance units of the Red Army that had occupied a German house. Soviet troops were closing in on Weimar in Eastern Germany. I was immediately embraced and pushed into a celebration already in progress. A glass of what I suppose was Vodka, or gasoline, was thrust into my hand. Everyone was stomping and dancing joyfully. A burly Soviet soldier, with pants stuffed into big black boots, grabbed me, lifted me off my feet and started swinging me around the room. It was only when I was put down that I realized that my dancing partner was a woman. The Soviet Army included females as well as males, but it was sometimes hard to tell which was which. One of the Russian soldiers asked me what I did in the American army. I told him I was a war crimes investigator. I explained that I tried to get evidence of what the SS did. “Don’t you know what they did?” he asked. I said that, of course, I did. “So why are you asking them?” he said quizzically. “Just shoot them!” In later years, when it became clear that we could never try more than a very small sampling of the criminals, and that almost all would escape punishment, I often thought of the advice I got from the simple Russian soldier. Being a lawman, I couldn’t accept it, but I often wondered if he was right.

German resistance was now crumbing. The British were moving down from the North, the Americans from the West, and the Soviets from the East. Patton’s forces swept South to Bavaria and set up Headquarters in Munich. I was running back and forth from the field to deliver my reports to the JAG office; and would then rush off toward other concentration camps that were being liberated. From time to time, I would follow a trail of inmates’ bodies in the woods—those who had been hounded out of the camps and killed along the way when they could not keep up with the forced escape march. On May 1, 1945, I found myself witnessing a celebration in a Nazi concentration camp. I think it was at Flossenberg near the Czech border. A big wooden tribune had been erected in the center, with painted portraits of Truman, Churchill, and Stalin. The liberated inmates were all lined up in national groups to march in a traditional May Day parade. There were Czech flags and Polish flags and Russian flags and French flags, but I noticed one particularly emaciated group assembling without any flag. I asked one of the inmates who they were. “Oh,” he said, “those are the Jews.” Jewish inmates, who had no national flag, were segregated out—even in liberated concentration camps.

The camp at Mauthausen in Austria was particularly brutal. Slave laborers were being worked to death in a large quarry. Those who could no longer carry the heavy stones were simply thrown over the cliff onto the rocks below, where piles of human bones were drying in the sun. Disease was so rampant that it was always dangerous for me to spend a night in a camp. I drove to nearby Linz, a beautiful city on the Danube. I found an apartment that I learned was inhabited by a Nazi family and ordered the occupants to get out. I moved in with a few buddies. The dresser drawers still concealed old Nazi flags and song books. A portrait of Adolf Hitler adorned the walls—but not for long.

The next morning, before returning to the camp, I emptied all of the clothing in the closets of our now partly demolished apartment and put them in my jeep to deliver them to near-naked Mauthausen inmates. That evening a young woman who had been the previous tenant came knocking at the door. She wanted to know if she could take out some of her clothing. I said “Help yourself!” When she looked at the empty closet she began to howl in German, “All of my clothing has been stolen! My clothing has been stolen!” I was in no mood to be called a thief by any German. I told her she could go with me and we could get her clothing back. I grabbed her by the wrist and half dragged her down to my jeep. I told her that I had taken her clothing to Mauthausen and distributed them to ragged and starving females who worked in that death camp. She could come with me and ask them to give her back her clothes. Her howls were even louder than before. I said I would only release her if she told me that her clothing was her gift to the camp survivors. It didn’t take her long to agree that it was a gift and not a theft. With a brusk word of thanks, I drove off to another camp.

In another nearby camp at Ebensee, slaves were used to dig large chambers out of the granite mountain as underground workshops for the aircraft industry. I directed a group of passing Germans to help bury the bodies of inmates strewn along the campgrounds. There, some inmates caught one of the SS guards as he was trying to flee—judging by the violence of the assault, he may have been the camp commandant. First he was beaten mercilessly. Then the mob tied him to one of the metal trays used to slide bodies into the crematorium. There he was slowly roasted alive, taking him in and out of the oven several times. I watched it happen and did nothing. It was not my duty to stop it, even if I could have, and frankly, I was not inclined to try. There seemed to be no limit to human brutality in wartime. I headed back to Munich to write my reports. They would serve as the basis for later war crimes prosecutions. I was grateful that the war was coming to an end. I learned that there never has been, and never will be, a war without atrocities. The only way to prevent such cruel crimes was to prevent war itself.