In November of 1944, the Nazis opened the Konzentrationslagern code-named SIII in the town of Ohrdruf near Gotha in central Germany. Prisoners were brought to Ohrdruf from Buchenwald to dig tunnels into the side of a nearby mountain called Jonestal. They also worked on a communications bunker at the Muehlberg Castle.
Ohrdruf was a city with a musical history. Johann Sebastian Bach had lived there in his youth, where he attended the Lyceum.
Ohrdruf was a work camp, and had no extermination facilities or ovens like the larger camps at Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Prisoners who died working in the mines, or at the hands of the SS guards, were buried in a large pit near the camp. Like all concentration camps, Ohrdruf was a horror camp full of disease, starvation, cruelty and death.
In the spring of 1945, American soldiers moved into the area. The Nazis feared that the camp would be overrun by the U.S. Third Army, and marched the prisoners to Buchenwald, nearly 50 miles away. They left behind victims who were too sick to move, guarded by a handful of SS and Polish kapos. In the chaos, many of the prisoners escaped from the march and hid in the woods near the camp.
On the morning of April 4, a reconnaissance platoon of the 89th Division, scouting for the advancing 4th Armored Division, came upon the camp. Ohrdruf was the first camp liberated by the Allies.
Prisoners were forced to exhume the decomposed bodies of their former comrades and cremate them on a makeshift grid of railroad rails set up near the pit. With the American armor only a few hours away, the SS guards had abandoned this project in a grisly state of half-completion, machine-gunned those prisoners too ill to walk in the courtyard of the concentration compound, and had fled.
In 16 Photographs At Ohrdruf, Pfc. Ralph Rush of the 89th Division, who was in the platoon that found the camp, recalls his emotions:
We couldn't believe man's inhumanity to man. It just shocked us, literally shocked us to the point we couldn't believe what we saw.
General Eisenhower immediately recognized the importance of what they had found. He ordered all available troops to visit the camp, and sent the Signal Corps to the scene to film and photograph what had been found. On April 11, Eisenhower visited the camp himself, and brought with him his highest ranking generals, including Bradley and Patton. This visit was filmed and made into a number of newsreels. One of the most infamous is the propaganda film Nazi Murder Mills.
In a story widely told among the troops, General Patton was so horrified at what he saw that he vomited.
General Eisenhower wrote later of his visit to Ohrdruf:
The things I saw beggar description... the visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering... I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.
These words are now engraved on the wall outside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
On April 11, American soldiers uncovered more camps at Dora-Mittelbau and Buchenwald. These were much more horrible than anything the men had seen, and quickly the story of Ohrdruf was lost as even greater atrocities were found. For one week the name of Ohrdruf was on everyone's lips, and then it was forgotten as the soldiers saw more and more camps, uncovering the large Dachau and Mauthausen camps in the next few weeks.
16 Photographs At Ohrdruf is the story of a grandson of one of these soldiers, trying to understand what happened at Ohrdruf in those first days of liberation. His investigation leads him to dig up the history of this forgotten moment, and to collect the stories of the men who liberated the first concentration camp. 16 Photographs At Ohrdruf begins with the pictures taken at this liberation, but ends up asking tough questions about the man who took the pictures and those who were standing along side him in April, 1945.
Image 1: Jonastal image courtesy of Stiftung Gedenkstatten Buchenwald und Mittelbau-Dora Images 2-4: Ohrdruf images courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Image 5: 89th Infantry Division, 355th Regiment, I&R Platoon courtesy of Ralph Rush