Ludwigslust and Wöbbelin: Ray City Boy Describes German Prisoner Camp

Today, May 5, 2016 is  Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day.

One witness to the Holocaust was J. I. Clements, Jr., of Ray City, GA.

J.I.Clements  grew up in Ray City, GA. After graduating with the RCHS class of 1938, he completed two years of college at Norman Junior College, Norman Park, GA. Two days after D-Day, he joined the Army for service in WWII ‘for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law.”   He enlisted  at Fort McPherson, Atlanta, GA on June 8, 1944. Other Ray City men trained at Fort McPherson include Leland E. Langford, St. Elmo Lee, Billy Clements, Charles Otis Ray,  and William Crawford Webb.

J. I. Clements served on the faculty and coached at Georgia Teachers College ,now Georgia Southern University, in 1952.

J. I. Clements served on the faculty and coached at Georgia Teachers College ,now Georgia Southern University, in 1952.

After training, J.I. Clements, Jr. was sent to serve with American forces in the liberation of eastern Europe and  in Germany. By early May of 1945, he was among the Armerican troops detailed to the newly discovered Wöbbelin concentration camp at Ludwigslust, Germany, about 90 miles northwest of Berlin. Clements witnessed first hand the horrific condition of the survivors and the dead at Wöbbelin, and wrote home about what he saw at the  concentration camp on May 7, 1945. Germany surrendered the following day, May 8, 1945.

After the liberation of the Wöbbelin concentration camp, the US Army ordered the local townspeople to bury the corpses of prisoners killed in the camp. This photograph shows troops observing a moment of silence at a mass funeral for victims of the Wöbbelin camp. Germany, May 7, 1945. J. I. Clements, Jr. , of Ray City, GA was among the soldiers present on that day.

Wöbbelin, Germany, May 7, 1945.
American troops observing a moment of silence at a mass funeral for victims of the Wöbbelin concentration camp.  J. I. Clements, Jr. , of Ray City, GA was among the soldiers present at Wöbbelin on that day. After the liberation of the Wöbbelin camp, the US Army ordered the local townspeople to bury the corpses of prisoners killed in the camp. The prisoners of Wöbbelin, approximately 25 percent of whom were Jews, came from Belgium, Holland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, France, the Balkans, and Russia.

Clements’ letter was later published in the Nashville Herald:

The Nashville Herald
June 28, 1945

Ray City Boy Describes German Prisoner Camp

(Editor’s Note: The below article was received this week, written by J.I. Clements Jr., a Ray City boy, now with American forces in Germany. The letter was dated May 7, 1945.)

      Just a few lines about an experience I had today. I got a chance to go and see one of Germany’s Concentration camps located at Luduigslust. The people in America don’t know how to appreciate what they have until they see such as this because I did not while in the states. I did not know that such things could be carried on by any human being, but the Germans aren’t human after this. The Germans are treated like kings in America compared to the way the people were treated here.
       The beds were made of crude logs with barb wire strung across for springs, with a few limbs on top. Inside some of the buildings I found raw Irish potatoes and turnip roots for the people to eat, but that was thrown in before the Americans arrived to try to create an impression. Really they had a bowl of bean soup, two potatoes and a slice of bread per day. At first when the prisoners would die they were thrown over the fence in a pile and buried but were later buried in large pits in stacks of ten to fifteen.            In uncovering some of the graves so as to have services it looked like some had been buried alive because they had their elbows over their faces for protection. The German prisoners were made to dig up the graves and the civilians carried them to town in wagons where the people in town had been made to dig graves for the burial ceremony. They were buried in the parks and on the square to remind the Germans of what they did.
      I later talked with one of the prisoners and was told how they ate the grass that was two feet high, when they were first brought to this camp, for food. Also, of the men that cut meat off their own thigh and fried it so they might have something to eat. I walked into one of the buildings and found men stacked up in a pile and they were nothing but bones with skin over to hold them together.
This was the most horrible thing I have ever seen or hope to see. Well, I will close but hope you have an idea of the things that all of us are seeing over in this uncivilized country.

The Polish underground had made known the existence of Nazi extermination camps as early as 1942. Although the genocide was reported in the New York Times and forcefully denounced by the United Nations, those early accounts were largely ignored by the American public. But in June 1944,  the Russian army discovered the Majdanek concentration camp at Lublin, Poland abandoned by retreating Germans. In the following weeks, Soviet troops liberated the abandoned extermination camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered as part of the “final solution”.  The liberation of more “horror camps” followed.  In January 1945, the Russians liberated Auschwitz.  The first concentration camp encountered by U.S. troops was Ohrdruf, liberated in April, 1945.  As the Nazis were forced to retreat from these camps, they attempted to destroy the evidence of their existence and purpose. Prisoners from the abandoned concentration camps were forced on death marches deeper into German-held territory to prevent their liberation by the Allies. Those who were too ill to move were executed; thousands more died on the death marches. The Nazis attempted to burn the bodies they left behind, and to burn the camps themselves.  Incredibly, documenting the extent of “the many camps, ghettos, and other sites of detention, persecution, forced labor, and murder the Nazis and their allies ran” continues to this day, the number of such places exceeding a staggering count of more than 42,000 cataloged sites.

According to the US Holocaust Museum, the Wöbbelin camp J.I. Clements visited “was a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp. The SS had established Wöbbelin in early February 1945 to house concentration camp prisoners whom the SS had evacuated from other camps to prevent their liberation by the Allies. At its height, Wöbbelin held some 5,000 inmates, many of whom were suffering from starvation and disease…When the Allied units arrived there, they found about 1,000 inmates dead in the camp. ”

German civilians from Ludwigslust file past the corpses and graves of 200 prisoners from the nearby concentration camp of Wöbbelin. Image source: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

German civilians were forced by the American commanders to gather the dead from the Wöbbelin concentration camp and bring them to nearby Ludwigslust for burial on the palace grounds of the Archduke of Mecklenburg (now known as Schloss Ludwigslust). In this photo, the residents of Ludwiglust file past the corpses and graves of 200 prisoners from Wöbbelin prior to the burial ceremony conducted by U.S. Army chaplains. Image source: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The notes of the U.S. Signal Corps, which documented, photographed, and filmed the conditions at Wöbbelin, provide the following description:

NEW NAZI HORROR CAMP DISCOVERED.

One of the worst Nazi concentration camps uncovered by Allied troops was liberated at Wobbelin, Germany, a small town five miles north of Ludwigslust and 90 miles northwest of Berlin. Soldiers of three Allied units — the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division, the Eighth Infantry Division of the Ninth U.S. Army and airborne troops of the Second British Army — entered the camp and found sick, starving inmates barely surviving under indescribable conditions of filth and squalor. They found hundreds of dead prisoners in one of the buildings while outside, in a yard, hundreds more were found hastily buried in huge pits. One mass grave contained 300 emaciated, disfigured corpses. The dead included Poles, Russians, Frenchmen, Belgians, Dutchmen and Germans, all of whom had been working as slave laborers for the Nazis. It is estimated that at least 150 of the original 4,000 prisoners succumbed daily, mostly from starvation and savage treatment at the hands of Nazi SS troops who operated the camp. Some of the bodies found were burned almost beyond recognition and systematic torture of the inmates was revealed by the physical condition of most of the survivors. Military Government officers immediately ordered leading citizens of nearby Ludwigslust and other towns to march through the camp and witness the atrocities committed by representatives of the German Government. Most of the civilians disclaimed any knowledge of the camp’s existence despite the fact that many of the prisoners worked in the area. The local residents later were made to exhume the bodies from the mass graves at the camp and provide decent, respectable interment of all dead prisoners. Two hundred were buried in the public square of Ludwigslust May 7, 1945, and an equal number were buried in the garden of the highest Nazi official of Hagenow. Eighty more were laid to rest in the town of Schwerin.

BIPPA EA 66641

THIS PHOTO SHOWS: German soldiers stand bareheaded at the graves of these victims of German cruelty. In the background, soldiers of the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division witness the burial proceedings at Ludwigslust. U.S. Signal Corps Photo ETC-H-45-46088. SERVICED BY LONDON OWI TO LIST B CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY SHAEF CENSOR

THIS PHOTO SHOWS: German soldiers stand bareheaded at the graves of these victims of German cruelty. In the background, soldiers of the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division witness the burial proceedings at Ludwigslust. U.S. Signal Corps Photo ETC-H-45-46088 [and caption].
SERVICED BY LONDON OWI TO LIST B
CERTIFIED AS PASSED BY SHAEF CENSOR

On May 7, 1945,  the date J.I. Clements, Jr wrote his letter from Ludwigslust, a memorial service was held by the Americans. Chaplain Major George B. Woods of the 82nd Airborne Division, spoke to the assembled townspeople. Standing beside the two hundred grave-sites, the GIs, the German officers and civilians, Major Woods gave this eulogy:

We are assembled here today before God and in sight of man to give proper and reverent burial to the victims of atrocities committed by armed forces in the name of and by order of the German Government. These 200 bodies were found by the American army in a concentration camp 4 miles north of the city of Ludwigslust.

The crimes here committed in the name of the German people and by their acquiescence were minor compared to those to be found in concentration camps elsewhere in Germany. Here there were no gas chambers, no crematoria; these men of Holland, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France were simply allowed to starve to death. Within four miles of your comfortable homes 4,000 men were forced to live like animals, deprived even of the food you would give to your dogs. In three weeks 1,000 of these men were starved to death; 800 of them were buried in pits in the nearby woods. These 200 who lie before us in these graves were found piled four and five feet high in one building and lying with the sick and dying in other buildings.

The world has long been horrified at the crimes of the German nation: these crimes were never clearly brought to light until the armies of the United Nations overran Germany. This is not war conducted by the international rules of warfare. This is murder such as is not even known among savages.

Though you claim no knowledge of these acts, you are still individually and collectively responsible for these atrocities, for they were committed by a government elected to office by yourselves in 1933 and continued in office by your indifference to organized brutality. It should be the first resolve of the German people that never again should any leader or party bring them such moral degradation as is exhibited here.

It is the custom of the United States Army through its Chaplain’s Corps to insure a proper and decent burial to any deceased person whether he be civilian, or soldier, friend, or foe, according to religious preference. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces has ordered that all atrocity victims be buried in a public place, and that the cemetery be given the same perpetual care that is given to all military cemeteries. Crosses will be placed at the heads of the graves; a stone monument will be set up in memory of these deceased. Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish prayers will be said by Chaplains Wood, Hannan and Wall of the 82nd Airborne Division for these victims as we lay them to rest and commit the into the hands of our Heavenly Father in the hope that the world will not again be faced with such barbarity.

holocaust-graves-at-Schwerin

Under orders from officers of the US 8th Infantry division, German civilians from Schwerin attend funeral services for 80 prisoners killed at the Wöbbelin concentration camp. The townspeople were ordered to bury the prisoners’ corpses in the town square. Germany, May 8, 1945.  U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Epilogue

In 2001 WWII veteran Manny Steinfeld, who participated in the liberation of Wöbbelin, went back to Germany to film a documentary.

“He returned to Ludwigslust, but found almost no trace of the Wobbelin cemetery.

Over the years, some of the wooden markers had rotted away, while the local population had used other markers to aid them during a fuel shortage.

Steinfeld approached local authorities for an explanation. They informed him that communism had taken its toll on the cemetery, the grounds of which were located in East Germany until the reunification of the country in 1992. The only noticeable remnant of the cemetery, according to Steinfeld, was a small sign stating that 200 victims of fascism were buried there, which made no distinction between the Jewish and non-Jewish victims.

Appalled, Steinfeld offered to put up more than half the funds to rededicate and recreate the cemetery for the victims. The United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and veterans from the 82nd Division paid additional funds to make the refurbished cemetery possible. This time, the grave markers were made thicker and heavier 120 pounds each preventing neo-Nazis and skinheads from harming them.

More than 1,000 people attended the rededication ceremony in front of the Ludwigslust castle. They included the following: officials from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, and the American Consulate General in Hamburg in addition to local Ludwigslust citizens, plus 100 Holocaust survivors.
JUF News

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