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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Yehuda Kahana

It was the first concentration camp liberated by the United States Army, and that first glimpse into the “Kingdom of Night” caused future US President Dwight D. Eisenhower to comment, “The things I saw beggar description.” Yet today the history of the Ohrdruf concentration camp has been overshadowed by that of larger and more famous camps — so much so that some Jews don’t know that this is where their relatives perished. Eliyahu Travitz tells the story of his own journey of discovery.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

out of site out of mindThe sight that confronted the “liberator of Europe,” General Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with his companions, General George Patton and a group of military journalists and photographers, on the April 12, 1945 was frightening to the extreme. This was the first official visit of its type, a visit to the first death camp liberated by the United States Army — a camp named Ohrdruf. It was an encounter with a reality completely detached from all the rules of warfare: corpses in advanced stages of decay, some of them covered with lime to hide the stench, as well as emaciated prisoners dressed in rags.

After an extended tour of the place, a deep silence reigned. That silence continued after the war, when the area became a closed military zone. And so while larger camps located on German soil such as Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and the like became well-known and documented, the tragic history of Ohrdruf faded from view. Only a few were aware that Jews had been deported to the camp for forced labor and that thousands had been murdered there.

Concentration camps were established in Germany as soon as Hitler yemach shmo came to power in 1933, with the first camp being the one at Dachau. The camps were originally intended for the incarceration of political prisoners and social groups deemed undesirable, such as criminals and the homeless. Soon, however, the Nazi regime was expanding its list of undesirables, with Jews heading the list, and operating several types of concentration camps: transit camps, prison camps, slave labor camps, and extermination camps. Sometimes the same camps served a number of purposes, and some camps’ function changed over the course of time.

Historians estimate that 10 million people, Jews and non-Jews, died in the German concentration and labor camps. One of those people was the father of Reb Eliyahu Travitz, owner of Hanamal Packaging and Marketing. This past summer, Travitz traveled to Buchenwald, where he believed his father had perished along with tens of thousands of his Jewish brethren. But when he got there he discovered that his father had not been in Buchenwald at all. Rather, he had perished in Ohrdruf.

What was Ohrdruf, and why had he never known about this before? Even the staff at Yad Vashem was surprised when he revealed to them his findings.


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