I Helped Liberate Ohrdruf

BIPPA EA61493 THIS PHOTO SHOWS: A corner of the Ohrdruf prison camp, showing a guard tower in the foreground. Trees were planted in neat even rows outside the (barbed) wire fences. U.S. Signal Corps Photo (ETO-HQ-)45-30888 (SERVICE)D BY LONDON OWI TO LIST B (CERTIF)IED AS PASSED BY SHAEF CENSOR

THIS PHOTO SHOWS: A corner of the Ohrdruf prison camp, showing a guard tower in the foreground. Trees were planted in neat even rows outside the (barbed) wire fences.
U.S. Signal Corps Photo (ETO-HQ-)45-30888

Mansfield, OH resident Don Timmer describes Ohrdruf. His story was first posted in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 22, 2003 but now requires subscription.

Like most veterans, silver-haired Mansfield resident Don Timmer enjoys telling war stories.

Stories about how, as a “goof-off” of 18, he was drafted in 1945 and became a private in the 89th Infantry Division of the Third Army under General George Patton. How he was among the first troops to land directly in (occupied) France; how his company went through France “like a hot knife through butter.”

But what the army private didn’t talk about, except to his family, was the two days he spent in the German town of Ohrdruf and vicinity.

Recently, however, something happened to make Timmer, a Protestant, break his silence. As he describes it, last spring, at a Board of Education meeting in Loudonville, Ohio, a high-school teacher was reviewing her itinerary for the senior class trip to Washington, D.C. Proposed stops included the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the Smithsonian and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

One of the school-board members “flew into a rage,” as Timmer was later told, stating that the Holocaust was grossly exaggerated and that the students shouldn’t be forced to go to the museum and listen to “a fabrication.”

“When I heard what the guy said, it made me go back to my memory” of those April days in 1945, says Timmer, anger rising in his voice. His company, stationed in Gotha, Germany, at the time, was getting ready to penetrate deeper into the country when the call came to move south, instead, to Ohrdruf. There were conflicting reports about a concentration camp there, and the soldiers were to “investigate.”

Timmer remembers it was one of the first nice days of spring as they drove the 10 miles to Ohrdruf. German fighter planes strafed them along the way, but no one was hurt. As they entered the town of Ohrdruf, home to some 20,000 people, “No one came out to greet us.” Less than two miles past town they understood the reason.

“We came up to a 15-foot-high barbed wire fence and could see unmanned wooden shacks (barracks) behind it,” recalls Timmer. “We drove in and between the gate and the barracks were 30 dead … the blood still wet from the departing German guards” who had shot the prisoners before fleeing in trucks.

Seeing the American soldiers, the surviving prisoners who could still walk (about half of the 500 who were there) “cautiously” came out of the barracks.

Timmer, the son of Dutch-born parents, had taken German in high school, and suddenly he was thrust into the role of company interpreter. He would be the first to hear and tell others the tales of unspeakable horror that were already evident in the sights and smells surrounding them.

To hide the evidence of what transpired at Ohrdruf, the guards, he learned, had been trying to dispose of about 2000 bodies, mainly slave laborers. Half had been exhumed from a mass grave, and half had been stacked in several buildings awaiting incineration.

Since Ohrdruf was the first concentration camp to be liberated, “we were ordered to leave the bodies where they lay,” recalls Timmer. “The division commanders would be notified of what had been found and would probably want to see for themselves.”

Meanwhile, the GIs shared their rations with the living and looked around, stunned, at the scene before them. At noon, Timmer continues, the division commanders arrived, and Patton himself came at 3:30. Within half an hour, fearless “Old Blood and Guts,” as Patton was known to his men, was so sickened by what he saw that he “threw up.”

General Eisenhower flew in from Belgium early the next morning to witness the carnage firsthand. “Even Ike looked pale, and he wasn’t a pale guy,” says Timmer. The supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe had brought his own interpreter, so Timmer was temporarily relieved of his duties. “Ike stayed until dark,” Timmer recalls, talking at length to one of the articulate prisoners.

When Eisenhower left, Patton brought the mayor of Ohrdruf and his wife to the camp to see for themselves what they undoubtedly already knew. (When they were off duty, the guards would come into town to “brag, womanize and drink,” notes Timmer, “so how couldn’t townspeople know?”) Then Patton ordered the mayor, his wife and all the other able-bodied townsfolk to come back the next day and dig individual graves for the dead prisoners.

The citizens did as they were told, completing 80% of the burials and promising to come back the following day to finish the job. That night, the mayor and his wife hanged themselves.

Timmer was called upon to translate their suicide note. It said, simply, “We didn’t know! – but we knew.”

8 comments on “I Helped Liberate Ohrdruf
  1. Barbara D. Smith says:

    I wonder if Don Timmer knew my father, Raymond Dudzinski (later shortened to Dawson) who was in Army intelligence reconnaissance. All my life I heard stories of how Dad and a small group of comrades were the first to liberate Ohrdruf one day ahead of Eisenhower’s army. I only stumbled upon this site while writing the eulogy for my dad’s funeral on March 4. Alas, he’s no longer with us to ask.

  2. Rob Weiss says:

    I also wonder if Mr. Timmer knew my father Murray Weiss. He never spoke about it but I heard from older relatives that Pop was among the first to come upon that camp.

  3. Tom Timmons says:

    I recently found out that my father, Kenneth R. Timmons, was also there.
    His account was published in the Piatt County Journal 26 April 1945.

  4. Nancy Early says:

    I wonder if the author or readers knew my wonderful father, John Early, a young officer of the 177th Field Artillery. He also shared with me his stories. He was tall, blond, with gold-rimmed glasses. Thank you all.

  5. Keith Grimm says:

    My wife’s grandfather, Joe Adler, was also there. He shared stories of the liberation. Unfortunately, he passed away several years ago.

  6. Charles M. Armstrong Jr. says:

    My father was in the 282nd FAB that was at Ohrdruf. He took many pictures which I still have. If I can share these pictures with anyone I will. Many Regards Chuck Armstrong son of srgt. Mac Armstrong of the 282nd fab.

  7. mike barton says:

    My uncle Keith Meents was also there! I asked him one time if he had seen any of the camps and he Immediately went back to 1945! He said he was a 19 yr old farm boy from south central Nebraska and never thought anyone could ever do the things that he saw there! The look on his face that morning that we talked about it was a haunted look that that I had never seen before! He was right back there looking at that camp in 1945! God Bless all those who suffered!

  8. Margaret Hoxie Kaplan says:

    My dad, Frank Hoxie, of the 89th Infantry (Rolling W) was with the first group of soldiers there that day. He was 19 at the time. I still have his photos from that day.

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  1. […] After Patton liberated Ohrdruf, the first liberated concentration camp, he brought the mayor and the mayor’s wife to see the camp. After they left, they hanged themselves.. Ref: ohrdruf.simmins.org/wordpress/i-helped-liberate-ohrdruf/ […]

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