My father never said one word about Gardelegen and the atrocity he witnessed there. Some secrets are taken to the grave and lost forever, but this one is hidden no longer.
My parents’ photo albums included carefully labelled pictures from my father’s army years. Two had no identification at all and when I saw them, they took my breath away: photos of corpses lined up on a field and piled up in front of a building, a corner of which was visible. My parents had never said one word about having these photos. Shuddering, I put them away for a time when I would be able to research them properly.
Despite having a draft deferment due to poor eyesight, my father Isadore J. Goldstein enlisted in the Army reserves in September 1942 and was called up in March 1943. He was sent to radio repair school in Philadelphia and assigned to the Headquarters Company of the US Army 65th Signal Battalion, a combat support and communications organization, where he repaired radios. After training in Fort Lewis, Washington and Camp Bowie, Texas, they shipped out from New York on the SS Esperance Bay on October 14, 1944. It was six months after D-Day, a time when US troop ships were still being sunk in the Atlantic. Luckily, they landed safely in Liverpool nine days later and on December 29, in Rouen, France.
When we were kids, we often asked my dad to “tell us about the war.” He obliged with cheery stories about his pet dachshund, Vodka, his best buddy Marv Lerner, how he volunteered to interpret in German, how he took in ironing for 25 cents a shirt, how the Southern soldiers in his battalion had never seen a Jew before and didn’t speak English well. Once I asked if he had ever run into any survivors after the war. He said he and a buddy had seen some standing on a corner and asked if they needed anything; the men said, “blankets.” So, they drove to a warehouse and got blankets for the survivors. That was as dark as his stories ever got.
But he never said anything about Gardelegen and the atrocity he witnessed there.
In early 2018, I was ready to investigate the terrible photos I’d found in the album. As it turned out, it took only a few days to solve the mystery and to fill in some details of my father’s war-time experience.
I submitted a request form to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 24, coincidentally the day of my parents’ wedding anniversary:
I have two photos of rows of mostly naked corpses, with no identifying information, which were in the possession of my late father (Isadore J. Goldstein) and presumably photographed by him. He had been in the US Army 65th Signal Battalion during WWII and in late 1945 was stationed near Stuttgart…I am trying to determine where the photos were taken…I also wonder whether, if I sent you copies, they might be identifiable to you at all…
A Google search on the 65th Signal Battalion revealed the existence of a typewritten manuscript prepared for the US Army Military History Institute by a Spencer T. Coffey, in 2011. Coffey’s uncle, PFC Diamond Ford Spencer, had been killed in an attack in Colmar, France. Late in his life my father related that he had been on guard in Colmar, Alsace-Lorraine with a guy named Roller who had just shown him a photo of his wife and new baby. They came under heavy attack from a railroad gun; suddenly they both felt something coming; Roller was hit and died. Until hearing this story, I had never had the sense that my father’s life had ever been in jeopardy during the war.
Before I even had a chance to write to the US Army Military History Institute, on May 4 I heard from the USHMM, and it turned out they also knew about this manuscript:
As requested, I sent scans of the photos to Nancy Hartman.
The following day I contacted the United States Army Heritage & Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and asked if and how I could borrow the book on the 65th Signal Battalion. On Monday, May 7, 2018 I heard from the very cheerful, personable and helpful Lori Wheeler:
Hello! My name is Lori Wheeler and I work in the copy center here at the United States Army Heritage & Education Center. Your request was forwarded to me by Mr. Stephen Bye–one of the great guys in our reference section. He has found the “book” of which you were speaking. However, it is not a book, but a typewritten manuscript. I have a copy of it here, but we are not able to loan these items out. I can make copies for you…Please let me know what you would like and I can work on getting the information to you…
I hope that you have a wonderful week.
All the best,
Lori Wheeler, Operations Clerk
Before I could even respond, Lori wrote again:
First of all, I apologize for calling you Sir on the original email. Yesterday was a very long day for me (woke up to a bathroom flooding at 4 am–never the start of a good day).
…The beginning of the manuscript is excerpts or direct quotes from the soldiers and it tells the story of where they were. That part is about 30 pages and is very interesting to read the soldiers accounts in their own words. There is also a page of where the unit was during certain dates. I have scanned this page and the information on the back of this page…
I hope that this helps. This document has a lot in it about the loss of the 13 soldiers in Colmar, France. Not sure if you have any information on that in your research. Please let me know if you would like anything or more information.
All the best,
As promised, Lori sent me that page, which was the Battalion’s service record and showed everywhere my father had been stationed from 1943 when he was called up until his separation from the army in 1946. This document was a real treasure, because it definitively placed my father’s battalion and company in the general area where the photos were taken.
The very next day, to my surprise, Nancy Hartman at USHMM, identified the location:
Thank you for sending the scans. I am fairly certain that these photographs were taken at Gardelegen, Germany. The site was not a camp, but a barn on the route of a death march from Dora Mittelbau, toward the town of Gardelegen. The story (contained in the records that I will send you) is really horrific, which may well explain why your father never spoke of it…I hope that you are able to find a copy of the book we discussed…
With kind regards,
The links she sent to photos held by the USHMM showed the same building that was in one of my father’s photos, so there is no question that his photos were from Gardelegen. The mystery was solved.
I learned that on April 14, 1945, the day after the atrocity, the 65th Signal Battalion was sent to take photographs of it. Based on my father’s Service Locations document, it looks like the Battalion was sent north from Ochsenfurt, headed up to Gardelegen and then headed south again toward Rothenburg. Gardelegen itself is not listed; likely it was not a location where they stayed overnight or for any great length of time, just long enough to take the photographs. My father himself probably did not take these photographs, others in his battalion had that job.
I arranged with Lori to pay for the 30 pages that interested me and gave her information that I had learned from the USHMM:
I heard back from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, they identified the location where the photos were taken and given the dates, locations and the photos I have, I believe they are correct. It was a barn near Gardelegen, north of Leipzig. On April 13, 1945 over a thousand POW’s and slave laborers were packed into the barn and burned to death. A day later the US Army arrived; it was still smoldering. Local people had helped with the massacre, so they were made to dig up those who had been buried in mass graves and along with those who had not yet been hidden in mass graves, they buried them individually. A memorial marker was put up.
Lori was not only helpful, but empathetic:
It is so difficult for me to believe that one human being could be so cruel to another. I hate to see an animal killed along the road. These things need to be remembered and taught so that this never ever happens again…
All the best,
It took 73 years, the good offices of the US Army Heritage and Education Center and the extraordinary resources of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to restore the photos from oblivion and to acknowledge the unfortunate victims. They were treated like expendable garbage and deserved much better. The US Army gave them decent burials, erected a monument and documented the incident. My father was a silent witness to the atrocity; now we can give voice to the lives and deaths of those who suffered and died at Gardelegen.
WHENEVER YOU FEEL APATHY OR WEAKNESS IN FIGHTING AGAINST FASCISM AND IMPERIALISTIC THREAT OF WAR, GET NEW POWER FROM OUR UNFORGETTABLE DEAD.” (From the sign erected in the barn by the former German Democratic Republic).