Heroes: the Army
"...Some of the prisoners had tried so hard to dig under the dirt, they wore down flesh and bone up to the second joint on their fingers. Some were blown to pieces by the grenades..."
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: 548th AAA AW Btn.,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: PFC
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Sauk Centre, MN
"Witness to the Holocaust"
This article was originally printed in a book titled "Witnesses to the Holocaust", a collection of verbal interviews collected and edited by Rhoda G. Lewin and the University of Minnesota. It is reprinted here with the permission of Edmund Motzko, interviewed as a liberator.
Ed Motsko lives in Sauk Centre, Minnesota - "Main Street, U.S.A." He couldn't find a good job after high school, so he joined the National Guard in June, 1940. He fought with the 102nd Division in Holland, Belgium and Germany. Specifically, he was in the 548AAA.
"We landed on Omaha Beach in September 1944. After the Battle of the Bulge, they transferred us into this outfit of zootsuiters from Detroit. We weren't too anxious about going into combat with them, but overnight they turned from boys into a first-class fighting unit.
If you were captured, the officers told us, torture was one of the big items, but you only gave your name, rank, and serial number. We also saw how the Germans killed our men. We found one of their "souvenirs" alongside the road, where they took the American soldier and put this German Luger in his mouth, killed him, and left the Luger sticking in his mouth. They ambushed four of our trucks, and took the American soldiers in these vehicles and shot 'em in the back.
We opened up this slave labor camp, and they just stood there and looked at us, couldn't believe they were free. Later I was downtown, and a lady came running across the street to me, a German, and says in perfect English, "You can't let those people out of there; they'll kill us!" I says, 'That's tough. These people have suffered, and whatever they need, you have to give it to them. It's their turn now."
After this we're moving up to Gardelegen in April of 1945, and it was the D Battery of the 548th that ran into this atrocity, on Friday the 13th. One commanding officer told us, "There's probably some of you people that can't look at it. You have to see it to believe it, and then after you see it, you still won't believe it!"
It was something I'll never forget, piles of bodies still smoldering and you can imagine the stench. I was selected to guard the eight or ten survivors because we figured the Nazis would try to get somebody in to kill these witnesses.
One survivor was a Hungarian Jew who spoke English. He said he and another fellow got away from the building before the fire. An S.S. trooper's dog sniffed them out and the S.S. shot the other fellow, but this Hungarian laid there pretending to be dead, and then he hid until the Americans arrived.
He told me that this group of 2,000 men had marched 600 miles in about twenty days, with meager food and water rations. Hannover was supposed to be their destination, but the city was taken by the Ninth Army, so the Germans marched the men into this building about twenty-five by forty feet, a big brick barn with a tile roof. It had a dirt floor with about a foot and a half of straw on it. They saturated the straw with gasoline and closed the big doors.
The first attempt at setting it on fire, the prisoners squelched the fire with their human bodies by laying on it. Then the S.S. blew a hole in one end of the building with an antitank weapon and threw in phosphorus grenades and with that the fire took off.
Some of the prisoners had tried so hard to dig under the dirt, they wore down flesh and bone up to the second joint on their fingers. Some were blown to pieces by the grenades - Phosphorus burns added to the horribleness. Whenever phosphorus got on human skin, it just turned green, and continued to burn into the skin until it ran out of oxygen, so there were some pretty horrible burns.
I saw these people charred black from that smoke and fire, and I can recall it as vividly now as then. Some were war prisoners, one American soldier and some Russians, but most had the Star of David on their clothes, their identification. Some seemed to be very young, fourteen and sixteen years old.
I saw this pile of bodies, still smoldering. And sitting there on a cement ledge, charred black, a father and son. They knew they were going to die, so they Just put their arms around each other and that's the way they died. The son must have been sixteen, maybe eighteen.
They buried 500 of these people before I got there, in a bulldozed ditch right back of the barn. They'd put in one tier, cover 'em with dirt, and then start on another tier. The ditch was better than half full already.
To see what they can do to people in other countries is just unbelievable. The Nazis need no sympathy whatsoever.
When it comes to Memorial Day, I think how fortunate I am, to be home when all the fellas that were killed in the war aren't here, so every Memorial Day I march in the parade. People don't appreciate it, this freedom we have here."
Ed Motzko was in Europe with the 102nd last September. He had with him the following photographs, taken in April, 1945. All write-up are those made by Ed on 4/45.
----- Ed Motsko
(Editor's note: Attempts were made throughout the text of the following story to place full names to the men listed in the story. For the most part, this is an educated guess and some names may very well be mistaken in their identy. The names were all taken from the division history book: With The 102d Infantry Division Through Germany, edited by Major Allen H. Mick. Using the text as a guide, associations with specific units were the basis for the name identifications. We are not attempting in any to rewrite the story. Any corrections are gladly welcomed.)
Interested in some background information?
Check out the related links below...
United States Army, 102nd Infantry Division
102 Infantry Division
History of the 102nd Infantry Division
Attack on Linnich, Flossdorf, Rurdorf - 29 Nov -- 4 Dec 1944
Gardelegen War Crime
The above story, "Witness to the Holocaust", was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 52, No. 3, April/June 2000, pp. 4-5.
The story is re-printed here on World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words with the kind permission of the 102d Infantry Division Association, Ms. Hope Emerich, Historian. Our sincerest THANKS for the 102d Infantry Division Association allowing us to share some of their stories.
We would also like to extend our sincere THANKS to Mr. Edward L. Souder, former historian of Co. F., 405th Regiment. His collection of stories of the "Kitchen Histories Project" series entitled, Those Damn Doggies in F, were responsible for bringing the stories of the men of the 102nd Division to the forefront.
Original Story submitted on 19 October 2004.
Story added to website on 22 October 2004.
September 5, 2002.
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Updated on 17 February 2012...1351:05 CST