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In His Father's Footsteps

Chapter 1

On April 6, 1945, the Nazis began evacuating Buchenwald concentration camp, on the Ettersberg Mountain, near Weimar, Germany. The camp had been in operation for eight years, since 1937, and two hundred and thirty-­eight thousand prisoners, men, women, and children, had passed through the camp by then. Fifty-­six thousand prisoners had died there: Czechs, Poles, French, Germans.

On the sixth of April, U.S. troops had been in the area for two days, and the Nazis wanted all the prisoners out of the camp before the Allied forces arrived. It was a labor camp, with a crematorium, a medical facility where horrific medical experiments were conducted, and horse barracks to house the prisoners. Stables which had once held up to eighty horses were lived in by twelve hundred men, five to a bunk. There were additional buildings for the men. And a single barracks for the women, which could accommodate up to a thousand female inmates.

On the sixth of April, most of the women prisoners were sent to Theresienstadt, once considered a model camp, used as a showplace for visitors and the Red Cross. The women who were mobile enough to go were moved by train or on foot. Those who weren’t remained in the barracks, ignored at the end. As many male prisoners as could be handled were evacuated too. They were to be moved deeper into Germany, or sent to other camps farther away. The evacuation continued for two days, as the prisoners wondered what would happen next.

On April 8, Gwidon Damazyn, a Polish engineer who had been at the camp for four years, used the hidden shortwave transmitter he had built, and sent a message in Morse code in German and English. “To the Allies. To the army of General Patton. This is the Buchenwald concentration camp. SOS. We request help. They want to evacuate us. The SS wants to destroy us.” Working with Damazyn, Konstantin Leo­nov sent the same Morse code message in Russian.

Three minutes later, they received a response. “Kz Bu. Hold out. Rushing to your aid. Staff of Third Army.”

As soon as the message was received, Russian inmates stormed the watchtowers with weapons they had hidden and killed the guards. The others in charge rapidly retreated and fled rather than face the advancing U.S. Army. There were twenty-­one thousand prisoners left in the camp after the evacuation, only a few hundred of them women.

Three days later, on April 11, 1945, troops from the U.S. Ninth Armored Infantry Battalion, from the Sixth Armored Division, part of the U.S. Third Army, entered Buchenwald. It was the first concentration camp to be liberated by American forces. Other camps had already been liberated by Russian forces advancing through Poland.

Later in the day, the U.S. Eighty-­Third Infantry Division arrived at the camp. None of the U.S. soldiers were prepared for what they found there, walking skeletons staring at them, some too weak to move or stand, others cheering and shouting as tears ran down their cheeks. Their liberators cried too. The prisoners attempted to lift them to their shoulders but were too weak. Several died as the Allies rolled into the camp, or minutes later. Starvation and the illnesses resulting from it, as well as the Nazis, had been their enemy for years.

The American soldiers entered the barracks and were horrified by what they found, the stench and the filth, the decaying bodies too weak to leave their beds, the people the retreating Germans had intended to kill, but hadn’t had time to.

As the soldiers entered the main barracks, a tall, ghoulishly skeletal man staggered toward them waving his arms. His head had been shaved, the filthy camp uniform he wore was torn, which showed his ribs. He looked like a corpse and it was impossible to determine his age. He was desperate as he approached them.

“The women . . . where are the women . . . are they all gone?” he asked.

“We don’t know yet. We haven’t found them. We just got here. Where are they?”

The man pointed in the direction of another barracks and started to stumble toward it.

“Hang on,” a young sergeant put out a hand to stop him, and then caught the man as he began to fall. “How long since you’ve had food or water?”

“Five days.”

The sergeant gave an order to two of his men standing near him and they hurried off to comply. The mayor of nearby Langenstein was to be commanded to supply food and water to the camp immediately. Another officer had already radioed for medical personnel. Every single member of the camp looked like the walking dead. “I’ll take you to the women’s barracks,” the newly liberated prisoner volunteered although he could barely stand up. Two soldiers helped him into a jeep. He was almost weightless as they lifted him. They tried not to react to the stench. His boots had the toes cut out and the soles were worn through. They were from the body of a dead man, killed by the Nazis. He directed them toward the women’s barracks, and when they got there, the women looked even worse than the men. Some women were being carried by others, and as many of them as could were coming out of the building to watch the American troops explore the camp. They had no idea what to expect now, but they knew it could be no worse than what they had lived through so far. Some had been transferred from other camps, all had been assigned to hard labor, and several had undergone unimaginable medical experiments. Many of them had died.

The prisoner directing the soldiers in the jeep introduced himself before they stopped at the women’s barracks.

“I’m Jakob Stein,” he said in fluent English, with a heavy German accent. “I’m Austrian. I’ve been here for five years.” They stopped at the women’s barracks then and one of the soldiers lifted him out of the jeep so he wouldn’t fall. He hobbled toward two of the women and spoke to them in German. “Emmanuelle?” he asked with a look of panic as the soldiers stared at the women in horror. They were ravaged and barely alive. “Is she gone?” Jakob asked with a grimace of terror on his gaunt face. The soldiers wondered if she was his wife but didn’t ask. They tried to smile at the women walking toward them so as not to frighten them.

“She’s inside,” one woman with blue-­gray lips said hoarsely, pulling the shreds of an old blanket around her. They were more filthy strings than anything that could keep her warm, and her eyes blazed with fever. She was shaking and stumbled into the arms of a soldier who lifted her into the jeep.

“We have medics coming,” the private told her, “doctors.” She looked terrified as he said it and shrank away from him. They had no way of knowing what she’d been through, but a festering open wound that ran down the length of her leg was part of it. By then, Jakob had hobbled into the women’s barracks, as the officer driving the jeep radioed for medical assistance for several hundred females and described where they were.

It was a long time before Jakob emerged carrying a woman who looked close to death. He stumbled several times but didn’t drop her. She was barely larger than a child and couldn’t have weighed more than fifty or sixty pounds. One of the soldiers took her from Jakob and set her down in the jeep. She tried to smile, but was too weak.

“I thought they sent you away,” Jakob said with tears in his eyes. He spoke to her in French.

“They didn’t see me in my bed. There are less than half of us left.” It was easy to see that she would have died on the march to Moravia or been crushed on the train.

“The Americans are here now,” he said in a comforting voice, and she nodded and closed her eyes. “Everything is going to be all right.” She opened her huge green eyes and looked at him and then at the soldiers and smiled. They could see the tattoo with her camp number on the inside of her naked forearm. Jakob had one on his arm too. They all did. They were numbers here, not people. No one in the camp had been considered human. They were to be eradicated. Jakob and Emmanuelle were both Jews. She was French and had been deported from Paris with her mother and younger sister. Her little sister had been killed when they arrived at the camp and her mother had died of illness a few months later. Other women had watched their families and children murdered. They were only kept alive if they were strong enough to work. Emmanuelle’s hands were filthy, her nails broken stubs with dirt under them. She had worked in the gardens, and had given Jakob pieces of potatoes and turnips from time to time when she met him. She could have been killed for it.

“I want to take these two women to get medical help,” the soldier next to Jakob said, “you too. We’ve got trucks coming for the others, they’ll be here in a few minutes. Our medics will take care of them. Will you tell them that? The Nazis are gone. No one is going to hurt them now.” Jakob translated what he’d said in French to Emmanuelle, then German, and Russian, which he appeared to speak fluently as well. The women nodded, and the jeep took off toward the main part of the complex with Jakob, Emmanuelle, and the other woman, who had slipped into unconsciousness by then. Jakob was holding Emmanuelle’s hand, and the soldiers noticed that they all had a dead look in their eyes. They had been through an unspeakable hell for as long as they’d been there. None of the Americans could fully understand what they were seeing, and the residents of the camp didn’t have the strength to explain, but they were walking proof of what the Nazis had done to them.

A medical tent had already been set up by then, and a soldier escorted Jakob and Emmanuelle inside. Another soldier carried the unconscious woman. As soon as Emmanuelle was being tended to by an army medic, Jakob hobbled back outside to help the soldiers with explanations about the locations of the camp offices and other barracks. There was a mountain of naked corpses the Nazis had wanted to have buried before they left, but hadn’t had time to see to it. The soldiers were devastated as they entered the dormitories, and medics followed them, carrying litters to bring out the sick and the dead. Jakob stayed with them for a long time, to be as helpful as he could, translating for them. And after that, he went back to the tent to find Emmanuelle. She was his friend, and the food she had stolen for him had sustained him. More than that was unthinkable here. Having a friend was rare enough, particularly a woman. She had been very brave to give him what she did. She had almost been caught once, when a guard suspected her of putting a potato in her pocket, but she had let it drop to the ground, and it was so small and rotten, the guard hadn’t bothered with it. He had hit her with a whip on the back of the neck and moved on. She had picked it up again before she left, when she’d finished work.

The medic tending to her asked her name, and Jakob supplied it. “Emmanuelle Berger. She’s twenty-­three years old, from Paris. She’s been here for almost two years.”

“Is she your sister?”

“No, I’m Austrian. We’re friends.” The young soldier nodded and made note. Eventually, they would have more than twenty-­one thousand histories to take, but the Red Cross would help them do that. Families and survivors would have to be reunited. This was only the beginning, and just in the short time they’d been there, prisoners had continued to die. For some, the Americans had come too late. For others, like Emmanuelle, just in time. The other woman from her barracks had died while they were examining her.

The following day, April 12, the Eightieth Infantry Division came to take control of the camp. Medical units had been arriving since the day before, responding to emergency calls from the Eighty-­Third Infantry. They’d never seen anything like it. It was a camp filled with living corpses who were barely clinging to life. How they had survived was beyond imagining. They were using all their translators to communicate with the freed prisoners, who spoke many languages, and after a cursory examination by the medics, Jakob had continued to help them where he could, since he spoke English, German, Russian, and French.

In His Father's Footsteps
by by Danielle Steel