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First Person > David Cohen

David Cohen - 1945: Choices

Patton's Army arrives at the Labor Camp at Ohrdruf, and the Buchenwald Concentration Camp

On April 4, 1945, the 4th Armored Division entered the Ohrdruf labor camp. It was the first Nazi camp at which American forces found live inmates...

Learn more about David Cohen: View a timeline of his life and listen to his full interview.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/cohen1945_rings, alt: box full of wedding bands

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A box of wedding bands, once worn by Holocaust victims, was found in a Nazi concentration camp by American soldiers in May 1945.

David Cohen and the 4th Armored Division entered the Ohrdruf labor camp in early April 1945. It was the first Nazi camp at which American forces found live inmates. David remembers that "there was a memorandum from General Eisenhower, that he wanted all available troops to see the concentration camp, to see why we were fighting." General Eisenhower also insisted that the camps be documented with as many pictures as possible. As David explains, "there were six million Jews killed [in] the camp[s], but there were five-and-a-half million non-Jews in the camp[s]. [Adolf Hitler] killed Gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, Catholics, Protestants, that, you know, were dissidents, political prisoners, Polish, Russians. He killed…people that he didn't like….Children, anywhere from young infants to eighteen. A million and half children out of the six million Jews." Toward the end of the war, American soldiers had increasing contact with victims of Nazi concentration camps. Jewish American soldier Kurt Klein met a young girl, Gerda Weissman, who had been sent to both a Nazi labor camp and a concentration camp. She was one of 120 Jewish women who, near death, were found abandoned in an old factory in Czechoslovakia. He later visited her in the army hospital. At the end of their conversation, the young girl handed Kurt Klein these written thoughts:

Freedom--I welcome it in the rays of the golden sun, and I salute you, brave American soldiers. You ask what we have suffered, what we have lived through. Your sympathy is great, but we cannot speak the unspeakable, and you might not understand our language...1

Photograph of Wedding Rings Removed by the Germans from Holocaust Victims, 5/5/1945, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860-1982, National Archives, NAIL identifier, 531294.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/cohen1945_generals, alt: General George S. Patton and General Omar Bradley surrounded by soldiers

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General George S. Patton and General Omar Bradley confer at the Ohrdruf labor camp, April 12, 1945.

U.S. generals and soldiers responded in varied ways to what they witnessed at Ohrdruf and other Nazi labor and concentration camps. At Ohrdruf, Eisenhower vomited and lamented the loss in human potential suffered by the world because of the lives that had been taken there. General Patton also vomited, and was ready to choose revenge over the Geneva Conventions. As David Cohen remembers, "he got up on his jeep,…he starts screaming at the top of his voice. Now mind you, Generals Eisenhower and General Bradley were standing there. And he gets up and he says, see what these son-of-a-bitches did? See what these bastards did? He says, I don't want you to take a f'n prisoner, he yells to us." One of the Army doctors, Dr. Scotty, as Cohen recalls, "stood in the middle of the street and he starts screaming. He says, now I know how the Germans found the cure for malaria and typhus. He says, they killed them…they burned them." David reflects upon how easy it is, as soldiers, to "lose some of your humanity." It happened to those who decided to kill SS soldiers rather than take them prisoner, and it happened to David, himself, when he enjoyed watching SS soldiers be brutally beaten by Czech civilians.

William Alexander Scott III, "Ohrdruf, [Thuringia] Germany, April 12, 1945, United State Holocaust Memorial Museum, photo number 87662.

Note: The views or opinions expressed in this exhibit Web feature and the context in which the images are used, do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of, nor imply approval or endorsement by, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

file:/activities/oralhistory/cappics/cohen1945_women, alt: Two German women leaving the Buchenwald concentration camp

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Two local German women are forced to confront the reality of the German Holocaust. Buchenwald concentration camp, April 1945.

In the spring of 1945, American officers repeatedly insisted that German citizens confront the atrocities that had been committed by the German military in their own hometowns. While the mayor of Ohrdruf claimed that he was unaware of the things that were occurring at the Ohrdruf labor camp, David Cohen recalls that one of his superior officers, Colonial Sears, was unconvinced: "The smell alone will tell you what was go[ing on]." The smell "was awful," David remembers, "I can't describe the smell. It was so penetrating, horrible."

Lieutenant Colonel Parke O. Yingst, "Two German women file past piles of corpses outside the crematorium in the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp." April 1945, Buchenwald, Germany, Collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, photo number 60637.

Story Clip #1:

"If any Jews come back, they're gonna need this Bible more than my Mother": David decides to do the right thing

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We were in Toule, France. T-O-U-L-E. And there was someone there that was persecuted, a Jew, by the Nazis. I met him. He showed me, there was a synagogue, a little synagogue, in Toule, France. And I went in there, and I remember going through there. The Germans had used it to store their ammunition. And they threw all the Bibles around, you know. They didn't care, of course. And I took a Bible. I was gonna take it and bring it to my mother as a souvenir, you know. We always looked for souvenirs. And I remember walking down the street, and I thought, this Jewish guy...if any of the Jews come back, they're gonna need this Bible more than my mother. I remember walking back and putting it back in the...in the little synagogue. It's funny how you remember these things. They stand out in your mind.

Story Clip #2:

The Fourth Armored Division reaches the Nazi labor Camp at Ohrdruf, April 1945


We went through Germany and it was April...5th. We got a radio message that there was a communication center that had to be taken. And they said we had an Infantry Battalion in our armored division, part of it. And they went and they radioed back that it wasn't a communication center, but a concentration camp. And this was in a place called Ohrdruf, Ohrdruf, Germany, outside of Gotha, G-O-T-H-A. And they said to send all the medi...medics, all the doctors, the nurses. We had a field hospital attached to the division. They sent all the medics there. Well, we went in and, you know, about an hour or so later, and when we got to the camp, there were about sixty bodies, and you'll see the pictures I gave you...pictures [garbled]...sixty, about sixty bodies just strewn all over the place. They were either shot in the back or clubbed to death. They were people that would survive. And what the Germans did, they loaded a couple trucks that they had with the survivors and they took'em to another camp. They didn't want them to be liberated even...even at the end.

Story Clip #3:

"One of these young people...could've...found a cure for cancer": General Eisenhower responds to the tragedies at Ohrdruf


There was a memorandum from General Eisenhower, that he wanted all available troops to see the concentration camp, to see why we were fighting. When we got there, naturally, you know, take a, a half...a few days off, a few hours off from the radio. We went in there, and we were walking around. We saw General Eisenhower came in with General Bradley and a few other officers. And he went into this room and he got sick. He came out, and he said he can't understand killing children. He says, the senseless thing, he says, can you think of one of these young people that were killed could've been a scientist that found a cure for cancer. I remember him saying that.

Story Clip #4:

"I don't want you to take a f'n prisoner": General Patton responds to the tragedies at Ohrdruf


When we went to the camp and Patton came in, and he went in and saw the bodies piled up, and he came out and he threw up, this macho general. And he got up on his jeep, and I want to tell you what he said. He said...he starts screaming at the top of his voice. Now mind you, Generals Eisenhower and General Bradley were standing there. And he gets up and he says, see what these son-of-a-bitches did? See what these bastards did? He says, I don't want you to take a f'n prisoner, he yells to us. You know, ...would violate all the Geneva Convention, but uh, that's the way he felt. And you know, I can say one thing. There was never any of the soldiers that went into the camp will ever deny that the Holocaust happened, you know.

Story Clip #5:

"I didn't know what was going on": The mayor and the people of Ohrdruf deny knowledge of the camp


The smell was so horrible. In fact, we had the...this Colonel Sears made the mayor and the people of Ohrdruf come and see the camp. And the mayor comes up to him and says, well I didn't know what was going on. So Colonel Sears says, you're a lying son-of-a-bitch. He says, the smell alone will tell you what was go...it was awful. I can't describe the smell. It was so penetrating, horrible.

Story Clip #6:

The Fourth Armored Division reaches the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, April 1945


In fact, it was April 12th. I remember I was on the radio. We got a...we heard that President Roosevelt died, and then we were right outside of Buchenwald, near Weimar, Germany, where the constitution was formed. And we went into the camp. The Sixth Armored Division was there before us. And we went into the camp and we saw thousands...this was a major camp. There were maybe fifty, sixty thousand survivors there. In fact, that's where Elie Weisel was when we got there. I never met him, but he was in one of the barracks. And uh, I took pictures there with my friend. We went into the...into the rooms were the bodies were staying.

Story Clip #7:

"But you lose some of your humanity": American soldiers respond to what they witness at Nazi concentration camps


Q: When you left...when you left the camps...Are you s...are you saying you went...you just continued working?

Yeah, we went...yeah, we just left, but we were all stunned. And, 'course, you're angry, and, you know...you want to...you feel like you want to kill everybody...on the other side.

Q: So, what do you do with that?

Nothing. We just went, uh...some of the guys...there were stories of uh, the 45th Infantry Division, they were in Dachau, and one of them, I don't know what, if he was Jewish or not, but he took...we never found any of the prisoners...any of the guards. They all ran. But at Dachau, they caught so many of them. And this one soldier lined them up on a wall where they used to execute the...

Q: An Allied soldier?

Yeah, oh yeah, an American. And he lined them up, and he machine gunned them. And an officer came and just...not...you're not supposed to do it, of course. And he knocked the gun...I remember reading about it. I didn't, you know, know it or see it. But, uh, we had cases where there was one of the fellas...in fact, he was a hillbilly from one of the...down South. He would capture a couple German soldiers, and he'd say, okay, you can escape. Run! And when they ran, he shot'em. But there're, you know, all kind of atrocities, you know, you read about this...this stuff now in Iraq. I can feel for those soldiers. You know, it's not right what they do. But you lose some of your humanity. I guess that's why Rob...Rob Wilson has his boys go around, to tell what war is like. You know, you lose...you feel like you want to kill everybody or do it, and if you see one of your buddies killed...like, one of my best friends, Ernie Ruggierio was killed. We picked him up three days later. He was starting to turn black, you know? And, I cried. I remember I cried like my own family. And, uh, you get bitter. You want to kill everyone that was on the other side.

Q: How long does that feeling stay with you?

Oh it goes...it passes. Thank God, it...not with me, it didn't last long. Just like now, when I get mad at someone, it goes by fast.

Story Clip #8:

"I actually enjoyed watching...": David Cohen's regret


There was an incident in Czechoslovakia where the...the Czechs...am I over? [referring to the time]...the Czechs, uh, picked up three SS soldiers from the woods. And, um, one of them was a school teacher, and his father wanted to know if he was killed or tortured by them. And, when he got them, they beat up the three Nazis, and we watched it. And we...it was...they were our prisoners, not the Czechs'. And I should have taken them and brought them to, you know, POW camp. But I sat there...I stood there and I actually enjoyed watching these people...they dropped rocks on their heads. They kicked them, you know? And I actually enjoyed...and I went back to the barracks that night, and one of the radio operators, Lefkowitz, I said, Lefty, I said, you know, I'm sick. I stood there and I actually hated. It got the best of me. I says, I'm never gonna use the word "hate" again. I remember what it did. It...it...it...I couldn't sleep, it upset me so much, that I was so, you know, angry, that I lost my humanity, you might say.

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