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July 04, 2003

Unseen History: Ohrdruf 3
We Didn't Know! - But We Knew

Don Timmer helped liberate Ohrdruf.

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."

In the first concentration camp to be liberated by the Western Allies, Don Timmer was the first soldier to hear the tales of horror. 58 years later, one of his countrymen tells the first American Holocaust witness to his face that what he saw and heard first hand was nothing but lies.

I wouldn't be surprised if the speaker added something along the lines of "Besides, it's no worse that what we did to the Sioux."

The new flavor of Holocaust denial is not to deny that it happened, but to deny it significance, to reduce 6 million dead Jews to a mere blip on the bloody radar of human history. "Bad things have happened to people all through history" goes the logic. "Besides, everyone does it." It's an argument that demands the perfection of human character before allowing action against evil while simultaneously denying that such perfection can possibly exist.

It's a neat rhetorical trick, an excuse for inaction in the face of evil. Given the numerous discoveries of mass graves and documented atrocities visited upon the people of Iraq by the recently deposed Ba'athist regime, the timing of its emergence is suspicious, and saddening.

The argument's aim is clear, though not all who ascribe to its logic recognize what that goal is. It seeks to make all of the human tragedy and suffering equally important, which sounds noble enough. But, if all deaths are equally important, then they are also equally unimportant, which leads to

"Bad things have happened to people all through history,"

So there's no rush to when it comes to freeing Iraqis from their dictator, to defend Liberians from theirs, and suicide bombers and those who hunt them are morally equivalent.

and "Besides, everyone does it."

Not the Germans. Not anymore. I wonder why that is?


If you're in Ohio and would like Don Timmer to talk to a class or organization about not only his experiences with the Holocaust, but those of his sister, who nursed survivors of the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria, you can contact him via e-mail: imogenetimmer AT

I'll be posting only one concentration picture a day over the long weekend, mostly other angles of scenes already depicted at Ohrdruf. On Monday I'll post the first photos from the mass graves at Schwarzenfeld.

Click on picture for a larger version.

Click on picture for a larger version.

As the back of the photo shows, the specific description for this scene is long gone, though it appears to be the inside of one of the barracks the laborers at the Ohrdruf camp slept in. "BIST" or "RIST" is stenciled on the columns as are the letters "SP" on the rafters above. "ZYC" is written in chalk on the brick column in the foreground. The gaps between the walls and roof have been stuffed with straw in an attempt to stop drafts, straw probably taken from the thin pallets the prisoners slept on. Above each pallet is an eyebolt with a metal ring through it. I hesitate to guess at the purpose they were used for, but they could easily serve to hold up the wrists of a bound prisoner if a rope was run through it.

I'm fairly sure that the soldier is once again Colonel Sears, talking to a survivor of the camp, who also appears in the only previously known picture of Colonel Sears at Ohrdruf (Second picture down, third man to the left of the Colonel). I have no idea who the survivor is, but I like to think it's Henry Meyer.


For those of you happening upon these pictures for the first time, an explanation of how they came to appear on this site, as well as more information on the Ohrdruf work camp can be found in the first post in this series.

The fourth post in Unseen History can be read here.

Posted by Bigwig at July 4, 2003 12:51 AM | TrackBack
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Happy 4th!!

Posted by: Solonor at July 4, 2003 09:17 AM

"The new flavor of Holocaust denial is not to deny that it happened, but to deny it significance, to reduce 6 million dead Jews to a mere blip on the bloody radar of human history. "Bad things have happened to people all through history" goes the logic. "Besides, everyone does it."..."

Dead right. Think what the the spewers of this crap count on to keep 'bad things' from happening to them. Bad things like being beaten to death, starting at the ankles, right there at a Board of Ed. meeting.

"Stop screaming Bob, everyone does it. It's just your turn, that's all."


Thanks for posting this stuff, and your insights. People need the ammunition.

Posted by: Stephen at July 5, 2003 03:01 AM

Thank you for bringing these pictures to light. Holocaust denial is simply racism, a pathetic attempt at Revisionism to obscure the deniers' own insecuriry and inferiority.

During the rise of the Nazi regime, my family had many relatives in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. A few escaped, most did not. I have no idea whether the Dr. Blumenfeld you knew as a child was distantly related to my family; I imagine that it is a possibility.

I would suggest that you donate these precious historical photos to the Reserach Library at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. They would be able to process the photos to prevent further deterioration and then store them in their archives. I believe that they also digitize many of the photos and documents in their collection so that they are available via the Internet.

- Dan

Posted by: Daniel Blumenfeld at July 5, 2003 09:50 PM

First, thank you so much for this very informative site. You are to be commended for sharing these photos with those of us whose fathers/mothers participated in the war efforts.

I believe that the red handwritten letters preceding the blue stamped numbers on the backs of the photos are "GER" which stands for "Germany." See the handwritten "Germany" on the bottom of the photo back at . You will notice that the first letters are very similar....

Posted by: Kay Robbins at February 22, 2004 09:46 PM

Vey moving. Humbling. Words cannot express. I emailed Mr. Timmer to thank him for his service. I hope he is till around to read it. God bless you all.

Posted by: Nick Dilmore at August 4, 2005 05:22 PM
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