April 4, 1945: Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald, was the first Nazi concentration camp liberated by American troops. There, the soldiers were confronted with evidence of once unimaginable crimes. In the month prior, the Nazis had sent many of the camp’s estimated 10,000 prisoners on a death march to Buchenwald, executing those who were unable to walk. At Ohrdruf, the liberators found the remains of thousands of people. The few survivors reported widespread torture, starvation, and disease. In the following weeks, the liberation of Ohrdruf became one of the most widely documented events of the Holocaust. The liberators captured evidence through film, photographs, and written testimony, and General George S. Patton and General Dwight D. Eisenhower ensured that as many of their troops as possible witnessed the camp firsthand.
One of those soldiers was John W. Beckett, who served in the Third Army’s 734th Field Artillery Battalion. In 1991, he donated to the Museum the photographs he took at Ohrdruf, as well as his war diaries, written in field transit books.
Beckett’s April 17, 1945 entry documented his immediate impressions upon touring the camp that day. The entry begins, “‘Bed Check Charlie’ just came over this town and came in straffing [sic]. You’d be surprised how fast you can hit the floor when he comes in to spray.” [Editor’s note: “Bed Check Charlie” was the American GI nickname for German planes that patrolled the night skies.]
Beckett wrote about the troop’s entry to Ohrdruf earlier that day: “As we came along our way we saw a sign pointing to ‘OHRDRUF,’ 15 kilometers from here, that is where the Germans had a concentration camp …” He continued on, describing the horrific conditions they found, adding, “What we saw was enough and at that it was pretty well cleaned up.”
He then detailed further the horrors he and his fellow troops witnessed at the camp, as well as what they learned from a recently liberated Polish prisoner: “… an MP captain was questioning one of the liberated prisoners. He was Polish, spoke German, & as he related it was translated to us by the captain.” The prisoner showed them places where prisoners were beaten, tortured, and executed. Beckett wrote, “As the Polish prisoner talked, tears seemed to come to his eyes but he fought them down.”
Beckett concluded his chronicle of April 17, 1945: “All such atrosities [sic] that were known to savages & Roman times & here it exists today in 1945, [h]ow is it possible, how can a man treat another as such. The question perhaps can’t be answered and I pray they will receive their just rewards, both here & in the life to come. Practically the whole battery went to see it & Patton wanted as many [of] his men that could go to see it & know that it is real & not propaganda. Its [sic] real, all too grotesquely real.”
We don’t know how John Beckett processed the miseries of what he observed. Did he have nightmares for the rest of his life? Did he keep his memories locked inside himself and his diaries? Or did he speak openly of it to his family and friends?
What we do know is that, in addition to recording what he witnessed on April 17, 1945 in his diary, he wrote about it in a letter to his sister, and urged her to read it aloud at their community church back home. From this, we can extrapolate that a young man witnessing the worst crimes imaginable wanted to let the world know: This happened. It was real. It must not happen again.
In a letter at the time of his donation, Beckett wrote to Esther Brumberg, then-curator at the Museum, of his pride in contributing his diaries to a living memorial to the Holocaust. “The keeping of them has not been in vain. The Holocaust needs to be forever alive… It is something that should never, ever, be forgotten.”