Hell Before Their Very Eyes: Amer­i­can Sol­diers Lib­er­ate Con­cen­tra­tion Camps, April 1945

John C. McManus
  • Review
By – March 31, 2016

The sad real­i­ty often repeat­ed is that the sur­vivors of the Holo­caust and the remain­ing eye­wit­ness­es will all soon be gone. With this in mind, a vast col­lec­tion of oral and writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ny now exists and includes the mem­o­ries and expe­ri­ences of young Amer­i­can sol­diers encoun­ter­ing the death camps in Hitler’s Ger­many at the war’s end.

Hell Before Their Very Eyes by gift­ed mil­i­tary his­to­ri­an, John C. McManus is a grip­ping and lucid addi­tion to the schol­ar­ly lit­er­a­ture chron­i­cling the entry into con­cen­tra­tion camps by the lib­er­at­ing U.S. Army in the spring of 1945.

McManus makes superb use of these trau­ma­tized sol­diers’ eye­wit­ness accounts of their entry, as one put it, thru the back door of Hell.” Despite liv­ing at a time when any­one can down­load a video clip of an ISIS behead­ing, the har­row­ing descrip­tions of what these sol­diers encoun­tered in Ohrdruf, Buchen­wald, and Dachau still defy the imag­i­na­tion regard­ing the depths of human deprav­i­ty and the capac­i­ty for unbri­dled sadism and lim­it­less evil.

Now in their 90s, these army vet­er­ans remained haunt­ed by the hor­rors they saw — and smelled. Again and again, McManus offers the read­er descrip­tions of the sol­diers’ utter incom­pre­hen­sion, crip­pling nau­sea and sense of unre­al­i­ty as they made their way thru huge piles of charred, ema­ci­at­ed corpses and body parts. They describe being greet­ed by half-dead skele­tal ghost­ly sur­vivors and being shocked and dev­as­tat­ed at what the civ­i­lized” Ger­mans had done to mil­lions of inno­cent men, women, and children.

To their great cred­it, these sol­diers, who for years refused to speak about what they saw, came forth to be cer­tain that no one should be believed who denied the facts of the geno­cide of the Holo­caust. These moral­ly coura­geous men fol­lowed the lead of their com­man­der, Gen­er­al Eisen­how­er, in pre­serv­ing and shar­ing the hor­rors they endured and wit­ness­ing in April of 1945. Sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies have expressed enor­mous grat­i­tude to lib­er­a­tors for ensur­ing that the world learned first­hand about the anni­hi­la­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ry. Those pos­sessed by uncon­di­tion­al hatred of Jews will nev­er be con­vinced that the Nazi war against the Jews took place. Nev­er­the­less, this extreme­ly well researched and pow­er­ful vol­ume should be of great ben­e­fit to high school and col­lege stu­dents study­ing the Holo­caust as well as a broad­er read­er­ship seek­ing these unique first­hand accounts of the Amer­i­can Army’s lib­er­a­tion of the death camps.

Relat­ed Content:

Steven A. Luel, Ph.D., is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gy at Touro Col­lege, New York. He is a devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and psy­cho­an­a­lyst in pri­vate prac­tice. He is co-edi­tor (with Paul Mar­cus) of Psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic Reflec­tions on the Holo­caust: Select­ed Essays.

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