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Soldier Recalls Horrors of Nazi Labor Camp

World War II: On the anniversary of D-Day, Assembly will honor a Camarillo man, one of the first Americans to help liberate Ohrdruf.

June 06, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The eyes still haunt him.

Whenever Bob Hasen sees someone with enchantingly large eyes, he is visited by the hollow gaze of survivors at a concentration camp called Ohrdruf, the first Nazi camp liberated by American forces. Hasen was among the first through the gates there, and amid the thousands of corpses and near-corpses stacked like firewood, he gazed in numb horror on the faces of the starving.

"They had big, hungry, pleading eyes," he said. "Starvation shrinks everything but the eyes."

Hasen fought his way onto the beach at Normandy, endured the Battle of the Bulge, caught a chunk of shrapnel in his chest and led an assault on a sniper's nest that earned him the Bronze Star. But nothing he saw before or since equaled the depravity he encountered on that quiet April afternoon in Germany's Black Forest.

On the anniversary of D-Day today, Hasen is being honored on the floor of the California Assembly. Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) will read a resolution praising the 81-year-old Camarillo resident's war service and his efforts to teach young people about the Holocaust.

"To me he's a hero," Strickland said. "I'm humbled to know him."

At Ohrdruf, it was Hasen who was humbled.

"In all our training, we had never been prepared for the day we would meet something like this," he said.

Days after the discovery of Ohrdruf, U.S. generals George Patton, Omar Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower came to bear witness.

Eisenhower ordered every American GI in the area--as well as residents in the village a mile away--to see the camp as well. Afterward, the mayor of Ohrdruf--a peaceful village in which Bach had written music--hanged himself, alongside his wife.

By Hasen's account, he and two other GIs were the first Americans to come across the camp, which took up no more room than an average high school campus.

"We were lost," he recalled this week, sitting in his paneled Leisure Village den.

Assigned to find a Nazi camp holding American prisoners of war, the soldiers were approached on a lonely road by a man who was little more than a walking skeleton. Weeping, he collapsed before them and begged for food. Half a dozen others shuffled out of the woods in long robes reeking of human waste.

Just down the road, a metal gate opened on the all-but-abandoned Ohrdruf camp, admitting the three overwhelmed GIs to a circle of hell unimagined by Dante.

Stacks of rotting corpses were crawling with maggots. Here and there, a finger moved, a limb quivered, a voice moaned for help. In a barracks building, a few survivors crawled, too weak to stand.

The camp's assistant commander expressed no remorse as he gazed out at piles of bodies through a window in his office.

"The color drained from his face and he crumpled to an absolute zero when I told him I was Jewish," Hasen said.

The prisoners at Ohrdruf, a satellite of Buchenwald, were all men. They were assigned to dig underground rooms that would be Hitler's headquarters if he fled Berlin, said Peter Black, a senior historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The laborers were not gassed. When they were too weak to work, they were beaten to death or shot. In the days before the discovery, Nazi guards burned bodies in what Black called "an open-air oven."

Which American unit got to Ohrdruf first is a matter of debate among scholars.

Mary Haynes, an archivist with the U.S. Army Center of Military History, said the matter hasn't been fully researched, although it appeared that men from the 89th Infantry Division played a large part in opening the camp. Hasen was with the 65th Infantry Division, which also was in the area at the time.

There was no doubt, though, about the discovery's importance. Auschwitz had been liberated by Soviet troops months earlier but, for top American commanders, Ohrdruf underscored the horror.

"I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency," Eisenhower later wrote. "Up to that time, I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however, that I never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock."

After the war, Hasen married and raised three children. For years, he was a sales executive for the Ghirardelli chocolate company. The war seldom came up.

In 1981, he attended a conference of concentration camp liberators in Washington. He met Elie Wiesel, the author and camp survivor, and was inspired. "He told me, 'Bob, what you have to do is go back to California and teach the young people. They don't know.' "

In retirement, he did just that, opening students' eyes as a speaker at dozens of schools.

Amid the military photos and honors displayed on his den walls, he proudly points to a framed, neatly handwritten letter from a student at El Rio High School.

"Thanks for making me see the light," the letter says. "I'm dropping out of my skinhead gang. I guess I really didn't know what they were talking about."

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