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Kissinger on Liberating Ahlem Concentration Camp

‘One of the most horrifying experiences of my life’

Menachem Butler
October 29, 2015
AFP/Getty Images
U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger speaks at a press conference after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in Paris, France, January 13, 1973. AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger speaks at a press conference after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in Paris, France, January 13, 1973. AFP/Getty Images

Scores of articles and books published over the past half-century have sought to understand Henry Kissinger’s role as National Security Adviser, Secretary of State, and confidante of American presidents, to say nothing of his position as the conflicted American Jew. Niall Ferguson’s Kissinger, Vol. 1, 1923-1968: The Idealist is the first to devote several pages to a hitherto-unexplored aspect of Kissinger’s wartime military service: His liberation of a Concentration Camp. As Ferguson explains: “On April 10 [1945], just days before the roundup of the Gestapo sleeper cell, Kissinger stared the Holocaust in the face when he and other members of the 84th Division stumbled upon the concentration camp at Ahlem. For many years, this was an event Kissinger did not talk about. Indeed, his presence only came to light because one of his fellow GIs, a radio operator named Vernon Tott, decided to publish the photographs he had taken on that day. Seeing Ahlem, Kissinger later acknowledged, was ‘one of the most horrifying experiences of my life.’”

Kissinger wrote a two-page letter describing his emotions at encountering the thirty-five malnourished prisoners who survived out of the original 850 Jews who had been sent to Ahlem. These very raw emotions that the young Kissinger expressed in the weeks after the liberation remained hidden among his papers, which he donated to the Library of Congress in 1977, until Ferguson published them in his new volume. Under the title “The Eternal Jew,” Kissinger wrote the following stark and horrifying description of what he saw:

The concentration camp of Ahlem was built on a hillside overlooking Hannover. Barbed wire surrounded it. And as our jeep traveled down the street skeletons in striped suits lined the road. There was a tunnel in the side of the hill where the inmates worked 20 hours a day in semi-darkness.

I stopped the jeep. Cloth seemed to fall from the bodies, the head was held up by a stick that once might have been a throat. Poles hang from the sides where arms should be, poles are the legs. “What’s your name?” And the man’s eyes cloud and he takes off his hat in anticipation of a blow. “Folek… Folek Sama.” “Don’t take off your hat, you are free now.”

And as I say it, I look over the camp. I see the huts, I observe the empty faces, the dead eyes. You are free now. I, with my pressed uniform, I have lived in filth and squalor, I haven’t been beaten and kicked. What kind of freedom can I offer? I see my friend enter one of the huts and come out with tears in his eyes. “Don’t go in there. We had to kick them to tell the dead from the living.”

That is humanity in the 20th century. People reach such a stupor of suffering that life and death, animation or immobility can’t be differentiated any more. And then, who is dead and who is alive, the man whose agonized face stares at me from the cot or Folek Sama, who stands with bowed head and emaciated body? Who was lucky, the man who draws circles in the sand and mumbles “I am free” or the bones that are interred in the hillside?

Folek Sama, your foot has been crushed so that you can’t run away, your face is 40, your body is ageless, yet all your birth certificate reads is 16. And I stand there with my clean clothes and make a speech to you and your comrades.

Folek Sama, humanity stands accused in you. I, Joe Smith, human dignity, everybody has failed you. You should be preserved in cement up here on the hillside for future generation[s] to look upon and take stock. Human dignity, objective values have stopped at this barbed wire. What differentiates you and your comrades from animals[?] Why do we in the 20th century countenance you?

Yet, Folek, you are still human. You stand before me and tears run down your cheek. Hysterical sobbing follows. Go ahead and cry, Folek Sama, because your tears testify to your humanity, because they will be absorbed in this cursed soil, dedicating it.

As long as conscience exists as a conception in this world you will personify it. Nothing done for you will ever restore you.

You are eternal in this respect.

In 2005, Vernon Tott published an “inch-thick homemade book” with stories from his fellow liberators of Ahlem and photographs that he took using his vest-pocket camera and in 2007, he prepared a documentary film about his unit, which liberated Ahlem. Angel of Ahlem was produced by the University of Florida’s Documentary Institute. The film premiered at an event in May 2007 at New York City’s Lincoln Center and the audience included a dozen of the survivors from the Ahlem Concentration Camp. Just before the movie was shown, Henry Kissinger delivered the following remarks, which do not appear in Ferguson’s biography, but which give some indication of the lifelong impact of what he saw in Ahlem as a young GI:

“I speak to many groups and have many opportunities to express myself, but I can say that there’s no group that means as much to me as this particular group this evening and I am proud that you have let me come here. I was with the 84th Infantry Division. I started out in G Company of the 335th Regiment, digging foxholes in Louisiana. When the division moved to Germany, I was still with the G Company of the 335th Regiment and one day our General came on inspection and called me over and said, “soldier explain what’s going on here” to me. So I did. Next thing I knew, I was transferred to the G-2 section, which dealt with intelligence. And in that capacity, I then served with the 84th Infantry Division when it took Hanover. And in the outskirts of Hanover, as the survivors here know, was the concentration camp—or labor camp—of Ahlem. And I of course had read about concentration camps. Later on I found out, I knew that my grandmother and many members of my family were sent to concentration camps. In fact, thirteen of my family died in concentration camps, including my grandmother. But I could not imagine what it was like, I had never seen people degraded to the level that people were in Ahlem. They barely looked human. They were skeletons. I don’t have to tell this to the survivors. In fact, they were such skeletons that it was dangerous to give them solid food because some of them could not digest it. It was the single most shocking experience I have ever had, and that’s been impressed on my memory.

There were many articles written about me and they say I was traumatized by what happened in Nazi Germany as a child. That’s nonsense! When I was in Nazi Germany, they were not yet killing people. I left in ’38. But the traumatic event was to see Ahlem. That is when one saw the bestiality of the system and the degradation of human beings and there is nothing I am more proud of of my service to this country than having been one of those who had the honor of liberating the Ahlem Concentration Camp. And it is something we must not forget. It’s an obligation we all have. I don’t talk about it much, because people won’t understand it, who haven’t been through it. But I salute the survivors here, and I’d be honored if they came up here and had a picture taken with me. I want to thank you all.”

Menachem Butler, an associate editor at Tablet Magazine, is the program fellow for Jewish Law Projects at the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at the Harvard Law School, and a co-editor at the Seforim blog. Follow him on Twitter @MyShtender.