During the last months of the war hundreds of thousands of concentration camp prisoners were on ‘death marches’ to the west. The Nazis were evacuating them from the camps in the east which would soon be overrun by the Red Army. There are numerous accounts of how those who could not keep up were shot out of hand.
One group from the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp complex were approaching the town of Gardelegen when it became apparent that the Nazis had run out of time, the area was about to be taken by the advancing US Army. Some of the SS fled and the prisoners sought to escape. They were rounded up by a combination of some SS, German parachute troops from a nearby training camp, other members of the Wehrmacht, and members of the Hitler Jugend and Volkssturm – according to some a representative sample of the German male population.
Most of the prisoners were political prisoners, the 300 Germans amongst them were apparently encouraged to participate in the murder of their fellow prisoners, on the promise of their own freedom, before they were betrayed and also forced into the barn and killed.
On the 14th an attempt was made to cover up the crime by digging a mass grave. The work had not been completed by the 15th when the area was occupied by F Company, 2nd Battalion, 405th Regiment, U.S. 102nd Infantry Division
The following account is based on the investigations of Col. Edward Cruise, U.S. Army, based upon the accounts of seven survivors, including Bondo Gaza, a Hungarian musician:
None of the prisoners had any inkling of the fate that awaited them. Rumours had it that they were being marched out to be handed over to the Americans. Guards told some of them that they were going to spend the night in a barn because of lack of space in the barracks. It was less than two kilometers to the barn. When halfway, the column stopped on the road for about an hour. A tractor passed by with several cans of petrol and a case of ammunition. From afar, prisoners saw some of the load being carried inside the barn.
The last group of 300 arrived at the barn around 1900 hours. It was still daylight. Here, the 80 guards were joined by some 20 Fallschirmjager, two of them on motorcycles, who arrived carrying Panzerfausts, machine pistols, hand-grenades and flare pistols. The prisoners on foot waited outside the barn for the carts with the sick to arrive, who were put inside first. An Allied aircraft was at that moment circling overhead, so when Unterscharführer Braun (one of the Jlfeld NCOs) ordered the others to move inside as well, many thought it was because of this. As the guards herded them in, a Fallschirmjager soldier fired his machine pistol into the group to make them move faster, wounding one man. All entered through the south-west door. It was now 2000 hours.
Once inside, many immediately noticed the strong smell of petrol, but contented themselves with the thought that the barn must have been used as a garage or to store fuel. The prisoners were ordered to sit down. The four big doors were closed and wedged fast on the outside with stones. A few minutes later, the door on the south-west side opened and two soldiers entered. One of them, identified as Braun by some, set fire to the straw with a match at several places. As soon as they had gone out, the prisoners rushed up and frantically put out the flames with their blankets, clothes and bare hands. Then they pushed all the straw to the middle of the barn. The soldiers re-entered and again ignited the floor by discharging the signal flares into the straw.
Several times, the prisoners managed to put the fires out but finally the soldiers prevented them by throwing hand-grenades, shooting Panzerfausts. and firing machine pistols and rifles into the frantic masses through the south-west door. The men inside reeled back. Others rushed sideways, pressing themselves against the barn wall to find protection against the bullets.
A group of some 50 or 60 Russians rushed to the opposite side of the building. The north-west door was broken open and the prisoners started to run out. The Fallschirmjager mowed them down with machine pistols and rifles. Two machine guns had been placed at the west side of the barn, one covering the northern and one the southern doors. Several of the armed prisoners, notably Kazimierz Drygalski, a Pole, and Adolf August Pinnenkämper, a German, joined in the killing, as did the crew of a nearby Flak battery, Hitlerjugend teenagers led by Wachtmeister Georg Bensch, who came running up with machine pistols.
Soon dead and dying men were piling up at all the doors. Cries of pain and panic rung inside the dark building, as others were trampled. To escape the rain of bullets, some men feigned death or hid under the dead bodies of others. By now the fire was completely out of control. The inside of the barn began to fill up with a suffocating smoke. Chaos and panic was complete. Men were swearing, crying, pleading, praying, shouting “Vive la France” and “Long live Poland.” Several even broke out singing their national anthem. Men were being roasted alive. Human torches ran around until they dropped to the ground dead. Others suffocated or were killed by the exploding hand-grenades and Panzerfausts.
The murder action continued well into the night, with German troops and Kapo guards watching the doors and walls for any escape attempts. In all, some 50 hand-grenades were thrown into the barn. Around 2100 hours, the Fallschirmjager went back to their depot to get a new supply of ammunition and Panzerfausts. They fired the Panzerfausts into the barn through the west wall and the southwest door.
About midnight, the paratroopers received an alert and left. Shortly after, Kreisleiter Thiele, who had been present from about 2200 (he had been conferring with Oberst Milz at the airfield before that), returned to the Remonte Schule with Unterscharführer Braun and ordered four of the Kapo guards left there (from the seven who had said they could not shoot) to collect a drum of petrol at the Kreisleitung garage and bring it to the barn so as to complete the incineration of the bodies. Once there, the men were told to stay on as guards.
The important thing for the Nazis now was to eradicate any sign of the atrocity that had taken place before the arrival of the Americans. From midnight until about 0230 Thiele and Debrodt were on the phone at the Kreisleitung headquarters, mobilizing local organizations to help with burying the dead and clearing up the site. The first to arrive, at 0430 on April 14, were 50 Volkssturm men from the neighboring village of Kloster Neuendorf, joined later in the morning by 15 men of the Gardelegen fire brigade, 15 from the Technische Nothilfe (technical emergency service), and 90 from the Gardelegen Volkssturm. In all, some 170 persons were at hand. Few of them had been told beforehand what to expect.
The SS men and armed Kapos were still at the barn doing their dirty work. Thiele, having returned there, ordered all survivors to be shot. Opening the doors and entering the still-smoking building, the SS men and Kapos called out that they were ready to give out medical aid to anyone who was still alive. However, this was a trick, as survivors who made their presence known were killed on the spot with a bullet through the head. This went on until 0830 when the last of the SS men and Kapos returned to Gardelegen.
Meanwhile, the Volkssturm men had begun to dig four grave trenches, two meters wide and two meters deep, two long ones on the north side of the barn and two smaller ones on the east side. Many of the bodies were totally charred, and the workers used hooks and pronged forks to pull individual corpses from the smoking piles of dead. As they worked to empty the building, the men found prisoners who had survived the carnage. Some of them were so horribly wounded that they begged to be shot. Hermann Hohls, the Volkssturm company commander in charge of the work; Gustav Palis, one of his men; and Paul Schernikau, the fire brigade chief, each shot a prisoner to put him out of his misery.
See Scrapbookpages for a collection of other images and a memorial leaflet produced by the 102nd Division.
Amongst the witnesses to the aftermath was US Army doctor Henry Swann, whose letter home about the incident can be found at US National Library of Medicine.