Ella Matson Lindsay Recalls the Holocaust
(Told in her own words.)
It has been 50 years since the liberation of Concentration Camps by Allied Forces which took place in Europe during World War Two. I kept a detailed journal of my activities as First Lieutenant Army Nurse, 58th Field Hospital, Third Army, during the war, though it was prohibited to do so.
After witnessing the horrors of Buchenwald Concentration Camp one week after it was liberated by my friend, Leo Hymas, of Issaquah, Washington, and his three buddies, I did a little writing in this journal, then stashed it away unread for the next 50 years. Recently I was asked to participate at the Silver Anniversary Annual Conference on the Holocaust and Churches held at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, March 5-8, 1995.
I am the daughter of Afton and Flora Stone Matson. Both my father and I were born in a little adobe house that no longer exists at 1200 North St., Mapleton, Utah. My paternal grandfather, George B. Matson, Jr., owned the brick home and most of the ground of the present Mapleton Elementary School.
My parents, my grandfather David A. Stone and family, my sisters and I moved to Aberdeen, Idaho, when I was eight years of age. It was there that I and my sisters finished elementary and high school. I graduated in 1937, and Dr. McKinnon encouraged me to enter Nursing School. I graduated in 1940, and January 1943 in Rochester, New York, joined the Army Nurse Corps which I served for the next three years.
Our Medical Unit was put ashore at Omaha Beach a few weeks following D-Day, where we waded ashore amid the terrible litter remaining from that now famous day. The front line was at Paris when we scaled the cliffs at Omaha Beach. We were stationed in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge and cared for the casualties of that great Battle.
I remember the first prisoners of war that we cared for that came from German Stalags. They had been captured for nearly six years in Eastern Germany, Russia, Poland and slowly moved to western camps. They had been without the aid of life-saving Red Cross packages which carried little packets of Vitamin C and were horrible sights to see, lying in fetal positions on the stretchers when brought into the hospital. Covered with lice, mouths and gums bleeding, starved and skin so sensitive they screamed when we touched them, all the result of scurvy, beriberi and lungs filled with tuberculosis bacterium.
None of this prepared us for what we later saw, April 17, 1945, when we were commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General George Patton to witness the unbelievable horror of the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp. (My husband, Lt. Colonel M. Grant Lindsay, whom I met after the war, and I became close friends in 1983-84 with Leo Hymas of Issaquah, Washington).
Little did I know at that time that Leo and his three buddies, in April 1945 stumbled onto the barbed wire enclosure of Buchenwald, and Leo pushed a pipe-like bomb under the fence and blew it up. They were true liberators of this infamous killing camp. Leo and I, including my cousin, Keith Davis of Springville, Utah, and several others gave our personal accounts of what we saw at the killing camps of Germany at the recent Holocaust Conference in Provo.
Rumors have started that the armies have just liberated several Concentration Camps. General Eisenhower has visited one and found conditions so terrible he has requested the U.S. Senators, journalist and the British House of Commons to visit them and see for themselves. Orders have just come through for outfits near Buchenwald, near Weimar, to see and witness what has happened there. This included us, 58th Field Hospital. Buchenwald was liberated April 11, 1945.
April 18, 1945: Yesterday Jean and many of the others in our hospital went to Buchenwald. Today it was my turn, along with nurses, Eisen, Beebe, Coop, Alta, and about 16 of our enlisted men. We wrapped up in blankets in the back of a 6×6 truck. Weather extremely cold, drizzly rainfall. Roads very bumpy. It seemed we had been riding for ages when we reached Weimar, but actually Gotha, where our hospital is set up at a Hitler Youth Camp is only 12 miles away.
We drove on to Buchenwald, a mile or two further. All along the way we noticed liberated prisoners who had left the camp to strike out for “home.” They were tired of waiting for their turn on the Army vehicles. The prisoners could easily be recognized by their black and grey striped uniforms.
As we left Weimar this morning, we drove up a winding, paved street through pine covered hills. About a mile from the camp we were shocked to silence by the smell, a terrible odor!
We passed a black and white Guard House, now occupied by U.S. Army guards, rode a short distance before stopping at the iron gates of the camp. They were wide open. The camp was surrounded by a wire fence, which we were later told once carried many thousands of volts of electricity. To the side was an area flattened by bombs. It had previously been a munitions factory operated by forced laborers.
The streets or courtyard on each side of the iron gate was filled with milling crowds of gaunt prisoners, their uniforms hanging loosely on their starved bodies; Army troops and German Civilians. We learned later that the Germans were civilians from Weimar who had been forced to come and see the atrocities. They had reported that they knew nothing of what was going on here even though the camp had been here for 12 years and the smell seemed to impregnate the surrounding forests and area.
We hurried by those poor, surviving prisoners with such listless faces. I didn’t know what to do, or what to say! I was shocked to see several young boys about 10 to 15 years of age.
Inside the gate were rows and rows of wooden barracks and the same milling crowd of prisoners, liberators and the German civilians. The rain beat down on the hard cobblestones that had replaced all former green grass and trees.
A tall, very slender, pasty-colored survivor, wearing the regulation grey-black uniform and cap, and wearing thick-lensed glasses stepped up to us and asked in a heavy accent if he could “show us around.” He led us to a near-by rack, (like a saw
horse) which had a “dummy” pinioned over it, bent at the waist with a crossbeam across it’s back.
“This,” he said, “was one way they punished us. We were put in this position and beaten across the back with something like a baseball bat.” None of us spoke. We just stared at this figure the prisoners had made to show us graphically how they had been tortured.
Then he led us to the next one six yards away. “You can see for yourself what happened here,” he said. A dummy was hanging, it’s hands tied behind it and then drawn upward over a high post until the prisoner was thrown forward and off the ground. “We were left in this position until we lost consciousness,” he said. “If the roped was jerked too quickly, the prisoner’s arms were wrenched out of their sockets.” It was humbling to behold, but the real truth of inhuman atrocities didn’t strike us until we were led into a nearby brick building.
The stench was overpowering and nauseating. I don’t know why I saw this, but I noticed the floors of tile and the well-finished walls. It was the crematorium to burn human beings to ashes! The doors to each furnace were open, and as we filed by we saw the ghastly sight of charred bones, rib cages, lying on top of piles of human ashes. The last furnace held a blackened skull, face and brain charred but not completely disintegrated.
Before partially recovering from this hideous sight, our guide led us through a small door into a closed, cement-covered courtyard in the middle of which were 30 or 40 naked, emaciated corpses piled in a heap on top of each other. The rain made their grey-white bodies glisten.
All of them looked the same, so starved their individuality, their facial features were one; just bony frame-work covered with taut skin. Each body lay sprawling, lips drawn tightly across open mouths, sunken eyes staring darkly from bony sockets. Their heads were shaven, and many had visible numbers tattooed on chest or arms. Bruises and sores covered many of the bodies.
A cart was pulled up and some of them were loaded onto it to be taken away for a decent burial. “These,” the guide said, have died today. Each day we have some die, but not as many as before. One day we had 600 piled here just before the Americanish came. They took out all those who might have a chance to live first. Those who were sure to die were left. Soon all will be gone,” he said.
I stood for a minute. It was hard to believe what I was seeing. It was unreal! I turned to leave and bumped into a young woman. Polish? Russian? She was crying. She had come, searching for a lost relative. I looked at her and wondered how she could possible identify anyone from this human heap! They all looked alike! They had lost all identity! I couldn’t believe this was happening. It doesn’t happen in safe America. Suddenly I wanted to be home!
Our guide led me and three of our enlisted men out of the courtyard. The rest stayed behind for a few minutes longer. As we left, I noticed the “gallows.” Eight prisoners could be hung at a time.
We were next led to one of the buildings where the prisoners slept and then to the kitchen. As we crossed the cobblestones, I noticed a different flag hanging in different sections of the barracks. I saw a Hungarian, a Czechoslovakian, and a Spanish flag, and on a large building was a flag pole with the French tri-color, the British flag, and the Stars and Stripes at the top.
Farther on we passed a building with a red flag embellished with the hammer and sickle. There were barracks for the Belguiqes, the Dutch, Poles, Lithuanians, etc. “Before the Americanish came we were all mixed up,” the guide said. It was difficult to speak to each other. Now we have our own building.”
I asked him what nationality he was, and he replied that he was Hungarian. “When the Germans came, they took all of us who were against them and scattered us throughout many camps – men, women, children, all scattered.”
I asked him if there were many women and children here, and he replied that there were many of them. At one time there were nearly 300 little children who had been here for four to six years. “When the Americanish came they took all of the women and children still alive to a better place.” I asked him how long he had been here, and he said, “I am much fortunate, only one year.”
“Do you see that monument over there?” he said. “We built that last week to honor the 51,000 people who have died here in 12 years. 5,000,000 prisoners have been in and out of this camp.” I looked at a pyramid-type monument built of plywood. On it were the numbers 51,000 encased in a large pine-bough wreath, and above this, the letters “HLB.”
“Were there German prisoners here?” I asked, and he answered that there were – politicals and saboteurs. “How did the other prisoners treat them? I asked.
“We hated them! Always they were fatter than we, and friendly to the guards. They spied on us!”
He took us to the kitchen where huge, steaming vats filled with boiled potatoes and fresh meat were much in evidence. The guide told us that before, they ate black bread; one loaf to 10 people, and thin potato soup. He stated that they worked 12 hours a day, and sometimes 15 to 18 hours for punishment. They worked in the mines, in the factories, and “out there.” He swept his hand toward the west and the north.
Then he led us to the building where they slept. It had a very unpleasant odor, but it had evidently been cleaned a lot. On both sides of this narrow, low room were built three wooden shelves the entire length of the room. The distance between the shelves was about four feet, the depth about seven or eight feet, wide enough for six people. A few filthy quilts were laying about.
Our guide stated that there was no heat in the winter, nor mattresses. “When one of our comrades died from cold or hunger, we didn’t report it, but left him lying in his place. Then we could some times get his food rations.” He told us that 600 persons slept on each side. “How do you say that in American “for each side?” he asked, and I answered him. “Twelve hundred. That is too many!” As we left I noticed but one filthy bucket-like toilet for 1200 people!
Outside were printed crude signs on the buildings. “We Welcome the Americans. Viva La Americain, etc.” A dummy of Hitler was hanging from a scaffold with a sign beneath. “I asked him what the sign said, and he answered, “The German people will not be free, ‘til Hitler is dead.”
I asked him about the laboratories, but he wouldn’t take us there. “It is a bad place. Prisoners never come back from there.” Eisen and Alta, however, saw the laboratories, well-equipped, clean, modern, several bottled specimens of human organs, a tattooed skin peeled from a prisoner and made into a lamp shade.
It seems that Ilsa Koch, the Commandant’s wife, had a sadist penchant for human tattoos. There was a lamp made with a base made of a human femur, and Mickey saw the shrunken head of a Polish prisoner, who had tried to escape, was beheaded, and his head ‘shrunken.’ I’m glad I didn’t see this.
As we returned to the main part of the camp there were 16 Army trucks filled with liberated prisoners, some returning to France. The guide said that it was a happy day for them, but not nearly as happy as on Wednesday when the Americanish came and freed us!
Some of our enlisted men were busy handing out candy bars and gum to the survivors. I thanked our Hungarian guide for what he had done for us today, and asked him when he thought he would be going home. He replied that it would be a week or 10 days. I wanted so very much to say something besides “good-bye.” I wanted to do something for him, but I didn’t know what to say or to do. Everything seemed so inadequate.
As I went to our truck near the gate, French survivors who weren’t leaving today were gathered near the trucks of those who were leaving for home. Standing crowded together in the truckloads, some still in prison garb, others in cast-off clothing, those starved, but elated survivors broke into song, singing their national anthem, “La Marseilles” with all the fervor they could muster as their truck rolled by. Tears were streaming down their gaunt, white faces as they waved to their fellowmen, left behind.
I, too, waved. I started to cry and couldn’t stop. I walked slowly to our “6×6” and with the rest of our group drove back to Gotha. None of us spoke. It continued to rain.
(This article was published in either the Deseret News or the Salt Lake Tribune in June 1995. Ella Matson Lindsay died of bone cancer on March 10, 1996, one day before her 77th birthday.)