|Memory of WWII massacre in Germany kept alive in book|
|Written by Darci Tomky|
Over 1,000 people lost their lives in Gardelegen, Germany April 13, 1945, but with the help of artifacts, history records and individuals, their story lives on today.
After several years of research, 48-year-old Torsten Haarseim has completed a book recounting the WWII massacre which took place in his hometown, and the “Gardelegen Holocaust” book wouldn’t have been quite the same without aid from Elton Oltjenbruns of Holyoke.
“As part of my research, I received contact with Elton Oltjenbruns,” said Haarseim. “From 2011 to 2013, he wrote to me and told me about what happened. For that I thank him very much in this way.”
The first letter was sent from Haarseim June 16, 2011, as he pieced together the puzzle of the Gardelegen massacre. Since Oltjenbruns does not have a computer and Haarseim does not speak English, the two have been corresponding by mailing letters and other documents, with the German using the Internet to translate his writing into English.
“The letters have brought back memories that I would like to forget,” said Oltjenbruns in his second letter. “But memories of the war are hard to erase from one’s mind.”
This Holyoke boy was 22 when he was drafted into the Army at Fort Logan in October 1942. He was one of the first to enter the newly-organized 102nd Infantry Division.
By September 1944, Oltjenbruns was one of 8,000 on a troop ship landing at Cherbourg, France. As a medic and ambulance driver, he served with the 2nd Battalion aid station involved with care and evacuation. Oltjenbruns was in Europe about a year, being discharged Nov. 11, 1945.
After Haarseim’s first letter of inquiry, Oltjenbruns, now in his 90s, confirmed he was with the 2nd Battalion of the 405th Regiment of the 102nd Infantry Division (the Ozarks), the first unit to come upon the massacre at Gardelegen.
In Germany in mid-April 1945, nearing the end of the war, U.S. forces occupied the Gardelegen area after a quick surrender by the Germans. An American lieutenant who had been captured led the Germans to believe the American tanks were upon Gardelegen, ready to blast the city. The surrender interrupted the Germans who were hastily trying to conceal the atrocity taking place on the outskirts of town.
At the beginning of April, an evacuation had been ordered for the political and military prisoners being held at the Mittelbau-Dora labor camp. They were driven west toward other German camps to escape the Russians.
Forced from the train about 12 kilometers from Gardelegen, the starved prisoners began their death march, with only 1,200 reaching Gardelegen, as many fell and were shot along the road.
Hearing the town of Gardelegen would soon fall, on April 13 the sick and weak prisoners, who greatly outnumbered the German soldiers, were taken to a large cement barn on the Isenschnibbe estate just outside the town before they could turn on their captors or give secrets to the Allies.
“I am sorry that I have reminded you of the awful experiences of war and in particular the massacre of Gardelegen,” Haarseim wrote to Oltjenbruns. “I myself remember almost daily because I live on the surface of the former Remonteschule. From here the prisoners ran on the 13th of April, 1945 to the barn.”
German author Torsten Haarseim researches the Gardelegen, Germany massacre, a passion of his for many years. He began correspondence with Holyoke’s Elton Oltjenbruns in June 2011.
Once the prisoners arrived at the barn, an empty structure 100 by 50 feet, they were ordered to sit down. “If they did not realize their fate at first, they most certainly must have feared the worst when they saw the gasoline-soaked straw scattered knee-deep on the floor,” said the history book “With the 102nd Infantry Division Through Germany.”
With only minutes to contemplate their fate, a corporal, only 16 years of age, laughed as he struck a match to the straw. A thousand people were deliberately burned alive, and if they escaped the fiery barn, they were shot to death.
The next morning, the Germans were busy cleaning up the evidence, but the freshly dug common graves were interrupted by the surrender of Gardelegen that afternoon. Had the city held on another day, no evidence would have been left.
On Sunday, April 15, members of Oltjenbruns’ battalion were doing a routine search at Gardelegen. At the site of the barn, they found “several prison-uniformed bodies, riddled with bullet wounds and peculiarly charred, laying twisted in the green spring wheat nearby,” according to the 102nd Infantry history book.
“Finally, when one of the great wooden doors was pushed open there issued forth to pollute the early spring morning, a cloud of smoke and a stench of burned flesh. Overcoming their nausea, the soldiers explored the forbidding interior to find heaped there in contortions characteristic of the most violent agonies of death the charred and smoking bodies of what they estimated to be at least 300 men.”
Later investigations found 1,016 people died in that barn, in their striped clothes with tatooed numbers on their arms.
“That was war,” said Oltjenbruns.
The people of Gardelegen, Germany are charged with the responsibility of maintaining the cemetery with the graves of prisoners who died in the 1945 massacre.
In 1979, Elton and Eunice Oltjenbruns visited the Gardelegen memorial in Germany, which honors the 1,016 lives lost of prisoners of war. One wall of the barn where they were burned alive remains to remind people of the tragedy.
He said he doesn’t remember much of the massacre at Gardelegen, but he has enough memories of his own from the war. “That war bothers me; it bothered me all these years,” he said. “You can’t erase your memory.”
In a document recounting his experiences at war, Oljenbruns wrote, “The haunting memories of war live on,” noting the sight of the thousands of bombers, the elderly civilians who tried to escape the war, the prisoners at the Elbe River and “the sight of more than a thousand bodies of political prisoners that were murdered the day before we captured Gardelegen.”
In 1979, Oltjenbruns and his wife Eunice traveled with his Ozark group back to Europe to retrace their steps in the war. They visited Germany and the memorial at Gardelegen where one wall of the barn still stands. They also saw the cemetery where the 1,016 prisoners were given a proper burial.
Following the atrocity, the division commander marched citizens from Gardelegen and nearby towns to the barn to witness the still-smoldering bodies. Every able-bodied German civilian from the neighborhood was forced to provide the bodies their final resting place, marked with a cross or star of David.
The large sign at the cemetery read, “Here lie 1,016 Allied prisoners of war who were murdered by their captors. They were buried by the citizens of Gardelegen, who are charged with the responsibility that these graves are forever kept as green as the memories of these unfortunate souls will be kept in the hearts of the freedom-loving men everywhere.”
“I am often thinking about the past,” said Haarseim in one of his letters. “Therefore, I write a book about the massacre. It is a novel; I’m telling the story from the point of view of a prisoner and a paratrooper.”
Elton Oltjenbruns is corresponding with author Torsten Haarseim about his knowledge of the Gardelegen atrocity during his time as a U.S. Army soldier in WWII.
Haarseim has done much research and has even uncovered artifacts from the earth near Gardelegen, including two dog tags from U.S. soldiers, a mystery he has tried to uncover.
The book was scheduled to be done the end of 2012, and Oltjenbruns excitedly waits to receive his copy in the mail.
“I am proud to know you and thank you for the letters and information,” Haarseim told Oltjenbruns, also noting he wrote a personal thanks to him in the introduction of the book.
Haarseim lives in Gardelegen with his wife Franka and their cat Rüdiger.
Following WWII, Oltjenbruns remained active with the 102nd Infantry Division Association, attending many reunion gatherings around the country and keeping in contact with the men he served with.
Holyoke Enterprise February 21, 2013