Editor’s Note: This year’s Days of Rembrance theme is Never Again: Heeding the Warning Signs. On April 12, the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust hosted the annual State Official Observance at the State Capitol. The 2013 Humanitarian Award was presented to Bill Nigut, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. In keeping with the theme, we are reprinting the reflections of William A. Scott III, son of the founder of the Atlanta Daily World, and a World War II veteran who was present at the liberation of Buchenwald.
When one explores the hall of memories, some moments cannot be forgotten or dimmed by the passage of time. I remember the day — clear and sunny — riding in a convoy into Eisenach, Germany, on April 11, 1945, as World War II was ending; and a 3rd Army courier delivering a message to us to continue on to a concentration camp (Buchenwald), 10 or more miles further east, near Weimar.
I was a reconnaissance sergeant, photographer, camoufleur and part-time historian in S-2 (Intelligence Section) of the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion. We were in the 8th Corps of General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army.
As we rode into Buchenwald, I can remember thinking: “There is no place as horrible as we have been told — no atrocities — we should turn around, stop wasting time, go back to Eisenach and establish our Battalion Headquarters.” But we continued and finally arrived at a place that did not look so bad as we passed the main entrance. But as we rolled around the front building, we saw the feeble mass of survivors milling around.
We got out of our vehicles, and some began to beck to us to follow and see what had been done in that place. They were walking skeletons. The sights were beyond description. What little we had been told in an orientation session in Northern France in early December 1944, was nothing in comparison.
And I had thought no place could be this bad.
I took out my camera and began to take some photos, but that only lasted for a few pictures. As the scenes became more gruesome, I put my camera in its case and walked in a daze with the survivors as we viewed all forms of dismemberment of the human body. We learned that 31,000 of the 51,000 persons there had been killed in a two-week period prior to our arrival. An SS trooper had remained until the day of our arrival; survivors had captured him. As he tried to flee over a fence, he was taken into a building, and two men from my unit followed. They said he was trampled to death by the survivors.
I began to realize why few, if any, people would believe the atrocities I had seen. HOLOCAUST was the word used to describe it, but one has to witness it to even begin to believe it. And finally, after going through several buildings with various displays — lampshades of human skin, incinerators choked with human bones, dissected heads and bodies, testes in labeled bottles, so that they could be seen by the victims on a shelf by the door as they went in and out of the barracks (after two weeks of this procedure, they would be killed, but we arrived before this ritual could be continued) — my mind closed the door on this horror.
We eventually left after helping to remove some of the survivors for medical assistance. As we rode back to Eisenach in silence, I remembered that about 1,000 persons in an isolated area were in better shape than the others. Who were they? Russians, we were told. But, I asked myself, how could a country, classified during my high school days of the late 1930s as probably the world’s most literate, allow this type of mass murder and psychotic behavior to take place? There were no answers, as many thoughts raced throughmy mind.
Even though my ancestors had arrived in our country (the United States of America) as slaves in chains from Africa, and subjected to torture and death during the long centuries of slavery, it all seemed to pale in comparison to the glaring impact of what I had witnessed at Buchenwald. I later learned about other death facilities, including the monstrous Auschwitz. My slaveancestors, despite the horrors they were subjected to, had value and were listed among the assets of a slaveholder.
Had the Nazi position prevailed in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (my slave great-grandfather and namesake, William Alexander Scott, fought with the Union Army in Mississippi), I, or others in similar situations, would not exist in the world today. The Earth would have literally become the “Forbidden Planet,” where no humans would exist. Only Robby the Robot and Hal the Computer would patrol the Plains.
My life, as I have contemplated the impact of past events on it, has evolved into a character that exhibits an attitude to fellow humans that they have nothing to fear from me or my family. I am only one. But my wife, our children (a son and a daughter, their children, 2 boys and a girl, and 2 boys, respectively) have the character and function that no one should fear them. They have no designs on others or their families.
William A. Scott III, son of the founder of the Atlanta Daily World and father of the current publisher, M. Alexis Scott, wrote this reflection in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
(Photo: A photographer with the 318th Air Force Base Squadron at Tuskegee, Ala., took this photo of William A.Scott III in March 1943, shortly after his induction at Fort Benning, Ga.)