From the Vault: The road to Neunburg

31 Photos

Todd Richissin, The Sun’s London correspondent, reported this story by, in part, following the footsteps of a Sun correspondent who traveled with American troops during World War II, the late Lee McCardell. It was initially published in May 2005.

McCardell arrived in Neunburg with the 11th U.S. Armored Division and parts of the 3rd Army in April 1945, and filed a lengthy article about the mass funeral organized by the Americans, along with photographs of those events.

Richissin, 60 years later, interviewed many of the surviving participants.

Warning: Graphic images

NEUNBURG VORM WALD, Germany – Those sounds, those terrible sounds are what people here recall most vividly from 60 years ago, perhaps because what they heard has never really gone away.

They hear the echoes, still.

The people of this beautiful and ugly town who were here during the final days of World War II still hear the sobbing, the pleading, the cries of skeletal men one breath from dead. They hear the gunshots, hear the brief and sickening quiet, then the soft slap of bodies falling in heaps on gravel and grass and blood-dampened sand.

There is no gentle way to tell the story of what happened back then in this Bavarian town.

On April 21, 1945, a Saturday night, Nazi SS guards slaughtered 161 men along Neunburg vorm Wald’s roadsides and farms, on the town’s church lawns and in its schoolyards, shot them dead or brained them with rifle butts, not as some desperate tactic to win the war but because they knew they had already lost it.

These men, all of them prisoners, were among the last of the 37 million people killed in World War II, murdered just days before the Allies arrived to liberate them.

Because of how they were killed – and even more because of what happened in the days afterward – the end of the war for Neunburg has never quite arrived.

“What happened is not just something that we should not forget,” said Neunburg’s mayor, Wolfgang Bayerl. “It is something we cannot forget.”

That is mostly because of of the actions of the U.S. soldiers who arrived in town and discovered the 161 bodies dumped like trash in shallow graves on a hill. Despite the scale of killing in World War II, the soldiers would not permit 161 murdered men to be trivialized.

The soldiers forced the townspeople – all of the 2,500 except children under 5 and the very old – to dig up the bodies, then to mourn the murdered men and bury them with some measure of dignity.

The day before these men were killed they had been prisoners in a concentration camp called Flossenburg, about 25 miles north of Neunburg. The Allies were closing in.

By then the whole world, including Hitler, knew that the outcome of the war was certain. The Nazis could not win. Nevertheless, as the SS guards had already done at Auschwitz and other camps as the Allies drew near, they hurriedly evacuated Flossenburg.

Another death march had begun.

About 17,000 prisoners were marched out the gates that April 20, a Friday. They were split into groups, taking different routes south toward the well-known concentration camp at Dachau.

Prisoners too weak to hurry – thousands of them – were killed along the route. Most of the deaths occurred in the Bavarian forests undetected, silent to anybody but the prisoners and their captors.

But the next day, Saturday, the march came upon Neunburg (NOYN-burg), and now those sounds would be heard.

The screams came in different languages, but to the Germans all the words meant the same.

“Mutter! Bitte! Hilfe! Nein!”

“Mother! Please! Help! No!” begged the prisoners, gaunt from forced labor, starvation and disease, the sentence for the crime of being Jews.

Then the shots.

If the true magnitude of World War II – the most destructive conflict in the history of man – is simply too large to grasp, look to Neunburg when those screams and gunshots first became part of this valley, during those final days of April 1945.

“We had seen the sick, and we had seen the dead, but that didn’t prepare us for that Saturday night,” said Rosa Hastreiter, who heard those sounds at age 21 as she lay in bed, motionless, and who still hears them at age 81.

“It was those sounds, those sounds, that were so terrible, so awful I could never forget.”

The dead, their killers, the townspeople, the U.S. soldiers bent on right, were the war encapsulated, its worldwide costs and purpose and heroism and sheer ugliness condensed here in the isolation of this lush green valley near the Czech border.

All year, in advance of V-E day on May 8, commemorations have been held to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the killing factories of the Nazis: At Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Majdanek and Dachau, Treblinka and Sobibor and Flossenburg. Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and real or perceived members of the German opposition were killed in these camps, and world leaders have gathered at these places.

Neunburg is not a place for world leaders. The village seems, somehow, to be almost isolated in its history and trapped in it.

Photographs from 1945 show the cobblestoned main street, called Hauptstrasse, looking very much the same as today. Then, as now, the Altes Schloss, a castle dating from the 10th century, towers overhead. Houses with double-sized doors share the sides of the street with little, family-owned markets. City hall still arcs over that street.

“What the Americans did here – maybe that could be considered harsh,” said Mayor Bayerl, who at 59 was not yet born when Neunburg became a killing field, but knows well that prisoners from Flossenburg had been marched on the street beneath the office where he speaks.

“Then I think what happened and what the Nazis did – these human beasts, I call them – and I think, maybe the Americans had the right idea.”

Rosa Hastreiter is more certain because, she said, somebody has to be responsible. As frightening as the screaming and gunshots were, she remembers just as vividly the sounds that followed.

“I heard the cries for help – ‘Mother! Please! Help! No!’ – and then I heard shots,” she said.

“And then I heard the bodies land.”

‘Whispers’ of slaughter

On April 29, 1945, Lee McCardell, a Sun war correspondent, sent this dispatch back to Baltimore: “The little men of Neunburg, who say they did not know what went on in the Nazi concentration camps, know now. So do the women and older children of Neunburg.”

In fact, it now appears clear that many people in this town did not know what was happening up the road, at the Flossenburg camp, or at any of the other camps. But it also is clear that many Germans did.

“Of course there were whispers,” said the elderly Hastreiter, who worked for the local government during the war. “Anybody who wanted to know could have known. But nobody wanted to know. You didn’t dare.”

What they did not want to know, or what they ignored – many out of fear that they themselves would become prisoners or killed by the SS – was that the camps set up for Jews and the others were not merely harsh prisons but places where hundreds of thousands of people were worked to their death.

The Flossenburg concentration camp and its satellite camps scarring the hills held about 100,000 prisoners. Most worked its rock quarries. At least 30,000 people died there, perhaps double that.

The German army was collapsing on itself as the Allies strangled it. In Bavaria, the 2nd U.S. Calvary, led by Col. Charles Reed, was closing in on Flossenburg along with other elements of the 3rd U.S. Army, commanded by Gen. George S. Patton.

The SS at Flossenburg followed Hitler’s orders, which applied to all the Nazi concentration camps: The camps were to be evacuated of prisoners and rid of any evidence about the activities there.

On the edge of Neunburg, Johann Deml was working with one of his brothers, Alois, on the family farm, not yet bare of chickens and cattle.

The Demls were and are a country-sized family – all 10 children still survive – Alois, now 65, the youngest. The farm is a speck on a vast flat within gently rolling green hills, a few miles from the village center.

SS guards and a column of about 500 prisoners from Flossenburg arrived on the Deml farm on April 21, the day after the death march began.

“It was a pretty Saturday, very early in the morning,” said Johann Deml, straining not at all as he recalled the details. “The Nazis knew the end was near. They arrived, and the soldiers wanted eggs and warm food. They said, ‘This will be our last warm meal for some time.’

“My father wanted to feed the prisoners because they were so hungry. The SS said, ‘No. You will not feed them today.'”

Exhausted and starving, 10 of the prisoners died before the night was out.

Two barns housed the men. One of the barns still stands. It has two floors and now is filled with yellow straw and fat cows.

“The prisoners took up every inch of space,” Alois Deml, recalled clearly, though he was 5 at the time.

“They were very skinny, but there were so many of them.”

The prisoners knew they were being moved because the Allies were approaching. Some left their fate in the hands of the Americans and their war partners. Others hid.

“Most of them went under the boards that were the floor of the barn,” Johann Deml said. “But the guards had dogs, and you could hear the dogs barking and barking and you knew what would come next.”

There were more sounds of pleading.

“It’s still in my head today,” said the elder Deml, now a 75-year-old farmer who cannot forget what happened when he was a 15-year-old boy.

“I can still hear it, and I can still see the bodies,” he said. “I can still see the faces of the dead men as they were piled in a cart with their heads hanging over the edges. It will be with me until I die.”

The prisoners who were caught hiding, about 25 of them over the course of the night, were marched to a roundish, shallow depression in the hills less than one mile down the road. There, they were shot. They were covered in dirt, a single shallow grave for all of them.

The U.S. Army arrived two days later on April 23, a Monday. The Nazis and the remaining prisoners were gone.

Like the Neunburg people of the village center, the Deml brothers and their family were initially judged by the Americans as being as bad as the SS guards.

“Of course we knew in the end” just how brutal the SS was, said Johann Deml. “We were there. We didn’t know about Flossenburg because we did not leave the farm. Others knew. I know that now.”

The family, though, had tried to help the prisoners, the Americans concluded. The family bathed as many men they were allowed to – “They were covered in lice,” Alois Deml recalled.

American soldiers ordered the prisoners dug up from that depression in the hills by the Deml’s farm. They ordered coffins constructed and individual burial plots dug. And a small funeral was held.

The soldiers found other dead prisoners buried along virtually the entire route from Flossenburg to Neunburg.

They found one body, and soon another body and then another body still. At times they would find three or four men in a single grave.

Then they hiked up another hill, overlooking the village, and they found a few shallow graves filled with 161 bodies.

60 years later

People here who were born after 1945 can still be touched, directly, by what happened in their town, sometimes when a mother or father or aunt finally releases once-untold memories, or when they listen to people like Rosa Hastreiter.

On April 21, as she lay in bed with the blackout shades down, the shots and screams she heard marked wholesale, rapid murder.

The next morning, as people walked by her house on the way to Sunday Mass, these last 161 victims lay dead along stretches of road. During the day, the bodies were tossed into carts pulled by horses and oxen and carried to the crest of that hill overlooking the village center.

That is where the U.S. soldiers from the 11th U.S. Armored Division and parts of the 3rd Army found them.

The dead were Polish and Hungarian, Romanian and Yugoslavian. All of them were Jews.

The soldiers summoned the village’s men to the hill. The Neunburg men were ordered to unearth these dead men. They pulled many from the pits using rope.

The bodies were ghastly. Eyes were gouged out. Heads were caved in. Every man was a sack of bones.

Over the next several days, most of the men of Neunburg, and some of the town’s women, were kept on farms and open fields and made to build 161 pine coffins, old-style, with handles sticking from every corner.

Black crepe was ordered attached to the white flags of surrender flapping from Neunburg’s windows.

On April 29, the U.S. Army ordered the townspeople to line the cobblestone streets of the village center, though the people were not told why.

The newly built coffins were stacked at a crossroad just west of the town.

Prisoners from the same march, who had now been freed by the Allies, struggled up the hill to where the exhumed bodies lay, and they held Jewish funeral rites.

Then, as McCardell described, the men of the village grabbed the empty coffins and at the order of the U.S. military began their own march, following in the freed prisoners’ footsteps, to retrieve the dead.

When there were no men left to carry the bodies – most of those in town had been drafted into the Germany military – women and children were enlisted, and they marched up the hill, too.

Each body was placed in a coffin.

Then, single file, the reluctant pallbearers marched through the streets, away from the hill and toward the center of Neunburg, the postcard scenery all around, grand hills, all green, a spider-web network of streams that still sparkle in the glint of the sun.

Through it all, the twisted bodies of the dead lay in open coffins held aloft on tired Neunburg shoulders.

Below, on the village streets, Annemarie Dietrich, age 9 and horrified, had been ordered to stand at the side of a road.

“I was trying to hide behind my mother’s dress, holding it with my hand over my eyes,” she recalled, and the longer she talked about it, the shorter her breaths became, the closer her eyes to tears.

“The soldiers kept pulling me from behind her and setting me in front, right on the side of the road, to see what we did. But I was a child. Of course, I didn’t know. I’d run back behind my mother and they’d grab me by the shoulders and plant me in the front row. I was one meter from the road.

“All I did was cry. I was traumatized for the longest time. I wouldn’t leave my mother’s skirt.

“In the days after, if my mother was not around, I would cry and say, ‘Where is my mother, where is my mother?'”

Her son, Werner Dietrich, listened to his mother as she recalled that day. He had known about the shootings and about the funeral.

He did not know about his mother’s involvement, about how she was forced so close to those bodies, held so responsible.

“I had to deal with it all day in my mind and in my heart,” the son, Werner Dietrich, said two days after hearing that from his mother.

“All of this about the Nazis, about these darkest days in history, was not close to people like me because of my age.

“Now it is part of me. Soon, when my children are older, it will be part of them.”

“I should have talked about it earlier,” his mother said, her son at her side. “I’m sorry now that I did not.”

Photographs taken by the journalist that day show little girls with hands on their faces.

When the bodies, still in open coffins, reached a cemetery in town, they were placed on the ground, and each person who had lined the streets was now made to walk past these men and to look at them.

The photographs from that time are frozen, but it is not difficult to see the people of Neunburg averting their eyes.

Only some people had known before the funeral why they were being summoned to the streets. But they knew it was going to be a public gathering, so the women wore dresses and nice winter coats, the men all arrived in their good suits, and the children had on their Sunday best.

A message from the Americans was read to the assembled in German. And from the words it is now apparent that, at least for these U.S. soldiers, the funeral was not merely for 161 men murdered in this town but for all those killed in the camps. Equally clear, the people of Neunburg were being held responsible not just for the murders on their land but for the sins of all of Hitler’s Germany.

“Look upon the mutilated broken and bloody bodies,” the statement said in part. “They are bodies carrying the marks of cruel disease brought about by the wretched treatment they have suffered in your own land.

“They are the bodies that have been so brutally beaten and violated that they are scarcely recognizable as human beings.

“May the memory of these tragic dead rest heavily upon the conscience of every German so long as each of you shall live.”

‘People were outraged’

Almost everybody in Neunburg on April 23, 1945, was glad the Americans had arrived, according to people who were there, because in a real sense they had liberated the town.

Rudolf Wiesneth, though, has always felt that the U.S. soldiers reacted unreasonably when they discovered the 161 dead men.

He was 16 at the time, is 76 now, and has always thought it wrong that the whole town was held responsible.

He detests what the Nazis did, he said, but he still resents the U.S. soldiers forcing him to carry a body through Neunburg, as if he were one of the SS.

“Of course people were outraged,” he said of the treatment of the prisoners, which he said was learned in detail only after the war. “We felt compassion for these poor creatures. But we did not identify with the deeds of the Nazis. We, who had nothing to do with them, had to carry those caskets.”

There is also little question, though, that many Germans who were not directly involved in the massacres knew what was happening in places like Flossenburg and Dachau.

“We cannot say that others are to blame. We, as German are all to blame,” said Cotheo Maenner, a high school teacher and a curator at the Neunburg museum. He teaches his students in detail what happened here 60 years ago.

“This whole thing that Germans didn’t know what was going on is a lie,” he said. “That people didn’t know all that was going on – that is true.

“Either way, is there anybody more responsible than the people whose country did this?”

Rosa Hastreiter, after those sounds, after six years of war, was grateful that the Americans had arrived.

She remembers rushing to the building she worked in, mostly handling the phones, and removing the picture that adorned every office, Hitler’s.

The morning of the funeral she was ordered to appear at a crossroads on the outskirts of town. She remembers clearly. She wore her nice winter coat.

“I was a pallbearer,” she said. “I walked like everybody. I was carrying a dead body, after all, and I remember the boot of the man sticking over the edge of the coffin.

“It was horrible, almost overwhelming, but I remember most thinking not to stumble or not to fall because the body would spill.”

The lesson was good, she said.

Wiesneth, sitting next to her, said the funeral was troubling but left him feeling no more responsibility, no guilt.

“I detest what happened to those men, but I was not responsible,” he said. “I have never had a dream about the funeral since. It was not my nightmare.”

Not unkindly, Hastreiter dismissed his comments with a wave of her hand.

“Everybody was responsible,” she said. “I was young, just a young girl, but how could I see these men and not be marked after what they had been through. They even had to die here, so miserably.

“It was genocide,” she said, using a word that people here still seem to consciously avoid. “We all can share responsibility if it means no genocide ever again.”

Some of the 161 men shot in Neunburg were reclaimed by their families. The others are buried with hundreds of other prisoners killed in the death marches and later found in the Bavarian forest.

They are buried in a four-tiered cemetery on a grassy bluff, beyond the noise of the village center. The graves are in a wooded area, so the leaves make a noise in the breeze, and birds chirp there.

Other than that, not a sound can be heard.

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.