Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Harry J. Herder, Jr.: Child of Buchenwald

Those held captive by the Germans were not the only ones deeply affected by the horrors of POW and concentration camps. The men that liberated the camps also came away with impressions that would remain stamped in their memories throughout their lives. Harry J. Herder, Jr. of the Fifth Ranger Batallion with Patton's Third Army remembered the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp - and one small prisoner in particular - in his memoir, "A Catharsis."

Memoir Excerpts

Eventually I got to my [guard] tower, crawled up the staircase, and relieved the fellow from the Third Platoon. I set my things down and surveyed the scene in front of me. There were some heavily wooded areas around the outside of the camp, and the spring weather was turning the leaf buds a fuzzy green color. I imagined that it would be very beautiful there in the summer with all of the trees leafed out.

I was ruminating in this manner when I heard a tiny voice, and my attention came back to the inside of the camp. I could see nothing, but I heard the voice again, under me, down near the fence. I scrunched forward on the table to where I could see almost straight down. There, right in the middle of the hole in the fence, looking up, calling me, was this very small person. I waved my arm at him, letting him know that it was all right to come on through the fence, to come up the tower. The sound of his footsteps coming up the stairs was almost instantaneous.

He was very young, very small, and he spoke no English. He was dressed in bits and pieces of everything, ragged at best, and very dirty. He chattered up a storm and I could not understand one word. First, I got him to slow down the talk, then I tried to speak to him, and he could not understand a word I said. We were at a temporary stalemate. We started again from scratch, both of us deciding that names were the proper things with which to start, so we two traded names. I no longer remember the name he taught me, and I wish so badly, so often, I could remember. Our conversation started with nouns, naming things, and progressed to simple verbs, actions, and we were busy with that.

As we progressed I reached over into my field jacket to pull things out of the pocket to name. I came across a chocolate bar, and gave him the word "candy." He repeated it, and I corrected him, and he repeated it again, and he had the pronunciation close. I tore the wrapper off the chocolate bar and showed him the candy. He was mystified. It meant nothing to him. He had no idea what it was or what he was to do with it. I broke off a corner and put it in my mouth and chewed it. I broke off another corner and handed it to him and he mimicked my actions. His eyes opened wide. It struck me that he had never tasted chocolate. He took the rest of the candy bar slowly piece by piece, chewed it, savored it. It took him a little while but he finished the candy bar, looking at me with wonderment the whole time. I am sure that was the first candy the little fellow had ever had.

We continued. We worked out words for those things close around us, and while we were doing that, he was learning a bit of English, and I was not learning a word of his language - I do not know what language he spoke.

The rest of my four-hour tour was spent with him. I pretty well ignored what happened in the rest of the camp. My whole world shrank to the inside of the fourth floor of the tower and the young boy.

Toward the end of the tour, I found in a pocket of my field jacket one of those blocks of compressed cocoa that came in the K-Rations, and the two of us constructed a hot cup of cocoa. A canteen cup is rather a large cup and the two of us shared it. On the first sip he looked at me with a large smile and said the word "chocolate." We were starting to communicate. I gave him other things from the K-Ration packages, among them a small can with cheese and bits of bacon, which we opened with the can opener I wore on my dog tag chain. This meant he had to study the dog tags. His curiosity was immense. He ate the cheese mixture (which I ate only when I was very hungry), and sorted out the words "cheese" and "bacon", and he loved the stuff. I made up my mind to really load up before I came to the tower the next day.

That's the way the tour went - time passed - and it was all so pleasant. The little fellow was a joy, scampering around. I figured him to be somewhere between five and eight years old, but I was probably wrong, on the low side. Later, when I thought more about it, I realized whatever growing he had done had been on the rations of that camp. No great growth could be expected from a diet like that.

When we split at the end of the four hours, he pointed to my pack of cigarettes. My first thought was that I didn't want him to smoke them, but then I remembered the events yesterday in the camp when my pack of cigarettes simply disappeared. Cigarettes were for barter; they were exchange material. I had no idea how rich one was when one had a whole pack of cigarettes. To these people cigarettes were money, and I was getting them free from PX rations. When we parted I loaded him up with the candy bars I had, and my extra pack of cigarettes. He had them all inside his shirt and went streaking back through the whole in the fence and on up the hill.

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