A Jerseyman At Buchenwald

Bob Shinn

Below is a letter from American G.I. Bob Shinn to his family, about his encounter with a prisoner at Buchenwald concentration camp who was from Jersey. It is reprinted here with kind permission from the Shinn family. The letter is painful to read. But in Bob’s words, important to remember “what we are fighting for.” We would like to identify the prisoner. Do you know his name?

Update: Dr. Gilly Carr confirms the prisoner was Emile Du Bois, and you can read more about him (and other Islanders sent to camps during WW2) on the Frank Falla Archive website.

Pegnitz, Germany
April 22, 1945

Dear Mother, Dad, & Jean,

I’m terribly ashamed of myself. It has been almost two weeks since I last wrote and I probably have you all worrying yourselves sick. Why, I don’t know, but from what you say, you seem to worry about me. It is still the same old moving, but that is what we want so that is not a gripe. But the last few places have been rather temporary and very “crummy.” Both which contribute nothing to an incentive to write.

We moved 150 miles the other night in total black out over winding mountain roads. I drove half of the way and I don’t believe I have ever seen a more gruelling trip. It took us from 7 o’clock one night to 10 o’clock the next morning to cover the distance, and I felt every mile of it.

I have seen a lot of things during this period of time, but the most horrible was a visit to the German concentration camp near Srimar named Buchenwald. It was absolutely the most horrible, gruesome, pitiful sight I have ever seen, and I will never, never forget it. To best describe it, I shall give you a “play by play description.”

The camp was situated about six miles from the city on top of a hill. Several large factories had surrounded it, but were bombed out by our Air Force. As we rode up to the huge iron gates, flanked by electrified and barbed wire, and sentry houses with machine guns, we saw all sorts of things that used to be human beings, but now were nothing more than dregs of humanity.

The ex-prisoners had been asked by military officials to stay at the camp to facilitate their care and also to prevent the blocking of military traffic, so they were all living just as they had been – some for 12-13 years. With the exception that they were getting meat for the first time since they had been there. We were greeted by a man who spoke English who came from the Jersey Islands and had been a slave since the Island’s occupation. He volunteered to serve as our guide which was very fortunate since he knew all the things and all the little, horrible incidents which was what the camp was made of.

The first stop was the crematory with a cart outside piled high with corpses that were men that had wasted away to nothing. It is unbelievable that a man could survive until he got in such condition. You have heard of “skin and bones.” Well, this is exactly all that was left of these men.

The bodies were waiting to be cremated when the tanks arrived and drive the German “beasts” away. Inside near the furnaces were the remains of human forms still in the firebox. Downstairs was the torture room. Our guide said that they used to hang men on the wall with a rope around their necks tied to a peg hammered in the wall about 12 feet from the floor. Then they would beat them and spray them with ice water in order to get information from the poor fellows. If they happened to die in the process, they merely put them on a nearby elevator and sent them up to the crematory. In order to leave no evidence the Germans had plastered up the holes where the pegs had been, but they neglected the victims had clawed and picked. And the new plaster was plainly noticeable. The torturers’ aprons and bloodstained smocks were still hanging there and rubber gloves and a basin of bloody water was still on the table.

Then we went to the most pitiful and horrible place of all. It was a wooden tar-paper shed about the size of one floor of our regulation camp barracks in the States. Here the men that were on the verge of dying were put until they did die and went to the crematory. The place was packed with men lying on mere wooden shelves, three high with one thin blanket per man. They were suffering from a variety of things with dysentery and T.B. the most prominent. Such a gaunt, haggard, thin group of human beings I have never seen or want to see again.

When they spied us a thin cheer and hand-clap was managed and you could hear the word “Americans” whispered through the place in a variety of languages ranging from French to Russian. The stench of the place, plus the looks of these poor souls made my stomach turn flip-flops.

The majority of course were Jewish, and a surprising number could speak English. I chatted with a few Frenchmen and one Dutchman who spoke marvellous English. He was in a pitiful state but the knowledge that he was a free man and was going to be taken care of made his spirits sky high.

I have had people thank me before, but in no way comparable to the way these men muttered their thanks in all languages. You didn’t have to know their language to know what they meant. Some of the men were in such bad shape that 40 had died just the morning we were there. They never had any medical attention whatsoever and all of it that we could offer wouldn’t save them.

A shed behind this so-called hospital was stacked high with corpses. From there we visited the various living quarters and talked with a good many of them.

The French, with their traditional enthusiasm, were the most interesting. I talked with a few who came from towns that I had visited and they were delighted that I could speak French and that I was telling them about their homes. Our guide showed us the barracks where the SS guards had kept women for immoral purposes and the direction in which our tanks had come.

One of the big reasons for their gratefulness came from the fact that we arrived just two hours in time. The guards were setting up machine-guns and preparing grenades to exterminate the whole camp when the tanks arrived. And there were many other interesting incidents. Such as the men had to stand on the parade ground for roll call at 7:20 P.M. each day. If any men were missing they had to stand there sometimes all night until they were found.

They survived on a cup of ersatz coffee, a liter of watery, turnip soup and a fifth of a loaf of bread a day.

How they managed to work anywhere from 12 - 16 hours a day I don’t know. Then the man that was delousing the prisoners with our DDT powder invented in 1938 and gave the formula to the USA. He had been the self-elected doctor for the prisoners for five years.

The men slept in a room about 50’ long by 75’ which held 1500 men. The camp’s population was approximately 75,000. Then if a prisoner had a nice tattoo they would kill him, skin him, and make lamp-shades, book covers and other curios out of the skin. I know – I saw them.

I had heard about such atrocities for a long time. I had believed a certain amount of it, but I figured that a great deal was “painted up.” After this visit I’m convinced that the Germans are capable of most anything, especially their SS troopers. The popular comment of the men that saw it was: “You would never believe it if you didn’t see it.” Our English guide said after we had come out again, “And some people ask, “What are we fighting for?”

We have two Czechoslovakians from the camp doing our K.P. for us now working their way home, you might say. And one Dutchman who acts as the company’s interpreter. He speaks marvellous English and about 4 other languages, and loves to cope with the German people we come in contact with. Especially, if it means they have to move out of their homes to supply us with billets. He hates everything German. The Czechs are swell fellows. One was a draftsman and the other a schoolteacher in civilian life. All three are very happy and mealtime is the most enjoyable period they have.

[rest of the letter personal]