The weather was warming at last, the Allied armies were on the move and victory seemed possible in the spring of 1945 when 22-year old Army Capt. Willis Scudder stumbled upon the Holocaust.
He was performing reconnaissance when, with no warning, he came upon Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the much larger Buchenwald concentration camp. Ohrdruf, the first camp discovered by U.S. troops in Germany, had been liberated by other members of the 89th Infantry Division just days earlier.
The images he saw that day have been seared into his memory ever since, said Scudder, now 88 and a retired Army colonel living in Fairfax. Walking skeletons milled about with blank faces, seemingly gliding around dead bodies. Inside a weather-beaten barracks, sick and dying men lay stacked to the ceiling on wooden shelves. In a field were piles of half-burned bodies, where the retreating Nazis had made an attempt to hide their crimes.
"There's no shock quite like seeing these things," Scudder said. "To understand and realize that people can do that. How could you dislike people that much?"
Yesterday, Scudder shared his memories at an observance at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum honoring the soldiers who liberated the camps, timed to coincide with this weekend's dedication of the National World War II Memorial.
He was joined by Holocaust survivors, museum dignitaries and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi in the museum's Hall of Witness, a cavernous space lined with the flags of U.S. Army divisions that freed the camps.
Through tomorrow, the museum has extended its hours to accommodate the anticipated flood of visiting veterans in town for the memorial's dedication. There is a special exhibit examining the experiences of U.S. soldiers as they fought across Western Europe and a documentary shown twice an hour featuring soldier and survivor interviews.
"Certainly by virtue of its setting and its message, the memorial implies what we were fighting for," said Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the museum. "When you come to this museum, you get a sense of what we were fighting against. I think it's important to see both sides."
Despite some previous news reports and intelligence about the Nazi campaign of genocide against Jews and others whom the Nazis considered undesirable, most Americans were as shocked as Scudder when Allied soldiers began overrunning concentration camps in 1945.
Newspapers had covered Germany's persecution of Jews in the 1930s, and stories about mass executions of Hungarian Jews appeared in 1944, said Peter Black, the Holocaust museum's senior historian. Even so, the U.S. government played down such reports, worried that domestic anti-Semitism might erode support for the war effort if Americans believed it was being fought on behalf of Jews, Black said. The stories were not front-page news, and many Americans only learned of the Holocaust when the camps were liberated.
What soldiers found provided a horrific picture of Hitler's regime for a U.S. public that until then had reserved its most bitter hatred for the Japanese because of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Black said. "There wasn't much of a sense of who the Germans were and who the Nazis had been in concrete terms before the GIs hit these camps," he said.
It also helped change Americans' perception of their country's role in the world, as they resolved to help make the United States a more active world player and try to stop such atrocities in the future, Black said. At the same time, he noted, many have since questioned whether the United States could have done more to save the victims of the Holocaust, particularly by allowing more European Jews into the country.
Despite those questions, many Holocaust survivors feel they owe their lives to American participation in the war and revere U.S. veterans for it -- particularly those who were the first upon the camps, Black said.
"That's a very close bond and a very moving bond," he said.
Henry Greenbaum, 76, survived Auschwitz and a four-month death march through Germany. His first sight of freedom was the blond hair of an American soldier, popping out of the hatch of a tank, and at yesterday's ceremony, he thanked that soldier, whose name he never learned, along with all his comrades.
"Your bravery allowed me to live again," he said. "Your courage gave me my freedom."
In the audience listening stood Herman Zeitchik, who at age 20 was one of the first U.S. soldiers to arrive at a subcamp of Dachau. When inmates learned that the young American was Jewish, too, they pulled at his sleeve in disbelief, Zeitchik recalled. The Silver Spring resident said he plans to attend tomorrow's dedication of the World War II Memorial as well.
"I think they should be tied together," he said of the memorial and the museum. "It'll be a last chance for many of the men who were at liberation. We're the last who saw this."