Aaron Latkin remembers that April day 70 years ago when the order came down for the 281st Combat Engineers Battalion to suddenly change course.
“The Germans were in full retreat and we were moving pretty fast,” recalls the 92-year-old Livermore resident. “As we were going toward Berlin, we were ordered to drop everything we were doing and go to another area.”
Latkin’s battalion and Gen. George C. Patton’s Third Army, which had taken part in the Battle of the Bulge only a few months before, abruptly turned south toward Ohrdruf. The subcamp of Buchenwald was the first concentration camp to be liberated by the U.S. Army, and Latkin had arrived a week after the liberators.
He never forgot what he saw there. In recent years, the retired Lawrence Livermore Lab engineer has spent much time talking to students, veterans and other groups about his experience.
“We were in shock seeing what had happened there,” Latkin recalls. “As the Army moved in, the Germans running the camp, mostly SS, tried to hide what was going on. They tried to kill all the inmates and burn the remains. We got there beforehand. There were probably thousands still there. Bodies stacked like cordwood.”
Ohrdruf, located in a Berlin suburb, had been built in late 1944 as a prisoner-of-war and forced labor camp. It had housed up to 20,000 foreign nationals from across Europe, as well as Jews. As the Allies closed in, the SS running the camp tried to kill as many inmates as possible before fleeing.
The camp was liberated on April 4, 1945, with Patton’s Army coming a week later.
Raised in a Jewish home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Latkin had been aware of the Nazi persecution. But seeing Hitler’s death machine up close was a life-changing experience for the former Army private.
“I had a camera with me in the camp,” Latkin says. “Patton ordered the [German] residents of the town to go through the entire camp. The women were crying, and the men were ordered to dig the dead inmates out of the mass graves and put them in individual graves. I have pictures of some of the men doing that.”
He still has the 1937 Argus camera he carried across Europe.
“The reaction of the townspeople was mixed,” he added. “Some were crying, others walked in stoic silence and others pleaded innocence of any knowledge of the activities in this nearby camp. Our thoughts were, how could they not know?”
In another indelible moment, an emaciated inmate dressed in striped rags approached Latkin and motioned him over to a barracks. Lying on the ground was the battered corpse of a much-hated SS guard who had been spotted in a nearby town by liberated inmates, dragged back to camp and stabbed to death.
“[The inmate] told me that after the guards left, this was one guard who was particularly vicious to the inmates,” Latkin recounts.
Ohrdruf proved important in Holocaust history. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower toured the camp, writing to Gen. George Patton: “The things I saw beggar description. … I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.”
Eisenhower anticipated Holocaust denial on the very day its proof became certain to the Allies.
Latkin remained in Germany until February 1946 as part of America’s occupying Army. He says the day at Ohrdruf left him with feelings of shock, disbelief and anger at Germany. But he also remembers the thrill of victory once the war was officially over.
“It was a good feeling,” he says. “I was alive, we won, and we were on our way home after three years. It was unconditional surrender.”
Latkin eventually moved to California with his wife, Myra, first to Pleasanton, where they became charter members of Congregation Beth Emek, and then Livermore. The couple has two sons, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
When Latkin gives public lectures, he stresses his belief that World War II was the good war.
“I consider myself another soldier with a story to tell,” he says, noting that he reminds audiences “how well we were treated as vets, with honor and respect.”