Testimonies from the Midwest

 

Corporal Vernon W. Tott, 335 Infantry, 84th Division

Corporal Vernon W. Tott             Division patch           Photo of Vernon W. Tott

Vernon W. Tott was born and raised in Iowa, across the river from South Dakota. Although he is not a South Dakota veteran, his proximity, his recollections, and his photographs make his story a special addition to this book. And, as Vernon says, "I am a fisherman and I think I fished every lake and river in your state many times." What better qualification to become an honorary South Dakotan for this publication?

Service Record: Corporal Vernon W. Tott served as a radio operator for the 84th Division "Railsplitters" and had seen 180 consecutive days of action, including the major battles of Rhineland-Central Europe and the Ardennes, "Battle of the Bulge." The 84th Division had 1438 killed in action and 5098 wounded in action, most of which were in the Battle of the Bulge. 70,000 German POWs were captured by the 84th Division. The weather was cold and there was much snow; the riflemen in the infantry divisions slept on the cold ground in deep snow and rain.  On April 10, 1945, the 335th Infantry Regiment of the 84th Division, came upon Hannover-Ahlem, a slave labor camp primarily made up of men and boys from the liquidated Lodz Ghetto in Poland. A subcamp of Neuengamme, Hannover-Ahlem was created for the purpose of using Jews as slave labor to dig tunnels underground and build an underground factory that the American Air Force couldn't bomb.

Camp Encounter: The following is Vernon's recollection of events, told in his own words. 

I was a radio operator in the Infantry and on April 10, 1945, we were going to attack Hanover, Germany. Early that morning I was sitting in my radio jeep with Capt. Reed, at a crossroad, west of Hannover. After the sun came up we could see down a dirt road that someone was waving to us. Capt. Reed thought these people might be American POW's so he told me to drive down to them. A couple truckloads of riflemen came with us. When we got there we could see that it was a Jewish slave labor camp (Ahlem). What we saw inside of the camp was Hell on Earth.

My memory of what we saw when we first entered the camp was the pile of dead bodies. The men alive were in ragged clothing and they were just skin and bones. They came towards us with smiles on their faces. They knew their horrible nightmare was finally coming to an end. 

We motioned them back as we didn't want them to get too close to us. We feared they were full of disease and lice. We threw cigarettes and food rations that we had on the ground in front of them. We could see they were starving for food. Capt. Reed used my radio to call division headquarters and told them what we had come across and to send us some help.

Then we went into one of the barracks. What we saw in there is something that a person could never forget. There were prisoners laying in bunks too weak to get up. There were dead bodies in some of the bunks. In one particular bunk, there was a boy, about fifteen years old, who was lying in his own vomit, urine, and stool. I could see he was near death. When he looked at me, I could see he was crying for help. Over the years, every time I would think about Ahlem, I could still see the look on this boy's face.

Next, I went into another barracks and it was just as bad as the first one. There was a prisoner there that could speak English. He told me he was a doctor from Belgium, and said that this was the infirmary. He explained that he was the camp doctor. The prisoners here, I could see, were near death. He had no medicines or bandages to help treat the prisoners. Then he took me to look out the back window. There were trashcans full of dead bodies. All skin and bones. What a horrible, inhuman way to die! Our troop had just come through six months of bloody battle but what we were seeing here made us sick to our stomachs and some even cried.

Our next building was the kitchen. There were two large steam pots where the food was cooked. This camp had five buildings with an electrified fence around it. There was no running water and in the middle of the camp was a trench. It was unbelievable. The prisoners were expected to straddle it to use as their toilet. The prisoners had diarrhea and no toilet paper was available. This had to be a very humiliating experience for these prisoners. The smell was horrendous.

What I saw in this camp was so shocking that I wanted pictures to send home to show my family. I took eighteen photos of everyone that was alive in the camp. In the Army, we had no radios or newspapers so I didn't know Hitler was treating the Jewish people in this manner. After the war these photos laid in a shoebox, in my basement, for fifty years.

In addition to Hannover-Ahlem, Vernon's division also liberated a camp in Salzwedel, Germany, where there were 2700 Jewish women [and some 300 non-Jewish women]. Across the highway from the Salzwedel camp were the Adolph Hitler barracks at a German airfield. General Bolling had us burn the camp down and we moved all these prisoners into these modern barracks. Capt. Charles E. Wilson is quoted as saying, "Those people were starving. After we set up our messes, they fought to get in line. Under the German system, thirty people were given food for ten and the ten who fought the hardest stayed alive. We told them that there was enough for all and that they could have seconds if they wanted. They wouldn't believe it. After a while, they began to settle down."

Awards: Combat Infantryman Badge

 

After the War: For some years after the war, Vernon Tott worked as the beef kill foreman at Swift and Company in Iowa. He and his wife, Betty, have made their home for many years in Sioux City, Iowa. And, of course, Vernon is an avid fisherman.

In 1995, Vernon saw an letter of inquiry from Benjamin Sieradzki, an Ahlem survivor, in his Army newsletter for the veterans of the 84th Infantry Division. Mr. Sieradzki was looking for the soldier who had taken the pictures on April 10, 1945. Vernon responded by  "going down to my basement and finding the pictures, from that liberation day, that had been hidden away for so long." Soon after, he contacted Mr. Sieradzki:

"I soon called Benjamin and he got very excited and told me that it was a miracle that he found me after fifty years. I have a picture of him in this camp which I mailed to him. Benjamin was so thankful to me, for the copies of these pictures that I felt that I should try and find more survivors of Ahlem. It's a long story but now I have found twenty-four survivors of Ahlem and thirteen of these survivors are in my photographs....

When studying or reading about the Holocaust, you see pictures and read about the large death camps. The history of these small slave labor camps was lost because the SS destroyed all of the records and most of the camps were burned down soon after liberation to kill the disease and to avoid an epidemic...

When I heard that tear-jerking speech from Gerda Klein in Des Moines, and she asked us liberators to please tell our stories of what we saw in these concentration camps, I went home and put my story and pictures all together. I have spent hundreds of hours and dollars enlarging my pictures and making a booklet about what I saw of the Holocaust. I have told hundreds of people what I saw in the camps and have talked to many school children and given their school a copy of the book and pictures I made about it. So I kept my promise to Gerda Klein."

http://www.grunts.net/army/84thid.html

Prisoners in the Ahlem concentration camp welcome the sight of an American soldier on April 10, 1945

Prisoners in the Ahlem concentration camp welcome the sight of an American soldier on April 10, 1945; photo courtesy of Vernon Tott

Two steam pots full of soup for Salzwedel survivors

Two steam pots full of soup for Salzwedel survivors; photo courtesy of Vernon Tott

Survivors of Salwedel line up with bowls; photo courtesy of Vernon Tott

Survivors of Salwedel line up with bowls; photo courtesy of Vernon Tott

Moniek Milberger is in the middle of the picture with a cigarette in his mouth

Above: Moniek Milberger is in the middle of the picture with a cigarette in his mouth. Moniek is but one of the survivors of Ahlem who has been in contact with Vernon because of the photograhs Vernon took at Ahlem. After he received this picture, Moniek called Vernon and said that he owed him a cigarette. Moniek  came to the United States in 1946 and  attended high school and college in Minnesota before serving in the US Army from 1953 through 1955, stationed in Germany  In 1955 Moniel moved to Michigan where he has been a CPA for many years.

Below is Moniek Milberger in 1997.

Moniek Milberger in 1997.