As the convoy crested a hill, the camp appeared below and ahead. The smell of decaying flesh now washed over them like a wave as the vehicles descended into the valley approaching the barbed wire enclosure. Two armed men in civilian clothes stood at the barbed wire barricade blocking the road. The men moved this gate aside as they approached before waving the vehicles through. Inside the fence, bodies covered the ground except on a path wide enough for the trucks. Most still in death, but a few with a faint light in their eyes peered at them as they passed. Soon a few emerged from the buildings. They shuffled towards the vehicles looking like clothed skeletons. The living held out their hands in silent supplication.
“Make sure the men do not feed the prisoners, Sergeant,” Ross ordered as he climbed out of the Jeep. Earlier, the medical staff briefed the men on the danger of giving these poor wretches GI food. Their long-starved systems need gentle turning to regain normal function. Until then, the GI’s rations would poison them.
His men came forward from their vehicles. Ross ordered Harrison to set up a defensive perimeter with one squad. The remaining riflemen assisted the medics. With tenderness, they led the walking prisoners to clear areas away from the bodies, lining them up near tables being set up by the corpsman. Weakened, many of those standing collapsed to the ground. The riflemen rushed to the trucks. They retrieved blankets, which they spread on the ground, so those who could not stand had some relief from the cold mud.
The doctor, a short, bald man, directed the activity of the medics and riflemen. Gradually organization emerged. One corpsman staffed each table. The riflemen transported those who could walk to the tables. They stayed nearby to make sure the prisoner did not collapse again during the assessment. Several others carried stretchers to the medics working with the men on the ground. Grim, but gentle, they eased the living onto the pallets, giving them some relief as they awaited examination.
The doctor now moved among the medics, treating the prisoners on the ground. With some, he squatted to place his stethoscope on a patient’s chest. He then examined the patient’s eyes. Finished with his initial examination, the doctor moved on to the next or motioned a medic to his side. He would whisper both to each patient and the corpsman. Ross could not hear what the doctor said but guessed he gave instructions on starting care. Ross wished he had more physicians and corpsman, but his gruff rifleman, not assigned to guard the area, helped without orders. It still seemed like too little.
Ross had accompanied two previous camp liberations. Still, the sight and the smells he experienced as he looked around this camp sickened and shocked him. Harrison came forward, accompanied by the Mayor and the Commandant. The Mayor, still clutching his hat, scanned the area. He held a handkerchief to his nose, and his eyes appeared wide behind his wire-rimmed spectacles. The Commandant also studied the suffering mass, but with a proud smirk.
Justine moved to his side. “Your men need not stand guard. My comrades have cleared the area of Nazis.” The woman now carried a stubby submachine gun with a large drum magazine. She slung its strap over her shoulder, allowing this weapon the GI’s called a “Burp Gun” to hang at her side.
He studied her profile, attracted by this woman who commanded soldiers. “Where are the guards?”
“Most ran away into the forest to escape the approaching Russians. The ones who stayed, we let the stronger prisoners take care of them.” She pointed to a small brick building with an over-sized chimney. “Their bodies are over behind the crematorium. Those we found in the woods we dealt with as you saw by the road.”
“Not all Germans are Nazis,” Ross said he recalled the boy tied to the tree, “Many just couldn’t resist the bullying and intimidation.”
She pointed to the Mayor and the Commandant. “Like those two over there? The weasel and the hyena?”
He faced her now. Her eyes seemed filled with fire. Ashamed, he looked away. It had been hard growing up an American Jew, but it did not compare to what the Nazis had done across Europe. “I am sorry if you think I criticized or judged what you may be doing. We’ve been here less than a year, so I can’t imagine what it may have been like in the last fifteen years under these butchers.” He removed his helmet, ran his fingers through his sweaty hair. “We want the same things, you know. My men and I are working to bring justice back.”
“Justice! I hope we both agree on what that word means. If not, you will just be another enemy to my people and me. The camp is now in your hands. My people must leave to continue our work.” She pointed to the prisoners. “Bring these poor souls, justice, and we will be friends.”.
After stomping off, she beckoned her people to follow.
“Where are you going?”
His call prompted her to turn. She threw back her shoulders, scowled. “Back to the wood to keep hunting Nazis. Good luck, General, in your quest for justice.” Silent, she and her people disappeared into the surrounding forest.
Ross turned to the Mayor, who still clutched the handkerchief to his face as he surveyed the area. “Once my people have the area secured, and the care here started, we will return to the village. Mr. Mayor, I want you to assemble all the people in town that can walk. I mean men, women, and children if they are not near death. I want them gathered in the city square. Our vehicles will bring them here, and they can bury the dead. I want them all interred properly.”
“But sir, we knew nothing of these things.” The Mayor’s voice a shrill whine. My people did not do this terrible thing.” He shook his finger at the Commandant. “It was him and the rest of those Germans who came to my country.”
With a sweeping gesture that covered the area, Ross snarled. “These people came here through your town. You knew they were here. I am sure someone reported the odor from this place to you. You all turned away. Pretended you didn’t know.”
The Mayor clutched his hat’s brim. “But… but…”
“I don’t wanna hear excuses. The Supreme Commander ordered every person living near one of these Hellholes to come and see it for themselves, so later they can never say: I knew nothing. I intend to make sure we follow the order. By giving these souls a decent burial, God may look a little kinder on you when you meet him.”
He shoved the Mayor aside. “Sergeant, take these two back to the Jeep. Make sure the Commandant’s cuffs are locked tight. I need to secure the camp’s records. Maybe we can make sure these bastards hang themselves!”
Harrison nodded and shoved the Commandant towards the Jeep. The Mayor scurried after him, continuing his whiny protestations.
He walked to the best-maintained building in the camp, assuming it contained the office. Inside, several desks and file cabinets lined the walls. Satisfied they remained locked and intact. They would load them for transport to headquarters. There the Judge Advocate’s people could extract the evidence they needed to prosecute the people responsible for this camp’s horrors. He hoped this satisfied Justine and others like them. End this wickedness forever.
After setting the town’s people to work burying the camp’s dead, Ross drove the Commandant to Mauthausen for processing. Stopped before the city hall’s front entrance, Ross unchained the man in the dress. An MP, who hurried down the steps, came to an abrupt halt, his jaw dropped as he saluted, staring wide-eyed at the Commandant.
As he returned the salute, Ross nodded to the Commandant. “Corporal, before you lock this man up, make sure he’s searched.”
“Sir, we don’t have any individual cells. We’re only taking SS here. The Colonel wants the rest just turned over to the civilian authorities.”
Ross smiled and winked. “He’s SS. This is their new camouflage uniform. He commanded the death camp outside of town. So, treat him with all due respect.”
“Yes, sir. Be my pleasure.” The MP grinned, grabbed the Commandant’s arm before dragging him up the building’s grand staircase. Inside, Ross crossed a large open area with several desks occupied by Military Police personnel. A short man with graying hair, wearing a Colonel’s eagles, sat next to one talking to a Sergeant. The Colonel leaped to his feet as the Commandant’s escort passed. “Corporal, what is that man doing here?”
The MP turned. “Sir, he’s SS.” He nodded to Ross. “The Captain here ordered me to take him to a cell.”
Ross stepped between the Corporal and Colonel. Turned to the Colonel, whose face now flushed crimson. “Sir, that man’s my prisoner. I captured him this morning, and we just returned from the camp he commanded.”
With a scowl, the Colonel eyed the Commandant, who thrust his shoulders back as if at attention and sneered.
Ross continued his narration. “Locals cornered him at the train station. Looked like they wanted to lynch him. He rewarded us for saving him by showing us the camp’s location.”
The Colonel placed his hands on his hips. “Captain, we’re no longer processing prisoners here. All captured Germans are to march back to Germany for processing. You will find a column of them now on the main road outside of town. Take him there and turn him over to the men escorting them. Once he reaches the detention centers, they’ll process him.”
“We have enough troops to guard these guys, Sir?”
“Captain, the surrounding forest is full of partisans hunting these people. If any escape them, the Russians are not far behind. I don’t believe any of them want to take their chances with that outcome. Our need for an escort right now is minimal.” The Colonel turned to the MP. “Corporal, go with the Captain and make sure he finds the appropriate people.”
They marched together through the deserted streets occasionally stepping to the side as a vehicle sped past. The Corporal and Ross moved swiftly, but the Commandant wobbled on his high heels. He sometimes stumbled in the dark, but neither Ross nor the Corporal reached out to steady him. Instead, they continued their pace, knowing the German did not desire to be left behind.
At the edge of town, men wearing what appeared to be every sort of German uniform marched West on the highway past the city. Vehicles coming from either direction relied on their horns to scatter the marchers as they raced towards their destinations. Two men wearing Military Police helmet emblems stood at the intersection watching the passing traffic.
As the three approached the intersection, the MPs turning to face them stared wide-eyed at the sight.
The Corporal chuckled. “Been a while since you guys seen a good lookin’ babe. Thought you might want to meet one of the local lovelies to break up the boredom in your cold and lonely vigil.”
One shook his head as he gave the Commandant an appraising glance. “You ain’t even beginning to be funny, Johnson.”
The other nodded. “Nah, I’ll bet this is Johnson’s way of announcin’ he’s movin’ up from sheep.”
The Corporal clapped the Commandant’s back. “This here’s a big shot SS guy they captured near here.” He nudged the Commandant’s ribs. “What’s your name, honey?”
“Standartenfuhrer Gerhart Mundt!” As he thrust back his shoulders, he gave the Nazi salute.
“No, heel clickin’? You worried you might break a heel, darlin’?”
Commandant Mundt turned to Ross and bowed his head. “Despite the circumstances, I appreciate your saving me from that mob. I know you might not agree with how we treated the people in the camp, but it was better than they deserved.”
Ross frowned, “What do you mean?”.
“In other camps, we killed them. Here we gave them a purpose in life. To provide a service to the Fatherland. These Jewish vermin should consider it an honor.”
“You mean you just worked `em to death instead of gassing them. Maybe the Jews should give you a medal instead of stretching your neck?”
Mundt smiled, extended his hand. “I knew an Aryan such as you would understand.”
“Actually, I’m Jewish. Hope I didn’t make a mistake pulling you away from that mob earlier cause I want a front-row seat when they hang you after your trial.”
Mundt scowled, spit in Ross’s face. Muttered a curse in German.
Ross wiped the spittle from his cheek, smeared it back on Mundt’s face, then shoved him to the ground. “Make sure he gets to the next stop in one piece. I want to see him dancing at the end of a rope.” Then marched off.