This week marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Arriving on April 15, 1945, British troops surveyed a landscape of unspeakable suffering and cruelty.
Kentuckians serving in Europe at the end of the war were among many eyewitnesses to the atrocities perpetrated in the camps. Their experiences are documented in some of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.
WKU history professor and Russell County native Lowell Harrison was serving as a combat engineer when his division arrived at the concentration camp at Nordhausen, in the heart of Germany. “It was something that was unbelievable,” he recalled. “You see pictures. . . , you read about it, but you couldn’t believe that people could be treated that way until you actually saw them.” Richardsville native William R. Hudson, drafted after the Nazi surrender and sent to Germany to serve with occupation forces, was exposed to German atrocities when he was appointed to guard war criminals, including Hermann Goering. It was then that he witnessed the evil infrastructure of the Holocaust: railroad cars, gas chambers, crematoria, and the bones of victims “stacked up like haystacks.”
Soldiers struggled to convey their experiences to incredulous civilians. Writing from Germany in May 1945, Bowling Green native Harry L. Jackson reacted sharply when his sister complained of being inundated with “atrocity propaganda.” “I HAVE seen more than enough,” he assured her, to know that the reports were not exaggerated. But trying to describe to her the sight of a German slave labor camp, with its stench, filth, and starving inmates reduced to “the basic instincts of the animal” was beyond his capacity. While man’s power to degrade and destroy seemed boundless, “our inadequacy and limitations surface,” he declared, “when we are asked to define what WAR really is. It cannot be put into words.”
Click on the links to access finding aids to these collections (contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org about the Harry Jackson Collection). For more collections on World War II in Germany and beyond, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.