World War Two History: When My Great-Uncle Liberated A Nazi Concentration Camp

 

The bartender at the Communist-themed pub in former East Berlin scrunches up his face and readjusts his glasses. Lenin looms on the wall beside him. “This is from Berlin?” I ask him.

“No, it’s from a little town, you’ve probably never heard of it,” he says of the bottle of doppelkorn liquor he has just poured me.

“What’s it called?” I inquire, taking a tiny sip from the clear liquid.

“Nordhausen,” the barkeep replies.

“Sure, I know it.”

“You do?” he gasps, amazed an American should know of a Podunk village in Lower Thuringia.

“Sure, my great-uncle liberated a concentration camp there,” I tell him.

Silence thicker than Berlin’s humid summer air. After a clumsy moment like so many when the Holocaust is mentioned in modern Germany, he replies: “I did not know there was a concentration camp there.”

Seventy years earlier, in April of ’45, the German army was in tatters and retreating before the Allies. American troops approached the city of Weimar in central Germany on April 11 and liberated the first Nazi concentration camp: Buchenwald. Among the skeletal prisoners famously photographed in the grim barracks was future Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

But that same day, 40 miles to the north, a US Army detachment entered another, lesser-known camp outside the town of Nordhausen. The Mittelbau-Dora facility used slave labor to build V-2 rockets and worked thousands to death. Among the men of the 104th Infantry Division was a medic from Brooklyn, New York. A 21-year-old American-born son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Jules Helfner was fluent in German, kept a pistol in his boot, and was armed with a camera.

Together with his handwritten notes, Jules’s unique photographs, published here for the first time, bring to life a Jewish foot soldier’s personal experience in the 104th. They document four months of Helfner’s service after landing in France in late 1944, chronicling the march into Germany, liberation of a Nazi labor camp, and his eventual encounter with fellow Jewish soldiers in the Red Army at the climax of World War II.

Read the Remainder and See Some Amazing Photographs at Times of Israel

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