Like most veterans, silver-haired Mansfield resident Don Timmer enjoys telling war stories.
Stories about how, as a "goof-off" of 18, he was drafted in 1945 and became a private in the 89th Infantry Division of the Third Army under General George Patton. How he was among the first troops to land directly in (occupied) France; how his company went through France "like a hot knife through butter."
But what the army private didn't talk about, except to his family, was the two days he spent in the German town of Ohrdruf and vicinity.
Recently, however, something happened to make Timmer, a Protestant, break his silence. As he describes it, last spring, at a Board of Education meeting in Loudonville, Ohio, a high-school teacher was reviewing her itinerary for the senior class trip to Washington, D.C. Proposed stops included the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the Smithsonian and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
One of the school-board members "flew into a rage," as Timmer was later told, stating that the Holocaust was grossly exaggerated and that the students shouldn't be forced to go to the museum and listen to "a fabrication."
"When I heard what the guy said, it made me go back to my memory" of those April days in 1945, says Timmer, anger rising in his voice. His company, stationed in Gotha, Germany, at the time, was getting ready to penetrate deeper into the country when the call came to move south, instead, to Ohrdruf. There were conflicting reports about a concentration camp there, and the soldiers were to "investigate."
Timmer remembers it was one of the first nice days of spring as they drove the 10 miles to Ohrdruf. German fighter planes strafed them along the way, but no one was hurt. As they entered the town of Ohrdruf, home to some 20,000 people, "No one came out to greet us." Less than two miles past town they understood the reason.
"We came up to a 15-foot-high barbed wire fence and could see unmanned wooden shacks (barracks) behind it," recalls Timmer. "We drove in and between the gate and the barracks were 30 dead … the blood still wet from the departing German guards" who had shot the prisoners before fleeing in trucks.
Seeing the American soldiers, the surviving prisoners who could still walk (about half of the 500 who were there) "cautiously" came out of the barracks.
Timmer, the son of Dutch-born parents, had taken German in high school, and suddenly he was thrust into the role of company interpreter. He would be the first to hear and tell others the tales of unspeakable horror that were already evident in the sights and smells surrounding them.
To hide the evidence of what transpired at Ohrdruf, the guards, he learned, had been trying to dispose of about 2000 bodies, mainly slave laborers. Half had been exhumed from a mass grave, and half had been stacked in several buildings awaiting incineration.
Since Ohrdruf was the first concentration camp to be liberated, "we were ordered to leave the bodies where they lay," recalls Timmer. "The division commanders would be notified of what had been found and would probably want to see for themselves."
Meanwhile, the GIs shared their rations with the living and looked around, stunned, at the scene before them. At noon, Timmer continues, the division commanders arrived, and Patton himself came at 3:30. Within half an hour, fearless "Old Blood and Guts," as Patton was known to his men, was so sickened by what he saw that he "threw up."
General Eisenhower flew in from Belgium early the next morning to witness the carnage firsthand."Even Ike looked pale, and he wasn't a pale guy," says Timmer. The supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe had brought his own interpreter, so Timmer was temporarily relieved of his duties. "Ike stayed until dark," Timmer recalls, talking at length to one of the articulate prisoners.
When Eisenhower left, Patton brought the mayor of Ohrdruf and his wife to the camp to see for themselves what they undoubtedly already knew. (When they were off duty, the guards would come into town to "brag, womanize and drink," notes Timmer, "so how couldn't townspeople know?") Then Patton ordered the mayor, his wife and all the other able-bodied townsfolk to come back the next day and dig individual graves for the dead prisoners.
The citizens did as they were told, completing 80% of the burials and promising to come back the following day to finish the job. That night, the mayor and his wife hanged themselves.
Timmer was called upon to translate their suicide note. It said, simply, "We didn't know! - but we knew."
The next day, Timmer's company left Ohrdruf to resume combat. The war ended about a month later. Instead of staying behind to visit 25 cousins living in Holland, however, Timmer volunteered to fight in Japan.
Before Timmer could be mustered out again, the war in Japan ended and Timmer was free to begin civilian life. He married (he and his wife celebrated their 57th anniversary), had three children, and became a civil engineer. Today Timmer is "95% retired" and, as head of his own engineering company, he has the luxury of working on his two loves, covered bridges and log houses.
Following the incident with the Holocaust denier on the Loudondville school board, Timmer called his friend Phil Marcus, president of Mansfield's Emanuel Jacob Synagogue. Marcus was reluctant to do anything about the denier, feeling that rebutting his allegation would only bring it more unwanted attention.
Timmer, however, offered his own solution. He would speak about his wartime experiences and those of his sister (she was an army nurse sent at war's end to minister to survivors of the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria) at the synagogue's Yom Hashoah service. Former Suburban Temple Rabbi Michael Oppenheimer, who currently heads the small Mansfield congregation, was delighted to have him keynote the program.
Nor is that all. Timmer, 77, is eager to talk to Holocaust classes in high schools.To make sure the truth of the Holocaust doesn't get buried along with the dead, he says, "I feel I must bring my eyewitness account to today's young people."
Contact him at email@example.com