DP Camp, Etzel Germany

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As a Medic in WWII, I worked briefly in a DP Camp for Polish people in the Spring of 1945. The camp was run by UNRRA and was in Etzel, Germany near Köln (Cologne).

Do you have any info about this camp--the 518th Medical Clearing Co. (Sep) is the Army organization to which Capt. Pesnel and I belonged.

Official Army records of the 518th shows that on 29 April 1945 one Captain and 6 enlisted men were assigned to Etzel. I can recall the last name of only one other EM and before he passed away Pesnel wrote to me that he did not recall any names. I found Pesnel a few years ago.

Please write to me if you have more info. Thanks. GMFreeman gmfree@juno.com

G.M. Freeman supplied us with the following story from Etzel:
Excerpts from several letters by Dr. M.E. Pesnel, dated from about May 1 to May 8, 1945, were rearranged for continuity and concern a Polish DP camp:

The problem of the DP (displaced persons) is tremendous. I don’t know how many thousands (really millions) of these DP are in Germany. As the land is liberated, these people are freed. They naturally want to get home after their years in slavery here. They make a tremendous military problem, and a problem for me. They are in poor state of health. Malnutrition is common, they are lice-infected, and consequently could have typhus.

The Armed Forces, of course, are vaccinated against typhus, but should those infected people return to their home lands, what will happen to them? So these returning slaves must be stopped, processed, de-loused, treated for various ailments, etc. before they are allowed to proceed.

Using large rivers as barriers, the authorities are able to stop these migrations at the bridges and to process them. It will probably take several years for all these DPs to get home. There are millions of them.

I am at a Polish DP camp. We have started with 4,000 Poles, all ages and sexes, families, single people, orphans, soldiers and a few people from other countries. They were originally taken when the Germans overran their lands and were brought to German farms and factories. Since the Allies have liberated this country they are now in our lap as our problem. They are assembled here, and in similar other camps, awaiting the opportune moment to be returned to their home land or wherever they want to go eventually.

This is one of the big problems of the Allied Military Government (AMG) and Occupation Army. This camp is set up in an old military school; occupies six buildings, each about the size of Albany Academy, plus several other smaller buildings.

Before I arrived there were two Polish MDs here, one an Army doctor who has been a prisoner of the Germans for the past six years. There is a small dispensary and a space for a hospital. I was sent to open up that hospital and to assist as well as possible in the sanitation of the camp. Sanitation was terrible, but is much better now.

This morning I inspected the basements of these buildings. They had all been prepared as air raid shelters with double steel doors, water, heat, bunks, etc. When this place was taken by the Allies, it was in these shelters that many prisoners were taken.

As for supplies, I had practically none. AMG is my source but they in turn get them from the Germans. Our armies have pulverized this country; there is not much left to use. I don’t know just where to turn. I reached here Sunday, April 29th, about 10:30 AM.

There are now 4,303 people here in this German military school, divided as follows: 395 children under 10, 2,228 males and 1,680 females. I have 70 pregnant mothers, 30 nursing mothers. These buildings are about six to eight years old. Have suffered a little (compared with other places I’ve seen) from the air and artillery. These people were all slave laborers from Germany. Those fortunate to work on German farms got along fairly well, but those who went to the cities and worked in factories fared very poorly. Some of them have been slaves for six years.

This particular camp is about two weeks old. It was quite a mess when first opened but by hard work the place has been cleaned up. Sanitation is my biggest job and worry. There are fortunately 2 Polish doctors here. One a civilian, the other a Polish army man. Both have been prisoners for six years. They have some meager equipment and supplies and have done what little they could. Both are quite young. The civilian speaks no English; the officer just a little.

These people have been living like animals for so long that they have forgotten many of the niceties of life. Some, I am afraid, never had any. For instance, they continually clog up the flush-toilets with old cut flowers, garbage, and trash. Naturally these facilities become useless and we have so little with which to repair these things.

Soap is scarce, skin diseases common. I need plumbing supplies. I must spray everyone here with DDT every two weeks, their beds, clothing, etc. I inspect latrines several times a day. I walk all day long, inspecting, teaching, etc. I’m up and at it at 7 AM until 11 PM.

Today I went into Cologne to AMG (they are in the only building in the center of town still standing) to find out about our water supply here, which comes from that wrecked city. Also to look into the source and quality of the 450 litres of milk they furnish me daily. Also borrowed a flame thrower and a bull dozer to burn and bury sheds and refuse which threaten sanitation.

However, after several days, I can see my sanitation problems are less bad. These people are finally learning. While it is better, it is far from good yet. Housing is a problem too. Quarters are quite crowded, especially since receiving 400 more people yesterday. I came here with practically no supplies, only six pairs of willing hands. I am trying to borrow or steal things. We are now making a 36 bed hospital. I got 72 sheets, 36 pillow slips, and 72 blankets for our use. But do not ask where I got them. Also got some talcum and some white soap for the babies. I have been trying to get a sterilizer and oh so much more! My difficulties are that I can’t get supplies through regular Army channels because Germany is eventually to pay for the entire bill of caring for these camps.

Food is a bigger question in Europe today than the end of the war. The situation is really critical. The big problem all over Europe is food. It is becoming scarce. We are feeding almost all of Western Europe including Germany.

Nutrition here is okay, but not the best. I have gone to Cologne for more and better food, but! We eat (that is, the Army personnel and the few leaders picked from the DPs to be their staff) in our own mess hall, served by Polish girls. The food is regular Army ration prepared with a definite Polish flavor. It is pretty good at that. We get soup at every meal except breakfast.

There are three parts to the food situation at this camp. First, the food I eat. The US Army personnel, 50 of us in all, eat at a newly opened kitchen and dining room, which we completed today. It is situated in the same building as the office and my quarters. Here we get regular Army rations, cut 20% because of food shortage. We have Polish women do the cooking and serving. It is pretty good, but not as good as I have been writing about in the past several weeks, but I guess as good as can be had at present.

The second mess is in our school on the ground floor. The children up to 10 years eat here. Their food is prepared in the same building and is almost the same as that served to the adults. They eat three meals a day.

The remaining adults (part three) go three times daily to a third kitchen and receive their coffee, soup and stew at each meal time. They carry it back then to their quarters in pails, buckets, pitchers, or whatever they may have, and eat it in their rooms. They are issued bread, lard, butter (very little), some chocolate, sugar and milk which they keep in their rooms. This is the reason I have such a large sanitation problem. We are handicapped because we don’t have a mess hall to accommodate these adults. We are converting two huge garages into mess halls to use so we won’t have food all over the place. These people are used to more meat and fats than they are getting. I am used to more too. Most of the food they receive is in the form of meat and vegetable stews from C rations, which is okay when hot and when you don’t get it more than once a week. But we do the best we can.

It is far better than what they got in the concentration camps. There, 20 people survived on 1 loaf of bread a day and a bowl of barley soup! If Americans only knew the conditions as they are here. Holland and Germany are actually starving to death. And I am not jesting. the Germans actually eat raw potato peelings. They do not wait to cook them for fear that they will lose them before they can eat them. In Northern Holland (the parts still under the Germans) they do not eat garbage because there is no food to create it. The death rate is appalling and there is not one baby alive under one year of age (in Northern Holland).

This is not a prison but the people must be regimented if they are to live in these crowded quarters. We have our Polish leaders picked out as our mouthpieces. We are only 3 officers and 17 enlisted men here to run he place. Some of our DPs want to run off or loot at the first chance they get for more food. Last night our guards fired into a group of DPs who were killing a local German’s pig and beating his wife. When the DPs would not stop, the guards fired, first over their heads and then into them.

When they did stop, they were brought to me at 1 AM, one with a bullet in his right mastoid, through his right chest, his right elbow and in his back. The other was just scratched. I worked from 1 to 2 fixing them up. Both are going to be OK. Managed to get into what used to be Cologne to see the patient I sent there the other night. He is living and doing well. Had another one yesterday. He was walking across a field, working as a farmer on a nearby German place when he stepped on a land mine! He sustained several intercranial wounds from projectiles, which caused a left facial paralysis, had 6 pieces in his left shoulder. Also sent him off to the hospital in Cologne after using the last of my precious tetanus.

Practically all here speak German learned in the past six years. We have no way to separate the single people from the others. They have been living together for years now. Sunday afternoon we had 40 marriages performed by a Catholic priest from Cologne (who doesn’t speak Polish). We have a band of about 10 pieces; they marched each couple to and from the church (a garage).

At first you wanted to laugh, then you cried. This work is terrific, and could be depressing if it were not for the fact that I am so busy I can’t think much about it. The people need an awful lot done for them. Things are picking up, but oh so slowly. At least today I managed to open up 12 of the intended 36 hospital beds. It has been a job. Strange people try to be so helpful. An old English doctor found 12 bottles of good brandy and 14 bottles of wine. So he sent them to me “to use in the hospital”. What good are they when I don’t even have an instrument sterilizer?

In some respects this is like a concentration camp. Many people here are happy. Many are discontented. There are no luxuries for any of us. The Polish army doctor lives next door to me. He is 38 years old. About two years ago he first came across sulphadiazine. Was taught how to use it at that time by a British doctor he met while in captivity. His supplies have been mighty small. He had nothing to start with while in prison until he received an American Red Cross first-aid safety kit. He got one every four to six weeks. It contained (he still has one he showed us) dressings, mithiolate, sulphur powder and tablets, some ointments, tape, etc, I told him about penicillin. He had four bottles in the camp hospital supply. (Never thought I’d see it here.) But he did not know what it was for! Terrific, isn’t it?

Yesterday we received some more DPs including a priest and an extremely beautiful Polish woman. Her husband is an officer in the Polish Army, acting as a liaison officer with or to the US Army. She has a cousin in the USA who is a staff sergeant. She is much higher class than what we usually get. She speaks French and Polish. Is desperately trying to contact her husband. She actually wore silk stockings, high heels and a fur coat!

Last night I showed the Polish doctor the booklet from Albany Hospital. His eyes almost popped out of his head when he saw the pictures.

Today is a Polish holidaylike our 4th of July. They had a little ceremony in school this morning. The Commander and I were asked to attend. The children sang songs, did dances, then recited pieces. Our interpreters explained it as it went on. Most of these 400 kids are war orphans. The poems were about “our mothers and fathers, where are they?” You can imagine there were tears in our eyes by the time it was all over. My heart has been broken in this camp but remember there are several million people like this elsewhere!

VE DAY, MAY 7, 1945 Today is a day to remember. It has been warm, sunny, and we have been busy. I have never seen so many airplanes in all my life. All sorts, from all countries. This is officially VE Day. We are all glad but our problems continue.

MAY 8TH, 1945 The day after the Nazis surrendered! I suppose at home there are big celebrations and rejoicing. Over here everyone is pretty thankful that it is all over. There is little celebrating that I have seen or heard about. The war is officially over in the European theater of operation but we are still in the midst of pathos and destruction beyond your imagination, appalling even if it has been done to Germany.

The pictures you see in the papers, newsreels and magazines hardly tell it in full. Last night nine officers got together with enough liquor to have got pie-eyed but we had one small drink each! We were all very serious, dejected, grim! Today is like any other day. The sky is full of planes, but they fly lower than usual. Mines still explode. Trucks still roll. Steel helmets are still worn. Loaded guns are still carried. Cruel acts still occur. We are all very happy that the war is over ---- but ----.

MAY 24, 1945 I am back with my Clearing Company in Bergheim, about half way between Cologne and Juelich. I was relieved of my job at Camp Etzel, the Polish DP Center. I do not know the exact reason for my relief, but I believe it was because I talked too much. I believe I walked on the toes of too many higher-ups and wrote too accurate reports of conditions at the camp. One day a consolidated report about several of these DP camps fell into my hands and I realized that someone had falsified my report, so I went off channels and away up the line to one of the highest headquarters and first showed them my weekly reports which I had filed, then this consolidated one.

The latter made me feel good, what with its praise for me and my work, but it was far from accurate. I raised a stink about it, told them verbally about conditions at Etzel, told them that I had received no help or cooperation at all from any source except UNRRA (Herbert Lehman in charge), that no one in Army circles had been able to answer even the simplest of my questions.

I knew I was right, that they were wrong, and that they did not give a damn. Rank and grade no longer concern me. I’ll talk up to the highest officer here. I was fired that day with a certain spark of indignation. It was the climax for me of several lesser arguments I had had. Three days later I was relieved of my post. It was with mixed emotions that I left those Poles. I hated the stupidity of these DPs but could not help feeling terribly sorry for them. They have gone through a great deal of suffering and they were awfully nice to me.

As I was loading up my truck with my bags and six men, we had about 50 Poles around us telling us how much they would miss us. The two Polish doctors actually wept as they shook my hand. It was all very touching. Since leaving them I have thought of that place almost more than I have thought of home. Living there has had a strong emotional influence on me. I never had suspected before what starvation and beatings could do to a man or woman.

The day before I left we received another 235 people. Among them was a young mother (about Irene’s size and age) with an 18 month old baby in her arms. The mother had had nothing to eat in 36 hours. The baby had a cup of black German coffee and a piece of sour brown bread 18 hours before. The child was shrieking when it was brought to me, shrieking from hunger!

In Camp Etzel it received its first milk in three months. I have seen these people too weak to climb out of the vehicles which bring them. I have seen scars on the backs and breasts of young girls who had resisted the advances of the Supermen. These girls are just Poles, unfit to inhabit civilized Europe with the Nazis, but good enough to fill the fancy Nazi brothels. One girl has a crooked jaw, caused when a SS man struck her with a rifle butt. The jaw was broken but never treated. It knit all out of place.

For the sake of the records I must state here that the fate of all the Poles was not as I have described in my notes. Many of them were probably happy living in Germany. Those who went to German farms fared well enough. In many cases families were not broken up, lived in the fresh air, ate quite well and had a certain amount of so called freedom, earned some money, had clothes and had here and there humane bosses.

But those who were so unfortunate as to be sent to the cities, were herded like cattle into small quarters every day with the same thing - 1 loaf of brown bread for 20 people, black, sugarless coffee for breakfast; for supper each received a bowl of watery barley or cabbage soup, and that was all!

One girl who fell in love with one of my aid men told us that she was taken from Poland at the age of 14, her father and mother having been beaten to death in her presence, her sister and brother having been sent away elsewhere from her. She has never heard from them since December 1939. She was walked with other girls to Frankfurt. After three months in prison in that city, she was sent in a freight car to Cologne to work in a factory. The hours of work per day
were 16, 7 days each week. She says that during the bombings of Cologne by the air forces, armed guards made them continue to work but the guards took up positions in re-enforced concrete shelters, built right inside the factories so as to permit a good view of the workers from the shelters. I have actually seen these shelters in the aluminum factory I described to you some time ago. The girl lived the remaining 8 hours of the day in a prison compound in the factory grounds.

I have also been inside one of these in the aluminum factory. It baffles description. Prisoners of war were treated just as badly. You must have been reading about them in your papers. My Polish Army doctor lived in one for six years. His weight fell from 75 kg to 48 kg in seven months. There were 60 prisoners in one room fit for perhaps 16 men. They were allowed to leave that building one hour each day, in which time they were supposed to get their soup for the night meal, use the latrine which was too small for the number of men, wash their plate, pick up a 24 hour supply of water. It was impossible to do all this in one hour.

The doctor managed to get just a little more freedom than the others because he took care of the sick, although he had absolutely nothing at times to treat them with. He told me the lice could be counted by the “millions” and that the bed bugs dropped off the ceilings. The camp was not marked as a PW camp. It was camouflaged to look like something else. Hence our own bombers attacked it time and again. He actually saw a Fortress drop a 500 pound bomb on a building holding 125 Americans. It killed 85.

As to the Germans...this country which is really beautiful should be turned over to the Allies for the use of the Poles, Dutch, and others. We are not allowed to fraternize except that on official business we must deal with them. Some of them, certainly, are innocent. But strangers can not tell them apart. When you do meet them on business you find that the people next door are Nazis, but not here! When the Nazis surrendered the grown-ups and children suddenly were all smiles, waving at us. I’ll have nothing to do with them. We should all remember who died over here...

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