Markus Jakubovic, a Czechoslovak Jew, entered the Nazi concentration camp at Ebensee, Austria, in March 1945. By that point he had already been through Auschwitz, witnessed the murder of his family, and survived a death march out of Poland. Ebensee was meant to finish him off. By V-E Day, May 8, he was close to death.
Meanwhile, William V. McDermott, a young Boston surgeon, was serving in the mobile 30th Field Hospital of Patton's 3rd Army. By 1945, he had been in the Normandy invasion, at Verdun and the Bulge, and through the Siegfried Line. On May 8, his medical unit -- about a dozen doctors -- received orders to join the 3rd Cavalry, which was on its way to Ebensee. What he found there he described in vivid letters home -- and now in a gripping new book, A Surgeon in Combat.
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AS WE ROLLED through the town of Ebensee on May 10, we came to the gates of the concentration camp, where the French prisoners had hung a sheet with the words "Les francais saluent leurs allies!" As we entered the gates, we faced a horror story. Words couldn't approach the actual facts that hit our eyes, ears, and noses.
If ever there was a place created with calculated sadism, frightfulness, and horror, this was it.
Ebensee was technically a death camp for Mauthausen, the largest of the concentration camps in Austria. No one who entered the camp was supposed to survive, but while they lived, they were forced to work on excavations in the mountains.
On entering the camp, everything was taken from them and they were given a thin shirt and trousers with prison-stripe design and a winter "overcoat" of equally thin texture. Each man was assigned one-half of a double-decker bunk in one of the barracks. The bunks were so jammed together that hundreds of men slept in one small building.
There was no water, no heat, no latrines, and no cooking or eating facilities. The prisoners had no shoes and went barefoot even in winter. Rations consisted of six ounces of bread per person per day with some potato-peeling soup. A man does not survive long on that diet.
For thousands of prisoners, the liberation of Ebensee came too late. US officers ordered Austrian civilians to bury the bodies of the victims.
The prisoners were worked all day every day until they were too weak to climb the steps of the excavations, at which point one of two things happened. Most were sent to the "hospital", where the Germans put them on half rations in order to speed up death. If someone lingered too long, he was disposed of.
Gas chambers were constructed to resemble a shallow room. The doomed men were given a small piece of soap and told to take a shower. The door was closed behind them and the gas turned on. The eventual disposal of all bodies was theoretically carried out in the crematorium. The German genius miscalculated, however, because the crematorium could only handle two hundred bodies per day. When we arrived, we found a large room next to the crematorium in which hundreds of bodies were stacked to the ceiling. Outside were several mass graves in which thousands of prisoners had been interred.
Doctors become more or less accustomed to the sight of illness, suffering, and death, but we were all physically sick after our first view of the camp. These men were walking skeletons, every bone of the skull and trunk standing out sharply. Their bodies were bent, twisted, and shrunken by disease and torture. They all had horribly diseased skin, huge running sores, areas of osteomyelitis where wide sections of bone were exposed and discharging pus, and a number of large open empyemas draining from their chests.
There were cases of typhus, tuberculosis (men racked with coughs and bringing up blood), and dysentery so severe that the men were completely incontinent. Almost every one of these thousands had at least several terrible conditions and all had some degree of dysentery and were wasted by starvation. They presented the grotesque picture of a distended abdomen and feet and ankles swollen by nutritional edema, with the rest of the body shrunken literally to skin and bones.
Any one of these cases would have been unbelievable. When they were lying, crawling, or walking around by the thousands, it surpassed anything the human mind could imagine. It was an endless panorama of such calculated sadism as has never before been seen in this world.
U.S. troops found the emaciated survivors at Ebensee crammed into disease-ridden, overcrowded barracks.
These men had been normal, healthy, happy human beings once upon a time. Driven to their desperate state by months of insensate brutality, they groveled and pleaded for food, which they wolfed down like beasts. When we began feeding them light meals, they would cluster around the containers afterwards, scrape the sides with their fingers, and gnaw at their nails to get what had collected there. I set down a box of soap for a few minutes and when I came back, half of it had been eaten!
Medically speaking, we were faced with an impossible situation. You could watch men die by the dozens as you walked around. Five fell dead as they waited in line for the first meal we served. There were not enough medical supplies, vitamins, plasma, or doctors to give all these men what they needed in the way of immediate individual treatment. They were dying by the hundreds.
Even though we had read and heard of such horrors for the past few weeks, the reality was a staggering blow. This was such a sad commentary on a race supposedly civilized and exposed to centuries of Christianity, but I had given up even attempting to answer the question of how human beings could do all this. The whole damn country was pathological, and I am no psychiatrist.
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Miraculously, Markus Jakubovic survived. He immigrated to America, and became a US citizen in 1953, changing his name to Mark Jacoby. He lives today in Cleveland, a father of five and grandfather of 12. William McDermott returned from Europe to a stellar medical career in Boston. There he became the Cheever Professor of Surgery at Harvard and the head of surgery at New England Deaconess Hospital. He doesn't specifically remember Mark Jacoby, and Mark Jacoby doesn't specifically remember him.
But the next time my father is in Boston, I hope to re-introduce them.
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