(CS) In Luxembourg, the 89th Infantry Division of Patton's Third Army is mainly known for the role it played in liberating the country from Nazi occupation. Less commonly known is the fact that the same soldiers went on to liberate Ohrdruf, the first concentration camp found by the US in the late stages of WW2.
It is this slice of history that Matthew Nash's documentary film “16 Photographs at Ohrdruf” explores.
Nash's grandfather left behind the set of pictures, showing some of the atrocities of the camp, when he died in 1991. While the family had been aware that he had been involved in part of the war to do with the camps, Lieutenant Donald G. Johnson did not discuss what he saw with his family.
“He did show me the pictures once,” Matthew told wort.lu/en on a visit to Luxembourg to show the film at the Luxembourg City Cinémathèque. “They're horrifying, absolutely horrifying. You're immediately moved by them.”
Only 14 years old when his grandfather passed away, it would take Matthew until 2008 to revisit the pictures. By then a full-time professor at Lesley University in Boston, Massachusetts, he called on two good friends to help him produce and edit the project that would eventually be named “16 Photographs at Ohrdruf”.
'I knew nothing at all'
An internet search put him in touch with Mark Kitchell, whose father fought in the 89th Division and who now lives and works in Luxembourg. Matthew interviewed veterans and historians, and worked with the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC to dig up this piece of his family's history.
“I learned so much about my family that I never knew,” Matthew said, adding however that making the film was a much larger learning experience. “I thought I knew about the Holocaust and I knew nothing at all it turns out.”
By 2011 Matthew had a first rough edit in place. “It was our first major team meeting in New York. They were trying to be good friends about it, but it was terrible,” Matthew said. “I threw away everything – the script, the rough cut – and started from scratch.”
In August 2012, the film was completed and it follows Matthew on a journey of discovery, including “all of my mistakes.” Thus, while Matthew initially assumed that his grandfather was a medic in the 89th Division, it turned out he was actually part of the 65th. They travelled parallel to one another, together with the 4th Armored Division, and Lieutenant Johnson would have arrived in Ohrdruf days if not weeks after the liberation on April 4, 1945.
Picking up the story
Ohrdruf was the first concentration camp liberated by the US and was visited by General Dwight D Eisenhower, and Generals George S Patton Jr and Omar Bradley on April 12, all of whom put pen to paper to record the horrors of what they saw. And yet, Matthew said, “we've let this moment be forgotten.”
Seventy years on, and on April 4, 2015, the journey of rediscovery for Matthew will come full circle. Having stopped by in Luxembourg for a screening of the film on Thursday, organised with the help of Mark, Matthew was en route to join the 70th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of Ohrdruf in Germany.
“When I started this, Ohrdruf was a word. Then it became a piece of history I could understand and a story I could tell,” he said, adding that only on April 4 will it become a “place I have been to.”
While the film is a history lesson, Matthew also wants it to be a “call to arms” for other young people to be curious and find out about their families' stories. “I'm not a historian of the Holocaust. I can tell you about one camp,” Matthew said. “This is one tiny fracture of the overall story.”
During filming, Matthew was lucky to still have been able to interview veterans who were present when Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of the Buchenwald death camp, was first found. Admitting that as a narrator “I will never be as good as the ones who were there,” Matthew added: “But as we lose them, the only way it will go forward is for someone to pick up the story.”
To find out more about “16 Photographs at Ohrdruf” visit the film's official website.