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Leonard Linton’s story spans half the globe—from Japan to Germany, France, New York, and back to Germany, where as a 23-year-old U.S. soldier he happened upon a concentration camp called Woebbelin.
Photos and Artifacts
Leonard Linton’s family, Bavaria, ca. 1930. From left to right, Leonard’s younger brother Val, his father Charles, his older sister Irina, Leonard, his maternal grandmother, and his mother Vera. Credit: Courtesy of the Linton Family.
Leonard Linton at reburial memorial ceremony in Ludwigslust, Germany, May 2000. Credit: Courtesy of the Linton Family.
The main gate of the Woebbelin concentration camp. On May 2, 1945, the 8th Infantry Division and the 82nd Airborne Division encountered the Woebbelin concentration camp. This photo was taken upon the liberation of the camp on May 4, 1945. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
By Dr. Samuel Kassow
In this episode, Leonard Linton, a soldier with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, recounts one of his most significant experiences in World War II: the liberation of the Woebbelin concentration camp near the German city of Ludwigslust on May 2, 1945, just a few days before the end of the war. Leonard’s testimony underscores the degree to which American soldiers—and, soon after, journalists and the wider American public—were shocked by their first face-to-face encounters with Nazi concentration camps. That they should have experienced such stunned horror in 1945, when news of Nazi camps had already been circulating for some time, reflects the gulf that existed in people’s minds between hearing the news about Nazi atrocities and actually believing that news to be true. And the camps that the American Army liberated were far from the worst; it was the Red Army, after all, that liberated the major death camps in Poland.
By any measure, Leonard was hardly a typical GI. His Russian parents had fled their homeland for the Far East after the Bolshevik Revolution, and Leonard was born in Yokohama, Japan, on January 1, 1922. He grew up speaking four languages and lived with his parents in cities across Europe, including Berlin and Paris, where he attended the prestigious Lycée Claude Bernard. The Lintons arrived in the United States before the outbreak of World War II. Leonard studied mathematics and physics at Columbia University before being drafted into the U.S. Army in May 1943.
Leonard volunteered to be a paratrooper in the elite 82nd Airborne Division commanded by the legendary general James Gavin. He first saw combat in January 1945, just after the Americans had beaten back the ferocious German attack through the Ardennes—the Battle of the Bulge. But the German Army still had plenty of fight left and Leonard was almost killed when his foxhole was run over by a Tiger tank. He was completely buried, but luckily for him, his helmet created a small air pocket. When other soldiers on American tanks saw his rifle sticking up from the ground’s surface, they rushed to dig him out.
As the U.S. Army slowly advanced into Germany, Leonard’s fluency in German got him assigned to an Army Military Government school and then to a G5, a unit tasked with administering newly conquered territories. Since he spoke Russian as well, Leonard was ordered to prepare to act as a liaison with the Red Army, which was approaching from the east. As Leonard’s G5 unit advanced deeper into Germany, he met more and more Germans who all insisted that they had opposed the Nazis from the beginning, had done all they could to help Jews, and knew absolutely nothing about the ongoing atrocities.
Leonard’s anger at the Germans grew. Years later, he would recall one incident that filled him with shame. As he was enjoying an abundant meal of steak and potatoes, he realized that there was too much on his plate and he threw some of his food into a garbage bin. Starving young German children approached the garbage can but Leonard kept them from getting the food. “I hated their looks,” he said, “just because they were German and somehow responsible for the misery we saw.”
On May 2, 1945, Leonard was the first paratrooper to enter the town of Ludwigslust. He barged into the mayor’s office, where a meeting was underway, and let the Germans know in no uncertain terms who was now in charge. It was on that same day that he discovered the nearby Woebbelin concentration camp. Woebbelin, a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp, had been established as recently as February 12, 1945. It was not a labor camp, and it seemed to have no particular purpose other than to house prisoners from other camps that were being hastily evacuated in the face of the advancing Allied armies. As Germany’s collapse accelerated, more and more prisoners entered Woebbelin from camps to the east and north, such as Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen. The inmates included common criminals, political prisoners, and Jehovah’s witnesses. Jews were in the minority.
Woebbelin was a lethal camp. Living conditions were appalling, there were minimal food rations, and the buildings were unheated and infested with vermin. Christine Schmidt van der Zanden, who has made a study of Woebbelin, contends that by the time Leonard would have arrived at the camp, a hundred inmates a day were dying of starvation and disease. There is no way of calculating how many prisoners passed through Woebbelin because not all transports were registered.
Leonard’s first reaction when he set foot in the camp was one of horror and disbelief. General Gavin ordered all the German civilians of nearby Ludwigslust, as well as prisoners of war, to walk by the mounds of corpses. They were also ordered to move corpses with their bare hands and transport them to a site where a military chaplain conducted a dignified burial service.
Leonard and his comrades did all they could to help the liberated inmates, but they made mistakes that led to additional fatalities, such as giving them food that was too rich for them to digest. Leonard learned as he went along. He commandeered a section of a nearby German military hospital and arranged for health care. He also made an informal deal with a nearby Red Army commander to trade oats for flour, which the G5 team used to provide the inmates with bread. After a few weeks, the Americans left Ludwigslust, which was transferred to the Soviet zone of occupation. Leonard then worked as a security officer for DP camps and participated in U.S. intelligence operations against the Soviets.
After the war, Leonard became a successful businessman and founded Central Resources Corporation, which sold chemical fertilizers worldwide. He also had a successful record in the oil and gas business and became a noted business consultant. In the years following World War II, Leonard visited Ludwigslust on many occasions and compiled a database of the Woebbelin camp’s former inmates. In May 2000, the town made him its first ever honorary citizen. Leonard Linton died in 2005 and was survived by his wife Catherine and three children.
Additional readings and information