Heinrich Himmler’s Nazi SS established the Wöbbelin concentration camp to “store” prisoners evacuated from other camps to the east to prevent the Russian Army from discovering them.
By the spring of 1945, Wöbbelin held some 5,000 inmates. Virtually all of the prisoners were suffering from starvation and disease. The camp was liberated by the American 82nd Airborne on May 2, 1945.
The story of the Wöbbelin camp and how the inmates were marched there is told by George Lucius Salton (Luzek Saltzman), in an amazing book, “The 23rd Psalm: A Holocaust Memoir.”
Until several months ago, I did not know that there was a San Luis Obispo connection.
I first met Herb Lucas in 1987, when Liz’s parents moved to Herb’s neighborhood. Herb, retired FBI icon, Dick Jones, and my father-in-law, Bud Ogren, became the walking trio of Del Mar Court.
Dick and Bud have died and Herb has moved to another neighborhood, but he’s kept in contact. My wife Liz invited him to sit in on my Holocaust class.
Herb asked if he could tell the story of how a kid from Oregon ended up at the liberation of a concentration camp. The students were deeply moved by Herb’s account. He has given me permission to share it with you:
“Upon enlisting in the Army in January 1942, I was sent to an induction center at Fort Lewis, Wash., where I was issued a uniform and introduced to military life.
“I volunteered for the infantry, and was transferred to Camp Roberts, Calif. for my basic training. While at Camp Roberts I made my first five-mile hike. Our destination was the Mission at San Miguel.
“As a former Oregonian, this was my introduction to the Missions of California. During the time I was at Camp Roberts, Bob Hope and his troupe made one of their frequent trips to entertain the troops by broadcasting a show from the camp. That was a light moment.
“The remainder of my time at Camp Roberts was learning how to be a soldier: How to march in formation (on the square-mile-sized parade ground that still exists) and how to fire all of the basic weapons.
“When I finished basic training I volunteered for paratroop duty and was transferred to the Jump School at Fort Benning, Ga., and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.
“After having parachuted into Sicily, I participated in the landings at Salerno, and the liberation of Naples and several towns in the Appenine Mountains, the two-month battle at Anzio, the capture of the bridge at Nijmegen, the Battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the Rhine and Elbe rivers.
“Our final action, though terrible to witness, was perhaps the most satisfying: the liberation of the Wöbbelin concentration camp near the town of Ludwigslust in eastern Germany.
“The squad to which I was assigned was not directly involved in the liberation. However, our battalion commander made sure that each member of the battalion viewed the horrendous handiwork of Hitler’s Third Reich, so the members of my unit entered the camp and saw firsthand the unforgettable sight of men in striped uniforms lying on wooden bunks, either too weak to move or already dead.
“I’ll never forget the gaunt, emaciated bodies, the vacant stares. Only an occasional blink would reveal to me who was alive and who was dead. The survivors were transferred to the nearest hospital.
“The German civilians in the nearby town of Ludwigslust were directed to give the dead a decent burial.
“Having seen the Nazi atrocities firsthand, I have been astonished to hear people later say that the Holocaust did not happen or that it is was greatly exaggerated.”
Today, Herb, a retired history teacher, volunteers in ministering to the prisoners at the California Men’s Colony.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.