Except for military experts, no one remembers the 743rd Tank Battalion. It doesn’t have a big name like the 82nd Airborne Division or the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. And yet the battalion landed in France with the first wave of attacks on D-Day. Later the battalion took part in the hard fighting for the Siegfried Line north of Aachen. In the Ardennes offensive, the unit stopped the advance of the notorious 1st SS Panzer Division, the Leibstandarte, in the Malmedy area.

Shortly before the end of the war, one of their officers, Major Clarence Benjamin, took one of the most impressive photos of the Second World War. Women and children climb out of a Nazi death train. His photo captures the incredulous amazement of a woman who has not yet been identified. You can see that at first she didn’t want to believe her eyes and only now, when she is standing directly in front of the US soldiers, does her tension ease and a limitless relief breaks out on her face.

The liberation of Auschwitz in the east by the Red Army, the arrival of US troops at Dachau and that of the British at Bergen-Belsen are historically more significant. But no photo captures the moment of liberation like this photo of the siding near Magdeburg. About 2,500 people were crammed into the wagons, they came from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. By mid-April 1945, the Reich was already on its last legs. But the murder machine was still raging, concentration camp prisoners were shot or transported so that the Allies could not free them.

The people on the train belonged to the so-called “privileged” prisoners of the situation. They had been selected by the Germans for a planned prisoner exchange with the Allies. The train wandered through the remnants of Germany still under Nazi control without any supplies. When it went no further, the commander is said to have received the order to drown all the occupants of the train in a planned bridge blast. However, survivors reported that the officer never intended to kill the Jews on the train, but was just waiting for an opportunity to leave with his people. This must have happened shortly before the US soldiers arrived.

This moment of liberation was forgotten for a long time. It was not until 2001 that the tank commander, Carrol Walsh, spoke about the operations of his battalion in an interview. He described battles and skirmishes and thought of comrades he had lost. By coincidence, because his daughter reminded him of it, he then described the liberation of the train. This interview was followed by further research among survivors and several book publications.

And this is how the encounter happened: A few miles north-west of Magdeburg there was a railway siding in a wooded gorge not far from the Elbe. There, on April 13, 1945, Major Clarence Benjamin and his patrol encountered 200 ragged-looking people on the side of the road. Artillery fire could still be heard in the background. The soldiers realized something was wrong. The figures at the side of the road were gaunt and emaciated. And they broke into hysterical laughter when they recognized the soldiers. The old freight wagons were parked on the siding not far from the road. Everything was full of people, a sad desperate camp.

Tank commander George C. Gross recalled the events in 2001: “On Friday, April 13, 1945, I was commanding a light tank in a column of the 743rd Tank Battalion and 30th Infantry Division. …

The Major led our two tanks, each carrying several infantrymen from the 30th Infantry Division on their deck, down a narrow street until we came to a valley, at the head of which was a small railway station and a motley collection of passenger and freight cars siding. There sat or lay a mass of people who had not yet noticed our presence.”

It was a liberation without fighting, the Germans had all fled. “There must have been guards, but they obviously ran away before or as we arrived because I don’t recall any firefights. So our stop in front of the train wasn’t much of a feat.” Gross also recalled the photo of the woman: “It shows a woman in the foreground, stretching her arms wide and with a great look of surprise and joy on her face as she races towards us.”

The soldiers tried to help as best they could, but of course the patrol with their two light reconnaissance tanks had no supplies for 2500 people. Gross remembers sixteen dead being carried out of the wagons. The soldiers positioned their tanks to visibly place the platoon under U.S. Army protection. Then the liberated grouped in front of the soldiers. They straightened their backs and lifted their heads and formally introduced themselves in a strange ceremony. They had regained their dignity, had become human again. “I have a picture of several girls,” Gross recalled. “They were ghostly thin, with hollow cheeks, with huge eyes that had seen much evil and horror, and yet with a smile that breaks my heart.”

Quelle: A Train Near Magdeburg―The Holocaust, the survivors, and the American soldiers who saved them von Matthew Rozell

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