Remembering the Holocaust: inside two concentration camps
STEVENS POINT, Wis. -- It won't be long before we are forced to rely solely on textbooks and other means to learn about the Holocaust. The generation who lived through it is dying quickly taking with them their deep and personal knowledge of this incredibly tragic part of our history.
90-year-old John Regnier lives a quiet, comfortable life with his wife Eva Mae at their home in Stevens Point, but thoughts of what he experienced more than 60 years ago are never far from his mind.
"My memory of the sights and smells of that is sharper than things that happened a month ago. you never forget it," says World War Two Veteran John Regnier.
The year was 1945. Regnier, a member of a medical battalion assigned to the 4th Armored Division, had come upon a group of soldiers at a camp near the small town of Ohrdruf, Germany. It was a place that would eventually become known to the rest of the world.
"It was a terribly shocking thing to see," said John.
It turns out Regnier and his convoy had just stumbled upon the first German slave labor camp the American Army had liberated in the war. "The slave labor camps were run by the SS troops, the SS part of the German military that was fanatically trained. The SS troops guarding this camp had killed over 3,500 of the camps inmates before the camp was overrun," says John.
Nothing could've prepared them for the horror they were about to see. John says, "Three big mass graves, a lot of bodies strewn on the grounds, it was the most shocking thing that you could ever imagine."
Regnier had the rare experience of touring the camp with some of the war's top commanders including Generals Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton. "I always remember when the MP's opened the door of the body shed at the crematorium, there's a stack of corpses, I always remember when this door was opened and Eisenhower's comment was 'this is the damdest thing I've seen in all my life' and Patton's comment was 'the dirty German sons of bitches'."
Regnier and another soldier took pictures at the direction of General Eisenhower. "He said if anybody has cameras, take all the pictures you can because I want all the world to know what we're seeing."
The scene was beyond what any decent human could imagine. "They had hunks of railroad tracks that they would lay off stacks of logs and stack bodies on these metal support bases and throw gasoline on the whole works and cremate the bodies on the ground. We saw things you just couldn't comprehend that human beings could be treated that way by fellow human beings."
Regnier and the rest of his unit left the camp in what he describes as numb silence. "When we left that, there wasn't much conversation in our convoy, you just couldn't comprehend what you had seen."
But his experience with concentration camps didn't end there. Not long after, he toured one of the last big camps liberated in the war in Ebensee, Austria. "We went through the barracks there where there would be five levels of wood bunks with just a nest of tattered rags and straw and 3,4,5 bodies in each bed. People that looked 80 years old were probably 25. It was a shocking thing to see."
Regnier still has a basement chalked full of memorabilia from the war and he shares his story with schools and other groups whenever he can. John Regnier was a witness to one of the darkest periods in history, but he's making sure today it's never forgotten.
John Regnier is one of a few people who will speaking at Viterbo University's sixth annual Holocaust Educator's Workshop Thursday and Friday.
WKBT will also be taping a presentation by Holocaust survivor Peter Feigl and Holocaust author Alexandra Zapruder and broadcasting it Saturday, April 21st at 11:35 p.m.
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