Stories from the S.S. Mount Whitney – We Must Never Forget

On February 13, 1947, forty men from the S.S. Mount Whitney, including seagoing cowboys, ship’s officers, and veterinarians, boarded trucks in Nowy Port, Poland, bound for the Stutthof Concentration Camp. What follows comes from the account written by Rev. Oscar E. Stern for the booklet “Horses for Humanity” about this last Mount Whitney livestock trip. [Be advised: the following content may be upsetting to sensitive individuals.]

Guard tower and barracks, Stutthof Concentration Camp, February 13, 1947. Photo by Wilbert Zahl.

“Traveling over roads literally strewn with the wreckage of military trucks, tanks, and guns, for a distance of about 30 miles, we turned into a brick gateway which looked more like the entrance to a park or a hospital than anything else. But beyond the imposing headquarters which was also built of red brick were the long rows of barracks, barbed wire enclosures, towers from which the grounds were guarded, all silently bearing witness to the horribly cruel persecution and deaths dealt out to many helpless and innocent people who had been imprisoned there.

“Our guides were Mr. and Mrs. Frank Krol who had been imprisoned at Studthof [sic] for 3 years during which time three of their five children died. As we went about we received from them a somewhat detailed account of what had taken place.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

“The barracks were large unheated rooms made to house 150 people. The sleeping quarters were the bare floor with one blanket for each person. Toilets were fixed at intervals about a quarter of a city block apart. The barracks were connected by narrow corridors, making enclosed passage to all. The camp was put into operation before all the buildings were completed. The inmates suffered from exposure, wounds from cruel beatings, sickness, and always hunger, until death made its inevitable claim to the extent of 200 lives a day. Those who died within the barracks were buried beneath the floors of the unfinished barracks, where they remain to the present time.

“Separate quarters were maintained for men and women. All suffered alike the bitterness of organized torture. Many were forced to dig their own graves and then as they stood beside the trenches they had dug, they were shot down by a firing squad. All that the Nazis had to do was throw dirt over the warm bodies.

“A gas chamber, a cement enclosure 9×21 feet was the most effective mass killer. It destroyed as many as 150 lives at a time. The helpless victims were first stripped of their clothing, given a hot shower and then diabolically, were forced into the gas chamber by fellow prisoners who in turn were forced to their dreadful task by the Nazis. The Poles* were packed into the gas chamber until there was no room for more. Within 15 minutes after the door was closed and the gas turned on, all those inside were dead.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

“Nearby were the ovens where the bodies were cremated. . . .

Photo by Wesley Miller.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

An eloquent monument to the dead still stands on the grounds in the form of a huge pile of shoes in the shape of a squat pyramid, 30 feet square, 15 feet high. The countless thousands of shoes were covered by a blanket of new-fallen snow. As we stood before them it was hard to believe that they once warmed living feet.

Photo by Wesley Miller.

“The Poles have erected two large wooden crosses, one over the gas chamber, one over the ovens, as memorials to the beloved dead. [Note the oven photo above.] From time to time they place wreaths beneath them and garlands of flowers and they observe together a five minute period of silent communion. We and all who have seen carry etched forever in our minds the grim picture of the almost unbelievable crimes of misdirected German soldiers who at the end paid for their deeds with their lives.”

* Internees came from more countries than Poland.

For additional accounts see the Wikipedia and Holocaust Museum pages.

Next post: the long trip home.


The S. S. Park Victory: Livestock trip #2, Poland, December 1945 – Part IV

Today, we look at postwar Poland through the eyes of Park Victory radioman Will Keller in an account he wrote for me from his diary notes:

“One afternoon took tram New Port to Danzig. Walked around ‘Old Town’ Danzig….

Limited tram service was available between Nowy Port and Gdansk January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“Woman runs up and asks if Americans will be sharing occupation with Russians….Manhole in snow-covered street suddenly rises and man climbs out, dusts himself off, replaces cover, and walks off. [A few] people around live in air raid shelters, sewers, among ruins. Returning to New Port, alongside tramway tracks six graves, 6 rifles upended in ground, 6 German helmets rocking back and forth in breeze….

Going on tour around Gdansk. January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“One morning UNRRA truck took cowboys and me on tour of Stutthof Concentration camp. Horrible site. Beautiful countryside. Large house at entrance. Tall trees. Stables, Crematory with smokestack. Piles and piles of clogs and worn-out shoes. Awful place. This is what I believe I saw: A tall, brick, tapering chimney (widening at the base), astride a windowless brick building standing on the eastern side of the camp. We entered a door on the north side and descended four or five steps. To our right was a wide ‘roll-up’ door, and to our left were six ovens, side-by-side, each with its own muffler. Over top of ovens was a walkway with handrail, and behind that a forest of neat pipes, and dials and valves. Horribly impressive….We exited on the south side of the building and looked again at the piles of clogs and worn-out shoes. Once, and not long ago, live people had stood in those very clogs and shoes. Was this what I saw? I wonder about that yet today….

“Battleground debris was everywhere—tanks dug-in with ugly snouts (turrets and guns) showing above ground. All kinds of damaged and abandoned vehicles. Armored cars, half-tracks, spent and unspent ammunition. Rows of trees dynamited so as to block use of a road….

“Small children begging for food. A boy of 5 or 6 years, holding a little girl’s hand. Each carries a tin pail. Our cook comes down the gangway, still wearing his kitchen apron, and ladles warm food into each pail. The children watch him, wide-eyed.

Park Victory cooks, January 1946. Photo courtesy of Fred Ramseyer.

“A ship’s boom swings up and out of a hold and over to the dock, lowering another animal container. Out staggers a sick cow, head hanging down, frothing at nostrils and mouth. Given extra injections by Vets. Old man and old woman waiting nearby come forward. Old man places rope around cow’s neck; old woman covers cow with blanket. Man leads cow away as old woman walks alongside hugging and petting cow….

“At the Polonia. Girls, desperate to escape Danzig, begging to be smuggled aboard ship….

Bar near the docks frequented by ship’s crew and seagoing cowboys. Photo credit: Will Keller.

“Jan 17, 1946 Park Victory leaves Danzig/Newport….Destination Copenhagen.

“Jan 18, 1946 shore leave in Copenhagen. What a change from Danzig!”

Next regular post: Images of Gdansk, before and after: 1946 and 2007