[On April 25] a motorized column of the American 84th Division rolled into the town of Salzwedel, 100 air miles of [Hitler's] bunker. Huddled in the houses, almost as frightened as the local citizens, were about 4000 concentration camp inmates and slave laborers abandoned by their guards.
Tadeusz Nowakowski was one of the first to venture into the street. In 1937, at the age of seventeen, he had won the Polish Academy of Literature's prize for young writers. Two years later he and his father ... were arrested for publishing the underground paper, Poland Still Alive. The elder Nowakowski never lived to see his concentration camp, Dachau, liberated; he was beaten to death with a shovel by an enraged guard. But his son endured a succession of Gestapo prisons and camps. He escaped in early February and fled west to Salzwedel, where he found refuge with Polish slave laborers at a sugar factory.
The streets of Salzwedel were jammed with U.S. motorcycles, jeeps, trucks and armored cars churning up clouds of smoke and dust. Nowakowski could hear the roar of planes. It was the scene of liberation he had dreamed of for so many years.
A jeep stopped and a huge Negro stepped out to wild applause and a deluge of flowers. He pushed the crowd aside and nailed a SLOW sign on a telephone pole. He fanned himself with his helmet, shoved his way back to the jeep and drove off with a blast of his horn.
The other Americans were just as bored and looked at the prisoners with indifference, even as they flipped out packs of Chesterfields. They were far from arrogant, yet their behavior suggested a barely concealed contempt at the sight of the miserable and helpless. Or perhaps, Nowakowski thought, they were just tired of it all.
Only a crew of cameramen showed special interest. They persuaded the emaciated prisoners to return to the nearby concentration camp so that they could be filmed behind barbed wire. Some of the children cried when asked to go back through the gate.
In town, mobs of slave laborers roamed the streets, looking for ways of revenge. Barefooted Rumanians emptied buckets of marmalade onto the sidewalk, enraged women smashed store windows with their hands, and a Russian tossed fistfuls of herrings into the air.
A wounded SS man was dragged out of a garage and trampled to death. Prisoners, whose bodies were bloated from hunger, moved painfully up to the corpse. They kicked at it feebly, then flung themselves down and began tearing the hated flesh with hands and teeth. Nowakowski wanted to join them, to shout, "Tear his eyes out! For my tortured father, for my companions, for my bombed city!" But the words stuck in his throat. He laughed hysterically, tears streaming down his cheeks. He thought, I am alive, you sons of bitches!
An American patrol in a jeep fired a burst over the heads of the clawing mass, tooted a horn reprovingly and passed on. It was a surrealistic nightmare. In front of a department store Nowakowski saw two drunken Frenchmen, entangled in a shredded bridal gown, kissing each other on the mouth and stroking each other's hair. An old Polish woman was vomiting blood as gypsy children emptied a bag of flour on her.
Across the canal he saw prisoners clamber onto a railroad tank car full of alcohol. When no one could open the valve someone found an ax, and soon the liquid spurted out in a great jet. The shrieking mob held out mess tins, hats and shoes. A Czech boy shouted, "It's methyl alcohol! It's poison!" but no one would listen.
A group of Russians tied the Burgermeister to a tombstone and stripped his wife and daughter of their clothes. The Burgermeister reared up and screeched like a cock crowing. A red-faced Russian shouted that his own wife had suffered the same fate in Kharkov, and roughly pushed several countrymen up to the daughter. The mother threw herself on the ground and in supplication tried to kiss their feet.
There was a moment's hesitation. Then a squat Kalmuck grabbed the girl and forced her down. Her father made a mighty wrench. He tore the tombstone out of the earth -- and dropped dead. Nowakowski watched the prisoner who had started it all walk away, with hands in pockets; he sat down on the bank of the canal and buried his face in his hands.
The riot reached such proportions that the Americans were forced to pen up their prisoners again. With hundreds of others, Nowakowski was locked in the gymnasium of a former army camp. But the nightmare continued. A group of young girls sang the Polish song "All Our Daily Concerns," while a few yards away men poisoned by the alcohol writhed in agony and vomited violet liquid....
A group of boys found the gymnastic equipment and began clambering up ropes and swinging on trapezes like monkeys. They did not even stop their yelling and laughing when one of them dropped onto a pile of scrap iron, screamed a few minutes, then died.
By midnight the situation had become intolerable. A mob of men broke into the huddles of sleeping Polish and Ukrainian women. Nowakowski heard scuffles, short cries, curses, laughing, crying and whimpering....
It wasn't until dawn that the Americans unlocked the gymnasium and told the French, Dutch, Belgian, Luxembourgian and Czech prisoners to come out; they were to be transferred to the officers' quarters....
Suddenly a loudspeaker boomed "Hello, hello," and in five languages announced that the hall was going to be inspected. At eight o' clock several American officers peered in and, appalled, quickly withdrew. They ordered all children brought outside at once. A rumor started that Jewish women were being quartered in villas and given white bread, eggs and chocolate. Shouts of rage went up: "They take hot baths and walk around in kimonos!" "They sleep with Americans."
"You see how these sons of bitches look after their own people!" someone called out. "A Jew will always help a Jew, but the Christians are left to die like dogs!"
"Like dogs!" a hundred others repeated.
"That's because we're not dirty Jews like them!" screamed an old woman wearing a man's cap.
A girl angrily shouted back, "That's because they burned us in the crematorium ovens while you were screwing German farmers in barns!"
...."Judin!" someone screamed, and the mob rushed at the girl. An elderly bespectacled man who looked like a professor circled the girl with a protecting arm. "Don't touch her!"
The frenzied attackers threw them both to the floor and smothered them with sacks....
"Oh, Jesus!" a woman cried. "They're dead!"
The women scattered, but two Russians wiped the blood off the victims' faces, dragged them to a corner and dumped them on top of several other corpses.
The loudspeaker boomed again, urging the prisoners to be patient; food was on the way and they would all be moved to new quarters. Within minutes food lines were established, and hot soup and white bread passed out. During the next hour the awed prisoners witnessed an incredible transformation: the gymnasium was cleaned, and they were washed and given fresh clothes.
They were lined up to receive food parcels from a good-looking American sergeant who managed to carry out his duties while reading a comic book .... Everything now seemed so simple and logical and easy. Almost everyone was smiling and the loudspeaker played, "I love you, I love you, I love you."
The American miracle was not over. Trucks drove up with four portable chapels and in half an hour services were being held in the football field by an Orthodox priest, a rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister. Following hymns, a prayer thundered over the loudspeaker: "'Alleluia! The Lord is victorious, and the spirit of unrighteousness has been reduced to dust and ashes! Alleluia! The chains that fettered the hands of the righteous have been removed, and the smoke of sacrifices is rising to heaven ...' "
Leaflets of the prayer were passed out. Nowakowski grabbed several and walked to the latrine. He hadn't seen such soft paper in five years.