Paul Kreft was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1926. He was baptized a Roman Catholic and spent many years attending Catholic schools in Detroit. He also attended Hazel Park High School and Henry Ford Trade School in Dearborn, Michigan. Prior to being enlisted in the army, Paul enrolled at Wayne University. Upon being drafted at the age of eighteen into the army on October 4, 1944, Paul was sent to Camp Blanding, Florida to receive military training, before being shipped overseas in February, 1945 to aid the American troops in the war in Europe.
Once in Europe, Paul was assigned to the Third Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron in the Twentieth Core under the command of General Patton. Paul began pushing forward with the Third Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron into Germany. Paul’s division crossed the Rhine River at Mainz on March 28, 1945 and then moved through the German cities of Kassel and Nuremberg. Finally, the squadron moved south into Austria through the Alps.
On March 6, 1945 the Reconnaissance Squadron came to a halt after arriving in the Austrian city of Ebensee. There the army noticed a horrific odor coming out of what appeared to be a prisoner of war camp on the outskirts of the city. Paul and roughly forty others were sent in to investigate the area, but little did they know that they had stumbled across a concentration camp. Paul’s unit, being on the front lines of reconnaissance, had no previous information on concentration camps, and they were very shocked to realize what they had uncovered.
After capturing the few guards that were left at the prison’s gates, Paul’s unit broke open the front gates and turned off the electricity that was feeding the barbed wire fence that enclosed the camp. Quickly Paul and the others were mobbed by the camp’s inmates upon entering. Not knowing what to do with the thousands of prisoners, Paul’s unit retreated, hoping to receive backup. Paul moved back into the camp with hundreds more infantry, trying desperately to establish order in the camp.
While first investigating the camp, Paul discovered a building that functioned as the camp’s crematorium. Paul remembers seeing a sign over the door of the crematorium that read in German, “Abandon all hope, who enter here.” Bodies and bones were piled high inside the crematorium, which was still smoking from being used earlier that day. Paul took with him a rubber baton, used to beat unruly inmates with, that was hanging by door of the crematorium. After photographing the ghastly scene in the crematorium, Paul’s unit moved on to the barracks, where the prisoners slept.
Unable to distinguish the dead from the living, Paul recalls witnessing the sunken, lifeless glaze in the prisoner’s eyes as he moved around the room, attempting to communicate to the prisoners, who no longer had the strength to move or respond. The barracks were stacked in a manner in which the spaces between the shelves were just large enough to squeeze a human body between. Around the back of the building, Paul discovered a pile of corpses that was approximately fifty feet long and seven feet tall, that had yet to be moved into the crematorium.
Later that day the Red Cross came in to give medical attention to the prisoners. They also brought in a massive kettle, in which they cooked a thin, watery soup for the prisoners to eat. Paul remembers speaking with one of the nurses who was handing out the soup and asking her why they did not feed the prisoners something more substantial, considering how emaciated the prisoners were. She responded by saying that, if had they fed them anything with more substance, then the prisoners would not have been able to hold down the food.
One of the most memorable events that transpired during the army’s short stay in Ebensee was when the army rounded up citizens of Ebensee who were older than twenty-one, putting them into the back of some army trucks, and driving them through the concentration camp. Earlier the people of Ebensee had claimed that they had no idea what was taking place within the confines of the camp. The army men decided to let the citizens of Ebensee witness firsthand what they had purposely overlooked. To this day Paul does not believe that the people knew nothing about the atrocities going on within the camp, because, when they arrived in Ebensee, the stench from the burning bodies was so strong that it clouded over the entire city.
Within a few days the prisoners were clothed, fed, and eventually sent off to wherever it was the prisoners wished to go. The army remained in Ebensee only ten days, but those few days remain vividly in Paul’s mind. Despite this, Paul tries to look at the positive side of the experience: that he was able to save as many lives as he did when he liberated the camp. Paul hopes that by sharing his story, no one will ever forget or deny the dreadful events that unfolded during the Holocaust.
Date: May 9, 1995
Interviewer: Rabbi C. Rosenzveig
Length: 59 minutes
Format: Video recording