In the waning days of World War II in Europe in northern Germany the Nazi Final Solution was carried out in a barn. On the Isenschnibbe Estate near Gardelegen 1,016 slave laborers (mostly captured resistance fighters from Eastern Europe) were to be exterminated by the Luftwaffe and the SS. The slave laborers were being transported from Mittelbau-Dora and other concentration camps in Western Germany in a desperate attempt to keep the war going. The trains transporting the prisoners stopped in Gardelegen since Allied bombing had knocked out the track ahead. The prisoners were detrained and guarded by members of the Hitler Youth and other civilian organizations like the local fire department while the line was repaired.
Those placed in the barn were too sick or weak to continue on. The straw in the barn was doused in gasoline and then set on fire and most were burned to death. Some tried to flee by digging a hole underneath the barn but were shot dead by the SS and Hitler Youth which had surrounded the barn to prevent escape. Miraculously eleven prisoners, seven Poles, 3 Russians and 1 Frenchman, managed to survive and were found later by soldiers of the 405th Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 102nd Infantry Division.
The discovery was almost by chance. An American soldier had been captured by the Germans the day of the massacre but managed to convince his captors that American tanks were on the way. His captors, tiring of the war, believed him and surrendered before the SS could finish burying the bodies and destroying the evidence. American soldiers arrived the day after the massacre to find the still smoldering ruins and something they were certainly not prepared for, but a discovery that was becoming all too common across Germany and its formerly conquered territory. One soldier upon being interviewed by a war correspondent said: “I never was so sure before of exactly what I was fighting for. Before this you would have said those stories were propaganda, but now you know they weren’t. There are the bodies and all those guys are dead.” Photographers from the US Signal Corps arrived to document the scene and stories ran in American newspapers on April 19.
German civilians were conscripted from Gardelegen and forced to bury the corpses. If the citizens were ignorant of the Nazi’s intentions before there was no hiding it now. The SS commander, Erhard Brauny, was put on trial and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the massacre. He died in prison in 1950. A memorial and cemetery were established in Gardelegen so that the crime could not be forgotten and the citizens of the town are charged with maintaining the cemetery and memorial. One wall of the barn still stands as a reminder of one of the most heinous crimes in human history.