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Bernard Diamond oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (35 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (12 p.)
Concentration camp liberators oral history project
This interview was conducted as research for The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust / Michael Hirsch (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).
Interview conducted May 12, 2008.
This is an oral history interview with Holocaust concentration camp liberator Bernard "Bernie" Diamond. Diamond was a gunner in the 87th Infantry Division, which visited Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, shortly after its liberation in April 1945. The division went overseas in October 1944 and reached France in December, shortly before the Battle of the Bulge started. After that battle, their first combat action, the division proceeded through Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany, and encountered Ohrdruf. Diamond describes entering the camp, where he saw piles of clothing and baskets filled with what he thought were pebbles; they were actually teeth with gold fillings. He was not in the camp long before the division moved on, but did interact with some of the prisoners.
The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust (New York: Bantam Books, 2010) and Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project, University of South Florida Libraries, 2010 Michael Hirsh.
Transcripts, excerpts, or any component of this interview may be used without the author's express written permission only for educational or research purposes. No portion of the interview audio or text may be broadcast, cablecast, webcast, or distributed without the author's express written permission.
Infantry Division, 87th.
Infantry Division, 87th
v Personal narratives.
Ohrdruf (Concentration camp)
Ardennes, Battle of the, 1944-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
Personal narratives, American.
World War, 1939-1945
Crimes against humanity.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center.
University of South Florida.
Special & Digital Collections.
Oral History Program.
Holocaust & genocide studies oral history projects.
Concentration camp liberators oral history project.
y USF ONLINE ACCESS
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Michael Hirsh: Before we start, why dont you give me your full name?
Bernard Diamond: My full name is Bernard Diamond.
MH: And your address, please?
BD: My address is
MH: And your phone number?
BD: My phone number is
MH: And your date of birth?
BD: My date of birth is June 6, 1925.
MH: Which makes you?
BD: Over thirty-nine. (laughs)
MH: Over thirty-nine, okay.
BD: Whats your background? I sent you an e-mailI thought I sent you an e-mail. Mel gave me what I thought was your e-mail address, and I said I looked you up in Google, and there was a
MH: Theres two Michael Hirshs that write books.
BD: Yeah, okay.
MH: Theres me, and theres the guy whos the senior editor for Newsweek.
BD: Oh, okay.
MH: Ive actually given speeches where the person introducing me has listed my books and his books, and I had to stand up and say, Im sorry, Im not the Renaissance man you seem to think I am. My backgroundI spend most of my years in broadcasting, as a journalist. I was with public television for years, produced documentaries. I was an investigative reporter; eventually hit a point where I had to write my way out of television. I grew up in Chicago. We moved to Los Angeles in 1983, and then moved to Florida six years ago.
BD: Oh, I see.
MH: Our kidswe want to be closer to the kids, but they live in New Jersey and work in the city. My son-in-law and my daughter-in-law and son work in the city. And we didnt want to move to New Jersey. You know, we can come visit. So, I began writing books full-time just beforewell, about a year before we moved. I was an Army combat correspondent in Vietnam, with the 25th Infantry Division. In 2002, I was embedded with Air Force pararescue guys in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan to write a book called None Braver, about the pararescue guys and combat search and rescue. Since then, Ive written one Vietnam book, Ive writtenI wrote Michael Schiavos book, about the Terri Schiavo case; that was a New York Times bestseller.
A Snipers Journey: The Truth About the Man Behind the Rifle, written with Gary D. Mitchell and published in 2006; Terri: The Truth, written with Michael Schiavo and published in 2006.
And now, Im writing about the liberators.
BD: I see.
MH: So, thats my story in a nutshell. I have three grandchildren until tomorrow, when, if all things go on schedule, I will have four grandchildren.
BD: I see. Well, my youngest daughter just gave birth nine weeks ago, and shes coming up Friday with her new baby.
MH: From where?
BD: From Atlanta, Georgia. So, Im going to see her.
MH: Is that your first grandchild?
BD: No, thats my third. I have a bunch of cousins and so on.
MH: So, whered you grow up?
BD: I grew up in the Bronxin New York, essentially.
MH: What got you into the Army? An invitation or you volunteered?
BD: No, I was drafted. I was draftedwell, my birthday, as I said, was June 6, and I was draftedI was in the Army by September of that year.
MH: What year did you go in?
BD: Nineteen forty-three.
MH: Forty-three , okay.
BD: Well, Im younger than Mel. I took the exam, and I went to the ASTP [Army Specialized Training Program]. I was at North Carolina University, and then they closed the program. I went to Fort Jackson, the 87th Division, and I trained there and went overseas with the 87th Division. So, I was always with the 87th Division, part of the 3rd Army.
MH: When did you go overseas?
BD: Probably about October, I would say.
BD: Forty-three .
MH: Forty-three . They moved you very
BD: No, it cant be forty-three .
MH: Had to be forty-four . No?
BD: Got to be forty-four , I would say. Yeah. My head is not too great. (laughs)
MH: Thats okay. And you were what, a rifleman?
BD: No, I was in the weapons platoon. I was with the mortars and machine guns.
MH: You werent married before you went in.
MH: You went over to where?
BD: We went over towe were on the Queen Mary. We went to the Firth of Clyde (laughs)
MH: Yes. How elegant. (laughs)
BD: and debarked and went down into England. We went to Leek, England.
BD: Leek. Thats where the company was. Then we went to, uhI dont remember where we went. Anyway, we went across to France, to Le Havre, I would say; then they shipped us down toward Metz.
MH: To where?
MH: Metz? Okay.
MH: How long did it take before you were in combat?
BD: I would say very soon, very soon. In Metz, we were in combat, because the Germans held out in Metz. I dont know the exact details, but I know when the Bulge broke out, we were put on trucks, drove to Belgium, essentially, got off the trucks (laughs) and there we were.
Mrs. Diamond: Hello.
BD: Thats my wife.
MH: Hi, Im Mike Hirsh.
BD: Mike Hirsh.
MH: Id get up, but Im wired in place.
BD: Well, [George S.] Patton writes about it. He calls itthe general asked if we can reconnoiter or do anything, and he said, No, just get off. So, we got off, and we collided with the Germans coming towards Bastogne, and we were going into theso, it was immediate combat right there, again. (laughs)
BD: Wellexcuse me. Terrified. You know, I was eighteen years old. Was I terrified? I think I was just stupid, thats all. (laughs)
MH: Were you wounded?
BD: I was wounded, but not then. I was wounded in April.
BD: Forty-five .
MH: Forty-five , so, near the end.
MH: Did you know anything at all about the concentration camps?
MH: Before you hit it? Nothing?
BD: No, nothing. In fact, when you called me, I started looking through some notes I had made years and years ago, because my wife wanted me to write some details of my life for my kids, so I wrote something down. But I didnt know anything about the concentration camp. In fact, when I got to Ohrdruf, Im walking into, like, a courtyard, and I see piles of shirts and piles of suitcases, and what I thought were baskets of pebbles. But when I looked closer, they werent pebbles; they were teeth with gold in them. And I said, What the hell is this? You know, I didnt know anything about them. But when I saw some prisoners therethe first thing they wanted was my weapon, because the Germans were still running out and escaping.
MH: Lets back up. Tell me about the approach to Ohrdruf. How did you find it? How did you know it was there?
BD: We didnt find it. I mean, Im saying, were on tanks. The tanks were there, and I dont even know if they knew it was there. I mean, it was there. So, they stopped, we got off the tanks, and we were waiting around.
MH: And they had knocked the gates down already?
BD: Oh, I didnt see any gates. I didnt see any gates. But the only thing I sawas I say, Mel got in there and saw the gates and saw the barbed wire.
MH: Right, but he was there the next day.
BD: He was not there.
MH: He was in Buchenwald.
BD: Right. But I didnt see anything that he saw. I just saw the evidence, you might say, the piles of suitcases and stuff like that.
MH: The prisoners werethe former prisoners
BD: The former prisoners, the ones that were able to move, wanted weapons. They wanted to kill these Germans, thats what they wanted to do.
MH: They came up to you and asked for your gun?
BD: They were right there. I wouldnt do it. And they were picking up pieces of lumber and stuff like that to hit these guys, if they could catch them. Thats what I remember.
MH: Did you see any of them catch Germans?
MH: Did you see any Germans around there?
BD: Oh, sure.
MH: Whered you see the Germans?
BD: The Germans were running away. They wanted to get out of the way.
MH: Were you shooting?
BD: Because I didnt know what was going on. I was just there. I happened to be there. First of all, my weaponas a weapons man, I had a pistol. I didnt have a rifle or anything like that, so Im not going to shoot.
MH: (laughs) Yeah, a .45 at somebodyyes. I trained with a .45. I couldnt hit anything ten feet away.
BD: Well, I could hit with a .45; in fact, Im an expert. Well, thats something else. I had the highest score with a rifle of my regimentthis was before, back in the States. And I had an expert with a rifle; I was an expert with a pistol. But I wasnt shooting at that time, I was just there. I didnt know what the hell was going on. It was only later that I realized what was there.
MH: How much later?
BD: Months later, I would say, because then the whole concept of concentration camps and the prison compounds and stuff like that became apparent. But before that, I wasnt aware of that. And I was in the weapons; I was a gunner. I had an assistant gunner, and he wasnt aware of that either, my friend Harvey. So, I cant really tell you that much about my experience. That was it.
MH: What did the people look like?
BD: The people looked verycoats. The dead, I dont even know what they looked like. Ragged clothes is all I can say. But
MH: Were you able to communicate with them?
BD: In gestures. I could communicate with gestures, because I only knew a little bit of Yiddish. I knew some little bit of German, but thats about it. And the prisoners were gesturing, and you canI could get an idea of what they were trying to communicate. As I said, they wanted my weapon, and I said no, couldnt do that.
MH: Did they ask you for food?
BD: No. The only thing they wantedfrom mewas a way of getting back: a revenge of some kind, some kind of retaliation of them against the Germans, thats all. They didnt ask for food or anything like that. They may have done that later, but I dont know.
MH: How long did you stay in the camp?
BD: We didnt stay, becausehow long did we stay? I had to gowhen I went into this courtyard, I had to go back to where I was, so that if the tanks leftI mean, I wasnt going to stay there. I was going to be (laughs) abandoned. I was going to be with my company; if they were gonna go, I was gonna go. So, I doubt if I was there more than an hour or so. And then I went back, and that was it.
MH: Do you remember talking about it with your buddies?
BD: I remember talking to my buddy Harvey, but thats about it. I dont know.
MH: Can you remember what the conversation was about?
MH: When did you finally come home from the war?
BD: Well, I was wounded in April.
MH: Right after Ohrdruf?
BD: Oh, yeah, this was after. Again, we were fighting on tanks, and we went to a placethis is past Ohrdruf; it was a place called Tombach. I dont know if you know that; anyway, its a larger town. The Germans would knock down trees to stop the tanks, so we were going to have to get off the tanks and clear out the Germans and get the trees out of the way and get going. And that wasso, that happened near Tombach. There was a bunch of Hitler Youth there, and some SS troops behind this barricade of trees. So, we got off the tanks. I heard my platoon sergeant was hit, and I went to see if I could help himwith another sergeantand thats when I was hit.
MH: Rifle? Bullet?
BD: (indicates) Here. This is a reconstructed nose and an artificial eye.
MH: They did a good job.
BD: Well, they did a good job, yeah. Anyway, that bullet hit me, knocked me down, and I said, Sergeant, Tony, I cant see, and I couldnt see. So, he helped me up, and he helped me back to a jeep that was taking the wounded back to an aid station. I got back to an aid station, and they took me toI think thats where they removed the bullet. But the bullet had fragmented and part of it was in my eye, so they decidedthey did as much as they could do, and they flew me back to France, to a hospital in France. When I got there, they also said they couldnt do anything, so they decided to fly me back to the States. So, thats what happened. And I got back to the States.
MH: That mustve been a long flight. I dont know how theytheyre hopping back?
BD: I dont know. All I know is, when I got back to the States, I called my uncle, because my parents didnt have a phone. So, I called my uncle, and I said, Uncle Ben, this is Bernie, and we started talking. And then, I realized he didnt realize it was me. He thought it was another Bernie. So, I said, No, this is Bernie Diamond, and he said, Whatre you doin? and then I told him. So, I was back in the States before my parents knew I was wounded, because they had no way of knowing. I told him what happened, and he was the one who contacted my parents. And they visited me while I was still in New York, I guess. Then, I was flown to Tuscaloosa, Alabamathey had another hospital thereto try to save the eye, and they couldnt do it. I was in the hospital for about a couple of months, and then I was finally discharged in January of 1946. Thats my story.
MH: Thats your story, and youre sticking to it.
MH: Did memories of Ohrdruf ever crop up later in life?
BD: Memories of my whole experience cropped up, yes.
MH: When did that start?
BD: I have a country home in Connecticut, and when I go up there, sometimesI tell my wife, you know, sometimes the smell or the idea comes back. Yes. I mean, every once in a while, I think of what happened during the war and what I experienced, yes.
MH: Do you have nightmares?
BD: No, I dont have nightmares. But I have memories of that, yes.
MH: You find it helpful or not helpful to talk to other guys who were there?
BD: I dont talk to other guys who were there. Mel is the only guy I talk to about that. I dont find it helpful because unlessI feel unless youre there yourself, you cant imagine anything, you cant visualize what happened. I tell people what I feel shelling is like, for example. I cant explain that. I mean, the shells come down: I know how I experienced it, and sometimes I know what happened. But I cant describe it so that they understand that. Thats my feeling. I remember thoughts and incidents that happened to me, and I could tell my wife about it, I can tell people about it, but I dont know if it makes any sense.
I remember, for example, during the Bulge, being dead tired and falling asleep in the snow, just in the snow, my buddy Harvey and I. And then wed wake up, and we could see tanks running right by the treads of the tanks, going right by us. I didnt hear a thing. I didnt hear it. And yet, there it was. And if that tank was one foot this way, I wouldnt be here, you know.
MH: You wouldnt be talking, right.
BD: And I also remember, also during the Bulge, it was very cold there, extremely cold, and very heavy snow. Im walking through this heavy snow, maybe waist high with snow, tripping a wire. But the wire was frozen in the snow. Now, if it wasnt frozen, there would be a booby trap going off. And I cant tell people that. I can tell people about it, but they dont have the same concept, I dont think.
MH: Right. Having talked, now, to a lot of World War II vets who went through the shelling that you went through, and strafing from airplanes and that sort of thingI mean, what we experiencedwhat most of us in Vietnam experienced was nothing even close to that. I came under incoming mortar fire, but we never had constant barrages of enemy artillery fire. We never had planes coming over strafing us. I nearly got hit by a 500-pound bomb dropped by our allies, friendly fire, but thats different.
BD: Yeah. I remember the first time we were in combat; we were going through a town. We were coming out of the woods, going down into a valley and then a stream, and then going up an incline, maybe a 1,000, 1,500-feet incline up to the top of a hill, and then the other side of the hill was a town. And we were supposed to go up this incline and the 11th Armored Division was supposed to be on our righton our left, I should say.
Anyway, we were going up, and we found out later they werent. And the artillery was coming in heavy artillery. And all of a sudden, the company dropped their stuff and ran back down the hill, and Im there with Harvey. There were dead and wounded all over the place. And my company commander and his runner and hisand a forward observer for the artillerywere on the other side of the hill. All of a sudden, the shelling stops. And as I say, Im out here with a pistol and my friend Harveys got a pistol. So, he and I pick up a BAR [Browning Automatic Rifle], if you know what that is
BD: and were waiting for the German counterattack. And meantime, he and I had brought a couple of wounded into one place so they could be together and whatever. All of a sudden, I see someone coming over the hill, and I get ready with my BAR [rifle]. It turns out my friend Paul Cutler, whos the runner, and then my captainmy company commanderhe says, Diamond, what happened? and I tell him what happened on the other side. So, we finally got out of there.
But that was verythat was traumatic, because you could finally seeor, I could finally seewhat artillery could do to a body. I was looking at dead bodies with pieces ofmy friend Harveys glasses flew off. So
MH: Thats the sort of thing you never forget.
BD: No, never forget.
MH: Do you ever tell your kids about the war?
MH: They didnt ask, or you didnt want to tell them?
BD: Both. They never asked me, and I just didnt think it was a worthwhile thing to talk about it. I tell my wife about it, but thats about it. I tell my wife, because when were up in Connecticut sometimes, I get these images back, and I say, See, I got this image now.
MH: Go back to Ohrdruf a second. Do you remember the smell at Ohrdruf?
MH: Thats what a lot of the guys remember most. They said they could smell the camps before they saw the camps.
BD: What I know about Ohrdrufand this is afterwardsis that when the word went back to headquarters about this, they didnt believe it. There was no concept. They didnt believe it. They didnt come to look at Ohrdruf, actually physically visit it, until maybe a week later, and we were far gone.
MH: [Dwight D.] Eisenhower came to Ohrdruf, I think, the day Buchenwald was liberated.
BD: Really? Â Okay.
BD: Yeah. Im saying, nobody believed it, and they couldnt imagine this happening.
MH: I keep asking you questions, cause I keep thinking Im going to trigger something and youll remember something you havent said.
BD: I have to be honest. Ohrdruf, to me, was not significant, because I didnt know it was Ohrdruf. I didnt know what it was. Only later did I know it was Ohrdruf. So, I didnt have any idea that I have to remember this.
MH: Right I understand.
BD: The only significant thing I remember, as I say, was the piles of clothes, the suitcases, and the pebblesor, the teeth.
MH: How big was thatyou said this basket of pebbles?
BD: Yes, like a peach basket, you know. So, its about
MH: Yeah, I understand.
BD: Not too big, but it was there. I dont know if that helps you.
MH: Every little bit helps. Its like a jigsaw puzzle, and you keep talking to people and keep piecing it together from their memories. The point of the book is to talk to the liberators, because youre the last guys around, the last Americans, to have seen the Holocaust. When youre all gone, all thats left is paper and tape and pictures. Youre the last people. So, its an important thing to do. Anything else you want to tell me? No? Okay.
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