Survivor travels to Germany for trial of SS guardShreveport Journal, March 20, 1986
By Steve Norder, Journal Staff Writer
The last time Louis Van Thyn saw his two best friends was in January 1945. Now he is going to West Germany to testify against the man who may have killed them.
The three friends had been together since before the war -- one had been Van Thyn's best man at his wedding. The first time the German Gestapo picked them up, they were sent together to France to work. After that, they were sent to Auschwitz in Poland. Then, in 1943, they were sent to work in a Nazi coal mine labor camp in Jajina, Poland.
When they parted in 1945, Van Thyn's two friends joined 1,500 other labor camp prisoners, then thousands of prisoners from concentration camps, on a forced trek to Germany. Almost 60,000 started out on the "death march." Only 315 survived.
Those who did not die from exhaustion or starvation died at the hands of the Schutzstaffel -- SS guards.
"If an SS guard had not hit me with a hammer, I would have been on that march," said Van Thyn this week as he prepared to leave for Hannover, West Germany. "Now I am going over there to testify about those events."
Van Thyn has been subpoenaed to testify in a murder case against Heinrich Niemeier, who, as an SS guard, has been accused of shooting 15 to 20 prisoners during the death march.
Niemeier was a 21-year-old SS Rottenfuehrer, or corporal, in the Totenkipfverbande, or Death Head division, according to Rainer Ullrich, the German judge in the war crimes trial. "He is accused of taking prisoners from Jajinagrubbe as part of the death march from Poland to Germany," the judge said in an overseas telephone interview today.
The trial has been going on since January 1981, Ullrich said. "I do not expect it to end until later this year," he said. "The prosecutors summoned 85 people from six countries, including Canada, Israel and the United States, to testify."
Van Thyn said he is anxious to go to Hannover. "I want to see this man to see if I recognize him," he said. "I did not go on the death march, but if this man was at Jajina, I want to see him."
The memories of that time spent in the Nazi camps have not faded for Van Thyn, or his wife Rose, who is one of the few survivors of the march. Both lost their spouses in the camps, both lost their parents and brothers and sisters -- all to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Rose was spared because she was selected, along with 500 other women, to be used by the Germans for "medical" experiments.
Louis was saved because he could work.
The Nazis needed slave labor to keep their war machine going. They took the prisoners -- mostly Jews from the occupied countries but also political prisoners, Slavs from Eastern Europe and captured Russian soldiers -- to work in the factories and mines.
Van Thyn was one of those forced to work for the Nazis. In July 1942, when the German Gestapo picked up the Van Thyns along with other Jews, Louis was sent to a work camp in France, where he spent the next three months cutting trees. Then the Nazis began their relocation program.
"The German SS loaded us in cattle cars and we were sent to Auschwitz," Van Thyn said.
Auschwitz -- the German name for Oswiecim, Poland -- was one of the four most infamous death camps. It actually consisted of a main camp surrounded by about 40 work camps, Van Thyn said. When people were taken off the cattle cars, those who were deemed unable to work -- women, children, the old and lame -- were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
Those men who were healthy were sent to labor camps. "I only spent one night there before we were marched 12 miles to Jawisorvitz, which was a coal mine camp," Van Thyn said. "My work in the French forest, being in the Dutch army and a love of playing sports, as well as my young age, helped prepare me for the work in the coal mines."
He worked at Jawisorvitz for six months before being sent back to Auschwitz. There, Van Thyn helped lay railroad tracks for more trains to come to the camp to bring more people.
"Then in late 1943 about 400 of us were selected to go to Jajinagrubbe," Van Thyn said. The prisoners were housed in a school at first. Later, when the camp swelled to 1,500 workers, barracks were built.
"We worked in two shifts," Van Thyn said. "The day shift would dig for coal. Then the night shift would work on the air pipes, do the shoring of the mine shafts and any work that needed to be done. I worked during the night."
Working in the coal mines was much better than working at Auschwitz itself, Van Thyn said. "To go to the mines from the camp, we walked through the village of Jajina," he said. "We had a chance, secretly and quickly of course, to talk with outsiders. Also the Germans used three or four civilian workers in the mines."
The civilians could smuggle in luxuries such as food or a blanket. Food was especially important, Van Thyn said. "There was never enough food to stay alive," he said. "We would get a piece of bread or some thin soup. But even with as little as we got, many would save their bread to exchange for cigarettes with the civilians."
The workers also were deprived of sleep and beaten by their guards, many of who were former German criminals. Most workers did not survive the coal mines. "We lost about 200 a week," Van Thyn said. "Those who were too sick or hurt to work were sent back to the gas chambers. The Germans were constantly bringing replacements from Auschwitz."
But things started to change in January 1945. The Russian armies were rolling into Poland from the east. In order for the Nazis to keep their slave labor, the workers at all camps were to be marched into Germany. Van Thyn would have been on that march, if a guard had not struck him with a hammer.
"That saved me," he said. "I was counting prisoners as they entered the mine and made a mistake. The guard hit me with a hammer."
The blow was severe enough that Van Thyn's arm swelled and he had to go to the hospital. "If it had happened a month earlier, I would have been sent to Auschwitz," he said. "If it had not happened, I would have been on the death march. But when the guards rounded up everyone to go on the march, they forget 27 in the hospital."
Lying overlooked in the hospital, Van Thyn survived. His two friends died.
"Afterwards we were sent to Odessa, then we went by boat to France," Van Thyn said. "I arrived in Belgium in July 1945."
He found his family was gone. Van Thyn later met Rose, who had also lost her family, and they married. In 1956, the Van Thyns, with their two children, moved to Shreveport.
Shreveport Journal, April 12, 1986
Van Thyn's testimony helps Germany war crimes case
By Steve Norder, Journal Staff Writer
The West German government paid more than $2,000 for one hour's worth of testimony, but Louis Van Thyn gave the judges valuable information.
Van Thyn, a Shreveport resident since 1956, was asked by the German government to testify in a case against Heinrich Niemeier, a former Nazi SS guard corporal accused of killing 15 to 20 Jewish prisoners during a "Death March" from Poland.
"Since I was not on the march, I could not tell them anything about it," said Van Thyn, who returned Wednesday from the trip to Hannover which was completely paid for by the Germans. "But I did tell them about the work camp and identified some of the SS guards who were at the camp. The chief judge said I gave more information than any previous witness."
Van Thyn, born in Holland, had fought against the Germans in 1940 as a Dutch soldier. Later, after the German occupation, Van Thyn, along with other Jews and political prisoners, was forced to work for the Germans. That led to his deportation -- along with millions of other Jews -- to the Nazi death camps of Poland.
But instead of entering the gas chambers, Van Thyn was again taken to a forced labor camp to mine coal for the German war industry. He remained at Jajina, Poland, from 1943 until early 1945.
The approaching Russian armies forced the Nazis to evacuate all the camps and send almost 60,000 prisoners -- including Van Thyn's future wife, Rose -- to Germany. Only 315 survived that march.
According to previous testimony of the trial, Niemeier's role in the killings during the march had been known since 1945 but following the war he went unrecognized. Then in 1977, Paul Ommerborn, a former prisoner, accused Niemeier of being one of two guards who executed prisoners who could no longer walk.
"An Italian Jew was turned over to him (Niemeier) on account of being in poor physical condition to be placed on a wagon," according to Ommerborn's account. Ommerborn told Niemeier that the prisoner had very bad feet. Niemeier said to him give the prisoner and he shot him in the back of his head and left the prisoner lying in the street, he said.
Niemeier has already served six years in prison for that killing. He is now on trial for executing up to 20 others.
"Though I tried to see something in Niemeier that I could recognize, I could not identify him," Van Thyn said. "During the whole time, he never looked at me."
Van Thyn was questioned -- with the help of a translator who could speak Dutch as well as German and English -- by the German prosecutor and Rainer Ullrich, the president of the nine-judge tribunal.
"Once the defense attorney found out I had not gone on the death march, he was not much interested in me," Van Thyn said.
Shortly before the evacuation, he was hit by a guard and sent to the camp hospital. Normally that would have meant a trip to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. But since the Russians were approaching and the Germans were organizing the march, the prisoners in the hospital were forgotten. They remained in the camp until liberated by Russian soldiers.
"I did tell the court about the coal mine camp and how the guards treated us," Van Thyn said. "They showed me 48 pictures of men, most of them in German SS uniforms. I could identify only six or seven. It has been a long time since those horrible days."
Van Thyn said there are many small trials taking place in West Germany. They have become so commonplace that no one bothers to watch the proceedings and there were no reports in the local newspapers.
Niemeier's trial, in which 85 witnesses from Canada, Israel and the United States will give testimony, is expected to end later this year.