Nazi death camp chronicler won't let victims' stories be forgotten

Larry Tillemans and Lori Tillemans
Larry Tillemans worked as a typist in Patton's Third Army, putting into official records the stories from prisoners held in the Nazi death camps of World War Two.
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

A St. Joseph man will mark this Veterans Day making sure a part of history he literally helped write isn't forgotten.

Larry Tillemans wasn't even 20 years old when he was sent off to help the Army with the Dachau and Nuremberg war tribunals in 1945. There, he witnessed the trial of 24 of the highest ranking Nazis captured after World War Two, along with others accused of war crimes.

For the past 20 years, Tillemans has committed himself to telling people what he witnessed, and on Friday night he will tell his story to a group in Red Wing.

And this is his story: For nine months after the war, Tillemans worked as a typist in Patton's Third Army, putting into official records the stories from prisoners held in the Nazi death camps.

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"I didn't even know there were concentration camps over there and hardly any of the soldiers knew either," he said. "When they liberated Dachau that was the biggest surprise to the 42nd Division and 45th, when they went in and saw what there was in these camps: horror."

Through his duties, Tillemans relived those horrors almost on a daily basis.

"There were a lot of scribble written testimonials and this had to be typed out," he said. "We'd type from those affidavits, so that went into the files of the official recording of the Holocaust."

In essence he was writing the first draft of this part of history, and Tillemans says during the trials there were nights he cried himself to sleep.

"When I realized and saw and looked at those men who were responsible for the deaths of 10 million or more people — they were responsible, they look like ordinary businessmen dressed in suits — and they would be the guys that were guilty of that, it affected me, yeah, it affected me emotionally."

Not that the people around Tillemans knew how the trials affected him. Like many World War II vets, he didn't talk much about his experiences.

He also became an alcoholic. Though he doesn't blame his time surrounded by the Nuremberg and Dachau horrors for his drinking, he said it probably didn't help. And in 1991 two things happened: He got sober, and he started telling his story.

Today, the 85-year-old Tillemans doesn't get around as easily as he used to. A few years ago he suffered a stroke and is trying his best to manage the arthritis in his back. His wife died last year around Thanksgiving and he's thinking about selling his home outside St. Joseph.

With the help of his daughter, Tillemans drives around the state speaking at colleges, before Veterans' groups and anywhere he's invited.

Lori Tillemans says it's a blessing to see her dad become so comfortable talking about what he witnessed.

"I didn't know my dad, I really don't feel," she said.

The stories Tillemans tells now from the accounts he transcribed are filled with beatings, starvation and inhumane treatment. He recalls reading how one Jewish family was arrested during dinner and loaded into a truck.

"And away they went, couldn't take a thing with them. They went to a camp and then they were told where they would go and serve their time," he said. "A lot of them talked about how they were tattooed with their numbers and then were just referred to as numbers. Words like that. Horrible things."

One day during the trials, Tillemans and a German-speaking friend chatted with a few men who were guards at one of the camps. The guards said they loaded dead bodies into furnaces where they were burned.

"I said, 'Ask them how did they feel about throwing those bodies — men, women, children, naked little kids — throwing them into a burning oven?' And the one guy said, 'Well, we had all the Cognac that we wanted to drink.' And these guys would stay drunk. He said they stayed drunk about two years. And 14 hours a day they did nothing but throw bodies in the ovens."

Earlier this year, Tillesman gave his 400th talk about the war tribunals. His daughter Lori says, when speaking to other vets, her father's candor can open those vets up.

"You hear just a whole mess of stories," she said.

And then the vets that are incredibly hurting and not really knowing how to deal with all these things they've seen."

Tillemans says the motivation that drives him today is that he wants to be certain history isn't forgotten.

"We should never forget the Holocaust, never forget the Holocaust," he said. "We've got to be telling our kids the same thing."