Barack Obama's great uncle offered some blunt language as to why his nephew is visiting the memorial at the former Buchenwald concentration camp next week during his trip to Europe and the Middle East.
“This is a trip that he chose, not because of me I'm sure, but for political reasons,” Charles Payne told the German magazine Spiegel. “Perhaps his visit also has something to do with improving his standing with (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel. She gave him a hard time during his campaign and also afterwards.”
Obama will visit Saudi Arabia, make a long-awaited speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, travel to Dresden and the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp in Germany, and attend D-Day commemorations in France. His uncle said he'd love to tag along if he gets a lift on Air Force One.
Payne, 84, is no stranger to Americans: The Obama campaign used his WWII experiences last year to burnish the candidate’s all-American upbringing. But Obama made a gaffe when he said his great uncle liberated Auschwitz. In fact, Payne was part of the force that liberated Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, in April 1945.
Payne told Spiegel that he was shocked to see his war experience, especially his "liberation" of a concentration camp, used in campaign commercials. He said he had never spoken with his nephew about the matter, nor did Obama ever express any interest in Payne's experience.
“I was quite surprised when the whole thing came up and Barack talked about my war experiences in Nazi Germany,” Payne said. “We had never talked about that before.”
Payne doesn’t know where Obama came up with the fictitious Auschwitz connection.
“He couldn't have gotten it from me since we had never talked about this particular episode in the war,” said Payne. “My sister and her husband were both great storytellers and sometimes made up the details to go along with it.
“They told him about my deployment with the 89th Infantry Division and apparently they mixed up a few details,” Payne said. “Of course it came out immediately that he was wrong since there are enough people in America who know that Auschwitz is in the East and that the camp was liberated by the Red Army.”
After the mistake was made, Obama called Payne to get the correct details.
“He wanted to know where this camp was that I had helped liberate,” Payne said. “I told him that it was Ohrdruf and that it was a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp. I described a little bit of what I had seen.”
Payne stressed that he has no political ax to grind. He is a life-long Democrat, but said he isn’t particularly close to his famous relative.
“Our relationship is warm and friendly, but I'm not part of his inner circle. We always have an interesting chat when we get in the same room together. He doesn't call me up and ask what I have to say about world policy or anything. And I never offer my opinions on any of this.”
In the article, Payne described an incident very similar to what many members of the “Greatest Generation” had experienced. A young man from Kansas, he had little knowledge of the world and few opinions about Germany or foreign policy in general before landing in Europe for the liberation.
“Everybody who was able-bodied was drafted,” Payne recalled. “I went down right at the time I graduated and told the lady that ran the Selective Service office. I said, ‘I'm ready to go,’ and she said: ‘Don't you worry about it, honey. You're on the list.’ Since I had been colorblind since birth, I was first turned down by the Air Force, then by the Navy and the Marines. Only the Army didn't care and put me into the infantry.”
Raised in Kansas, Payne did his basic training at North Camp Hood, Texas.
“What did you think about the Germans at the time?” Spiegel asked him.
“I am unable to tell you what I was thinking then. That was a long time ago, and as I told you, until Barack misspoke, I hadn't thought about any of this for a very, very long time,” Payne said.
“They were the enemy, evil incarnate, and we were the good guys coming to save the world. We were all for the war. We all wanted to be in it. That doesn't mean we enjoyed being in it, though,” he said. He then described his experiences in Europe.
“At first there was no front,” he said. “Because there were no facilities for our ship, we couldn't anchor in the harbor. Le Havre had been summarily bombed. They finally took us off in the middle of the night on landing barges. It was bitter cold and snowing. There was about three or four inches of water sloshing around in the bottom. So we landed at Le Havre in bitter cold with wet feet. Soon afterwards we had a large number of people who suffered from frostbite. The camp doctors were forced to amputate fingers, toes, and feet and send these soldiers back to the United States. For them the war was over.
“Ohrdruf was in that string of towns going across, south of Gotha and Erfurt,” Payne said, describing his arrival near the concentration camp. “Our division was the first one in there. When we arrived there were no German soldiers anywhere around that I knew about. There was no fighting with the Germans, no camp guards. The whole area was overrun by people from the camp dressed in the most pitiful rags, and most of them were in a bad state of starvation. The first thing I saw was a dead body lying square in the middle of the front gate.
“Inside the gate was an area where a bunch of the camp inmates had been machine gunned and were all lying on the ground,” Payne continued. “Each one had their tin cup in their hand or lying next to them.”
The interviewer asked him to describe his feelings when he was "confronted with these images.”
Payne said he doesn’t like to think about it, and hadn’t for a long time until Obama’s gaffe caused all the harsh memories of that time to come back in force.
“You know, I am unable to tell you what I was thinking then,” Payne said. “That was a long time ago, and as I told you, until Barack misspoke, I hadn't thought about any of this for a very, very long time. In fact, I guess I prefer not to think about it. I can assure you I was horrified by the lengths to which men will go to mistreat other men. This was, to me, almost unbelievable. There was more: There were sheds full of dead bodies that had been stripped and thrown in and then stacked up on top of each other. I don't know how many, but many high and the whole length of the room. They sprinkled lime to keep the smell down. That's about the extent that I remember actually seeing.
“I am puzzled by intelligent people who stand by and allow their country to be taken over and run by extreme radical types,” Payne said. “I'm still somewhat puzzled by that. And I am fully aware that it could happen and has almost happened in this country. You know, I lived through the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when it was getting dangerously close to that sort of thing.”
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