Like the other American soldier boys driving toward Buchenwald in Germany in April of 1945, Milton Silva didn’t know he was going to set foot in hell before the day was done.

Like the other American soldier boys driving toward Buchenwald in Germany in April of 1945, Milton Silva didn’t know he was going to set foot in hell before the day was done.

Born in 1923, the son of a funeral director, Silva believed he would get a deferment from the draft to attend embalming school.

“It didn’t work out,” he said, sitting at the kitchen table of his home in Swansea, Mass., remembering how he came to what the world now calls a concentration camp.

Asked what he knew about concentration camps before he walked into one, Silva had only one word.

“Nothing,” he said.

He would learn.

***

Some of Silva’s memories are in a recently released book called "The Liberators: America’s Witnesses to the Holocaust" by Michael Hirsch. On April 13, Silva will go to Washington, D.C., to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he will be honored along with other men who liberated hell.

For a long time, Silva rarely spoke publicly about his experiences, though he was eager when asked to speak at an event designed as a response to those who claim the Holocaust never happened.

“It bothers the hell out of me,” he said of those who deny the Holocaust never happened, or who insist its extent has been inflated for political reasons. “It’s like they’re calling me a liar.”

***

It was April 11, 1945.

The men of the U.S. Army’s 104th Infantry Division drove “all day and all night long” to reach Buchenwald, Silva said, getting closer in the small hours of the morning.

“Miltie,” said a soldier sitting next to him in a truck. “Something stinks around here.”

Silva, whose family was in the funeral business, knew the smell.

“Someone’s dead around here,” Silva answered.

They drove on, the smell thickening in the night air.

“It got stronger and stronger,” Silva said.

Silva was a medic.

“We were following Patton,” he said. “We caught up with him when he ran out of gas.”

Army Gen. George S. Patton had been thrusting for the heart of Germany like the point of a knife and did indeed stop when he outran his fuel supplies.

Not knowing what Buchenwald was, Silva and the rest got out of their trucks.

“We first saw Buchenwald at 7 or 8 a.m.,” Silva said. “The camp was up on a hill. We were all walking up the hill.”

Silva and the other men knew only that they were approaching a “camp.”

“I didn’t know what it meant,” Silva said. “I thought a ‘camp’ was a military installation.”

Silva had been in many camps, beginning with Fort Polk, La., where he did his basic training. There was no resistance at Buchenwald. The guards had run away, though some met a harder fate.

“Once we got in, once we got through the gate, there were practically naked people walking around or just standing in shock,” he said. “They were living skeletons and there was an awful stench.

“Bodies stacked up like cordwood,” Silva said.

The Web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says that Buchenwald was one of the largest concentration camps established within the German borders of 1937. Political prisoners were Buchenwald’s first inmates, then Jews and Gypsies, and anyone who opposed Naziism or didn’t fit into the Nazi ideal of racial purity.

Silva and the other soldiers walked on, into the heart of the camp.

The body of an inmate hanged by the guards dangled from the camp’s gallows. There were still bodies in the crematorium.

“There were a bunch of people around this man, yelling and hitting him,” Silva said.

Silva said he was with another soldier, a Polish American from Chicago.

“And he could speak these Slavic languages,” Silva said. “He understood some of them and he told me, ‘They’ve got a guard and they’re killing him.’”

Silva and the other men continued exploring the camp.

“We didn’t say a hell of a lot,” Silva said. “We all had a great deal of anger.”

There were other emotions besides anger. Starving prisoners had to be carefully fed, in small amounts.

“One soldier, Charlie Green from Texas, he gave some young kids some food and they died,” Silva said. “So he carries that burden.”

Silva went into buildings where meat hooks hung from the ceiling, meat hooks used to give prisoners a slow and painful death.

“And you could see the scratches on the walls where they had struggled and scratched the walls with their fingernails,” Silva said.

***

Eventually, Silva returned to Massachusetts to take up the embalmer’s trade, but he could not forget the smell of Buchenwald.

“You go through your own private hell,” he said. “It got to a point that if I had a body that was decomposed, I couldn’t do it because it had that stench and I’d flashback.

“You didn’t talk about it or you’d end up in a psycho ward,” Silva said.

Silva left embalming, went to law school and eventually became a judge.

“If I hadn’t been at Buchenwald, I would have been an undertaker for the rest of my life,” he said.

“You thought no one would treat people like this,” he said. “You thought it had to be a dream.”

E-mail Herald News writer Marc Munroe Dion at mdion@heraldnews.com.