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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama's great-uncle recalls liberating Nazi camp


CHICAGO (AP) — Charles T. Payne was 20 years old and, like any good Midwesterner, he knew how to listen.

He was making conversation, in pieced-together English and German, with a freed prisoner of Ohrdruf, the Nazi work camp Payne's infantry division had just liberated at the end of World War II.

"With great difficulty we conversed and, if I got what it was he was telling me about, it was that the Germans had killed a million Jews and that the world didn't really know this yet," Payne, 83, told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday as, on the other side of the world, his great-nephew, Barack Obama, prepared to visit the Yad Vashem national Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Helping liberate Ohrdruf, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, in April 1945 was Payne's first close brush with history.

He is enjoying, for the most part, a second brush as the great-uncle of the Democratic presidential candidate.

In May, Obama mentioned "Uncle Charlie" at a meeting with veterans but mistakenly said Payne had helped liberate Auschwitz, when he should have said Buchenwald. Bloggers seized on the error and the Republican Party demanded an explanation.

Obama's campaign corrected the mistake the next day. Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz as they marched across Poland in January 1945.

Payne, with an Obama button pinned to his shirt, told the AP he was "truly astonished" by the attention paid to Obama's flub. The brother of Obama's maternal grandmother, Payne figures Obama heard the story wrong from his grandparents, "whose grasp of geography wasn't always the firmest." He said at the time he asked friends if he should "try to set the record straight," but that they advised him to ignore it.

Payne said he didn't want to say anything to embarrass the Obama campaign and minimized his role in the liberation of Ohrdruf.

"I have no heroic story to tell," he said. "I was just there."

He had seen plenty of death during his two years in the Army, but the cruelty of what he witnessed at Ohrdruf appalled him. In the courtyard, he saw lying dead "a circle of the inmates in their rags, and you could see they were mostly near starvation. They were there with their tin cups like they were called to get food, then had been machine gunned."

In a shed, he saw bodies stacked like cord wood. The survivors, many near starvation, were "nothing but just skin over bones with nothing, no flesh at all." He said the 1993 movie "Schindler's List" was "very good, but it didn't begin to show the desperate plight of the prisoners. I guess in real life you can't really starve people next to death in order to make a movie."

During the war, home was Augusta, a small town in central Kansas. Payne had enlisted in 1943 along with most of his high school graduating class. He served in a mortar squad, then a communications squad rigging telephone lines.

After the war, Payne went to college in Kansas on the GI Bill and then to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where Obama would later lecture on constitutional law. He later became interested in computers and how they could be used in libraries. He retired at age 70 as assistant director of the University of Chicago's library.

Payne is proud of his great-nephew, who is prominently displayed in family photos.

"He's truly an astounding young man and always has been," he said.

As attention turns to the Holocaust with Obama's expected visit to the Israeli memorial on Wednesday, Payne reflected on the lessons of history.

"Clearly to me it's proof that there's no limit to what a man will do to man and what government out of control will do," he said. "I guess we need to be on our guard eternally."

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