He was only 18 when he came face to face with the stark horror of the Holocaust, and he spent the last decades of his life sharing the ghastly details so what happened wouldn’t be forgotten when his generation faded.
“There were ones too weak to come out even when they heard the Allies were in the camp,” Jesse Oxendine recalled of the day in May 1945 when his unit liberated a concentration camp. “One fellow was sitting there. I tapped him on the shoulder, and he fell over. He’d died with his eyes open.”
A funeral service will be held in Charlotte on Tuesday for Oxendine, who died Friday at age 90.
Oxendine, a Lumbee Indian, grew up in Pembroke and became the first Native American pharmacist licensed in North Carolina. He opened Kings Drug on Eastway Drive in Charlotte in 1957 and later added a branch on Fairview Drive.
One day Oxendine had to go to a lawyer’s office for some legal papers, his son Mark Oxendine recalled Monday, and when he got them, he asked what he owed. No charge, he was told.
“Mr. Oxendine, you don’t remember me,” the attorney said, “but when I was a kid, you told us to get good grades and then to bring you our report cards. You gave us free milkshakes.”
“That story,” Mark Oxendine said, “just epitomizes my dad.”
Oxendine was drafted into the Army after high school in 1944 and assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in Europe.
‘The world can’t forget’
On May 2, 1945, on its way to Berlin, his unit came upon a fenced camp near Ludwigslust, Germany. No one was prepared for what they found there.
“It’s amazing how people look alike once they lose flesh on their skulls and bodies,” Oxendine told the Observer in an interview. “They had on this pajama-looking clothing with stripes. I thought maybe it was an insane asylum, but then I saw the dead bodies. …
“Then one of the boys said, ‘I think these are Jews.’ Growing up in Pembroke, the only Jews I knew were the Weinsteins in Lumberton; my family traded with them.
“I didn’t know there was such hatred and resentment toward Jews.”
At its height, the Wobbelin concentration camp held 5,000 captives. Oxendine found bodies stacked up in a barracks, left behind by the fleeing Germans. An Army general ordered the people of Ludwigslust to come to the camp to view the carnage, then made them bury hundreds of the bodies in the town square.
“He made sure nobody would forget,” said Oxendine. “Long after we are gone, the world can’t forget that this took place.”
Captured German soldiers, the townspeople and Oxendine’s unit were ordered to attend a memorial service. Oxendine’s chaplain delivered the eulogy, and he directed it to the townspeople, who denied they knew what went on in the camp:
“Within four miles of your comfortable homes, 4,000 men were forced to live like animals, deprived even of the food you would give to your dogs. In three weeks 1,000 of these men were starved to death; 800 of them were buried in pits in the nearby woods,” he said.
“These 200 who lie before us in these graves were found piled four and five feet high in one building and lying with the sick and dying in other buildings.”
For the last three decades, Oxendine had joined with his friend Henry Hirschmann, a Holocaust survivor from Charlotte, to lecture to thousands in high schools, civic groups, museums and churches about the Holocaust.
Oxendine continued to attend reunions of the 82nd Airborne, which at one time attracted hundreds. Their last one was in 2010, when Oxendine was one of only 11 healthy enough to still make it.
Oxendine was an Eagle Scout at age 16, a charter member of Providence Baptist Church and served on the board of trustees for his alma mater, Pembroke State University.
A service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Providence Baptist Church.
‘No 18-year-old should ever see a sight like that’
In 2007 as part of a series on World War II memories, the Observer asked Jesse Oxendine to tell in his own words what he saw when he and his unit liberated a Nazi death camp in Wobbelin, Germany in 1945. Here is his story:
We knew it was a prison, but we didn’t know what it was. I had never heard of a concentration camp. We saw these funny-looking people. They came out and wanted to hug us. A lot of them looked as though they'd lost so much weight their skulls were visible.
One of our boys said it might be the Jews. I thought, what? I didn’t know about it.
No 18-year-old should ever see a sight like that. In a building, there were ones too weak to come out even when they heard the Allies were in the camp. One fellow was sitting there. I tapped him on the shoulder, and he fell over. He’d died with his eyes open.
Bodies were stacked in the back of the building. There were three furnaces there. It popped into my mind, “What are they going to heat all this water for?” Then I noticed there were no tanks. And the bodies were stacked right there, and it struck me what the furnaces were for.
They brought captured German officers to look at it. There was a French film crew along with us and they asked them to film what we were witnessing there. They knew later people would deny what happened and they wanted evidence.
They gathered up the local populace and made them walk through the camp and be eyewitnesses. Once they went up there, they would never forget what they saw.
Then they made the farmers bring their wagons. They made them load 260 bodies in white sheets and made them dig individual graves in the park in the town, Ludwigslust, in front of the capital building for the province of Mecklenburg. And they made the people of the town come to the burial the next day.
I didn’t know what part of history I had witnessed until the Nuremberg Trials. I thought that was the only camp like that in Germany.