Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Liberators and witnesses:
Voices from the past preserve record of the Holocaust

by Taylor Innes

I had always heard talk within my family that my great uncle was a “liberator” of a Nazi concentration camp, or at least a witness to the atrocities committed there. After some recent inquiries with relatives back home, it appears that he indeed visited Dachau in the last days of World War II and wrote of the experience in a letter to his mother sent from Augsburg, Austria in September 1945.

John Thomas Whetstone, Jr. of Holt, Alabama was a corporal serving in the US Army’s air forces in Europe, where he spent most of the war in England working as a grounds crewman for a squadron of B-25 bombers. Just after VE-Day (marking Victory in Europe), his squadron was redeployed to Austria for the conversion of a former Nazi air base to Allied use. It was in Austria that he wrote his mother about what he witnessed at the Dachau death camp just days earlier.

Last Monday I went to Dachau. You have probably heard of that place I am sure. If you are not familiar with that name it is one of the most notorious concentration camps that Germany had. It is only 25 miles from here and when our 7th army captured it there were 32,000 poor people from Poland, etc. in it. The SS troops succeeded in shooting some 14,000 of them before the Yanks could stop it. While there I saw the gas chambers which looked to be shower baths, the crematories where people were cremated and a lot of other things that I won’t write about at all. Mama, these German people were no doubt the meanest people in all the world. I am very glad that I did go there but I don’t want to go back. Things at that Dachau Concentration Camp just make me shudder to think about them...”

The original letter in hand, I set out recently to donate it to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem. They also opened their archives to me to research more accounts of American soldiers who helped to liberate the death camps. Given that much of the world will be commemorating the more than six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, here is a sampling of the first-hand testimonies one can find at Yad Vashem from the liberators and witnesses who bore record of this most tragic episode in human history.

Norman Brody, born in Washington, D.C. to Yiddish-speaking parents originally from Eastern Europe, joined the US Army in February 1943 and was deployed overseas. After participating in the invasion of Sicily, he was deployed to southern France in August 1944 and went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. He wrote:

"I had vaguely heard that something was happening to the Jews but I didn’t know what until we arrived at a concentration camp near Landsberg, Germany, in April 1945. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Human beings, or what used to be human beings, were lying in piles in the center of the place. Others who were able to walk were emaciated, just skin and bones. I spoke Yiddish to the survivors. Their response reminds me of what Martin Luther King used to say: ‘Free at last, free at last!’”

Allen Cohen, an electrical engineer originally from New York City, served as a rifleman in the 45th Infantry Division and was a liberator of Dachau.

"Up to the last minute, the Nazis were killing inmates. I saw 1000 bodies waiting to be cremated. The bodies of the dead were still warm. The survivors were lying on the ground waiting for the Lord to take them. All the American soldiers were really angry after seeing these atrocities. Most of the survivors were Jews. There were some Poles, including some priests. The priests were allowed to wear their cassocks rather than the striped uniforms worn by other prisoners… I was in the Dachau area for three months after the war ended. Just about every German civilian I met in town said he or she did not know what was going on. Although they heard some screaming near the railroad tracks, they turned their heads away. They didn’t want to become involved.”

Dan Evers from New Jersey served in the 286th Combat Engineer Battalion and was sent overseas in 1944.

“I hadn’t heard much about concentration camps. My unit arrived in Dachau in April 1945, quite by accident. I was shocked at what I saw. The place was a mess. Bodies and bones were lying around. The gas chamber door was closed, but the ovens were still open. There was a sign in German overhead which said: ‘Wash your hands after work.’ I saw more dead than living. I was there only a few hours, and my strongest recollection is the smell of death. I don’t recall meeting any living Jews. I stayed in the area until the end of 1945 and had numerous occasions to speak to people living near Dachau. They always claimed to be innocent.”

Searching through all these testimonials, one underlying theme that really stood out was how the local Germans turned their heads away from the evil taking place just next door. So one important lesson of the Holocaust is to never turn away from anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance. How sorely is this needed in the face of the hatred of Jews espoused today by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who incessantly calls for the destruction of Israel even while he denies the Holocaust.

With remarkable foresight, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, when he encountered the victims of the Nazi genocide at the end of World War II, ordered that pictures and footage be taken of the death camps to preserve the record for history lest someone should deny its existence one day. He also ordered that local German residents were to be made to file through the camps and to help bury the dead bodies so they would confront, up close and personal, the evil perpetrated in their midst.

"Get it all on record now – get the films, get the witnesses – because somewhere down the track of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened," said Eisenhower.

“The Holocaust started before extermination camps were functioning,” according to Dr. Susanna Kokkonen, director of Christian Friends of Yad Vashem, a special office set up to engage with Christians regarding the Shoah.

"It did not start from where it ultimately ended. The Holocaust was a process and in order to understand its lessons we need to focus on how the process worked. The Holocaust came to happen through gradual steps and choices from anti-Jewish attitudes all the way to genocide,” she recently told The Christian Edition.

This article was first published for the Jerusalem Post Christian Edition.