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Posts Tagged ‘D-Day’

 

So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

Thirty years ago I watched as the American president honored  the fallen, and the living, at the cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

Those thirty years have passed. I began by writing letters to the newspaper. I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories- not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

The fiftieth anniversary came next with great pomp and more reflection. It graced the covers of the major newsweeklies. “Saving Private Ryan” stirred the consciousness of a new generation, and reflections of the old. And I learned so much more of the war beyond the beachhead. That there were so many beachheads.

The sixtieth anniversary came around. Students on their bi-annual trips to France would bring me back their photographs and the requisite grains of white sand from Omaha Beach. Teenagers had their emotions  a bit tempered, I think. I would go on to introduce them to so many who were there. When they themselves were teenagers.

So now it is the seventy-second. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend who is no longer here, but today I would like to introduce you to a survivor of D Day who is still with us.

I first met Bill Gast at a reunion of 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion soldiers at a reunion in March 2008, in which I  was present with several Holocaust survivors who were meeting their liberating soldiers for the first time. Later, Bill came to my high school to speak to students. I think the experience of sharing, and meeting the Holocaust survivors whom the 743rd came upon and liberated, affected him deeply.

Unlike many who may be physically able, Bill has no intention of going back to the sands of Omaha for this anniversary. As he explained to our students in 2009,

“I’m listed [in the event program] as a liberator- however, I am also a survivor of World War II, having landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-day and fighting through to the end when the Germans surrendered, May the 7th, 1945.”

“Pictures.

Video games.

Movies.

Words.

They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”

*****************************************

D-Day: the view from a tank on Omaha Beach

Washington (AFP) – From inside his tank, the young soldier could see “practically nothing” on Omaha Beach.

Seventy years later, William Gast still wonders whether he rolled over his comrades sheltering from German gunfire that day.

Gast was 19 years old the morning of June 6, 1944. “We came in at H-10, that was 10 minutes before the designated hour.”

He cannot recall why he and his fellow soldiers arrived early, but he has other memories that have never left him.

As part of Company A, 743rd Tank Battalion, 1st Army, Gast remembers the training beforehand in Britain, when he rehearsed driving the Sherman tank onto the landing craft. And then floating in the English Channel.

“Another night we went out and we didn’t come back. That was it.”

Gast got to know the captain of the landing craft that would ferry his tank to the beaches of Normandy.

The skipper promised he would get them close enough that they would not be submerged in water, like so many tanks were that day.

He kept his word.

Another tank unit at Omaha Beach was less fortunate, with 27 of 32 tanks launched at sea five kilometers (three miles) from the coast sinking before they could reach land, despite being outfitted with a flotation screens.

“The order was given to go, we started our engines up, they lowered the ramp,” said Gast.

Amid German shrapnel and sea spray, he “could feel the tracks spinning.”

At last, the tank tracks took hold on the sandy sea bottom and he drove up the beach.

– Like throwing marbles at a car –

Down below in the driver’s seat, Gast tried to steer the tank with the aid of a small, manual periscope.

“You can imagine how much we could see, practically nothing,” he said.

The radios inside the tank were so unreliable that his commander would tell Gast which way to turn by kicking him on the left or right shoulder.

The difficulty in seeing the way ahead has left Gast with a gnawing sense that he may have run over the bodies of American soldiers on the beach.

“The saddest part about the whole thing is, not being able to see, I may have run over some of my own people.

“And if I did, I don’t even know it. I can’t ever get that out of my mind, you know?”

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Corporal Gast heard machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank, “like throwing marbles at a car — that’s what it sounded like.”

“And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake.”

For Gast, it was a day of fear and terror, and following orders without reflection.

“I can’t tell much about what happened, I was scared to death to start with,” he said.

“It was just like putting it on automatic, you just did what you had to do, did what you were told to do.”

By noon, close to 19,000 American soldiers who landed at Omaha were still pinned down on the beach.

– High school sweetheart –

Carefully laid plans had unraveled as the beach became a killing zone, with troops mowed down under a fusillade of German machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.

Small teams of US troops eventually managed to break through on the bluffs between German positions, with the help of combat engineers blowing up obstacles.

The losses were staggering: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing on Omaha beach. The exact toll is still unknown. Of the 15 tanks in Gast’s Company A, only five survived without damage.

Gast, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart during his combat tour, and went on to marry his high school sweetheart.

Now 89 years old, he recently was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur at a small ceremony for World War II veterans at the French embassy in Washington.

The short, soft spoken man stood up to receive the medal and shook hands with a French diplomat. But he has no plans to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

His son, Bill, said his father did not want to relive that day: “It’s important we don’t forget but you try to hide things somewhere.”

http://news.yahoo.com/d-day-view-tank-omaha-beach-104656852.html

*****************************************

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So, it is the sixth of June again.

American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the primary landing zone for Americans during the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944. (U.S. Air Force Photo)The ocean pounds the advance of sand amidst the relics of a different age, the hulking remnants of the tide of battle. The surf rolls in and kisses the beach, as the last participants mix on the hallowed bluff above with the politicians who have gathered from all over the world.

Thirty-two years ago I watched as the American president honored  the fallen, and the living, at the cemetery for the fortieth anniversary. Just out of college, something stirred inside me. Something was awoken.

I began by writing letters to the newspaper. I began to interview D-Day veterans and others. I began to collect stories- not relics, prizes, or artifacts. I really had little interest in captured Nazi flags or samurai swords.

I wanted to talk to the men who were there.

The fiftieth anniversary came next with great pomp and more reflection. It graced the covers of the major newsweeklies. “Saving Private Ryan” stirred the consciousness of a new generation, and reflections of the old. And I learned so much more of the war beyond the beachhead. That there were so many beachheads.

The sixtieth anniversary came around. Students on their bi-annual trips to France would bring me back their photographs and the requisite grains of white sand from Omaha Beach. Teenagers had their emotions  a bit tempered, I think. I would go on to introduce them to so many who were there. When they themselves were teenagers.

So now it is the seventy-second. On the 65th, I wrote about a friend who is no longer here for the 72nd,  and the 75th will bring fewer who were there back to Normandy.

*****************************************

Today I would like to introduce you to a survivor of D Day who is still with us.

I first met Bill Gast at a reunion of 30th Infantry Division and 743rd Tank Battalion soldiers at a reunion in March 2008, in which I  was present with several Holocaust survivors who were meeting their liberating soldiers for the first time. Later, Bill came to my high school to speak to students. I think the experience of sharing, and meeting the Holocaust survivors whom the 743rd came upon and liberated, affected him deeply.

Unlike many who may be physically able, Bill has no intention of going back to the sands of Omaha for this anniversary. As he explained to our students in 2009,

“I’m listed [in the event program] as a liberator- however, I am also a survivor of World War II, having landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on D-day and fighting through to the end when the Germans surrendered, May the 7th, 1945.”

“Pictures.

Video games.

Movies.

Words.

They simply do not covey the feeling of fear.

The shock.

The stench.

The noise.

The horror, and the tragedy.

The injured.

The suffering.

The dying, and the dead.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmKNYMaa_sU

 

*****************************************

D-Day: the view from a tank on Omaha Beach

Washington (AFP) – From inside his tank, the young soldier could see “practically nothing” on Omaha Beach.

Seventy years later, William Gast still wonders whether he rolled over his comrades sheltering from German gunfire that day.

Gast was 19 years old the morning of June 6, 1944. “We came in at H-10, that was 10 minutes before the designated hour.”

He cannot recall why he and his fellow soldiers arrived early, but he has other memories that have never left him.

As part of Company A, 743rd Tank Battalion, 1st Army, Gast remembers the training beforehand in Britain, when he rehearsed driving the Sherman tank onto the landing craft. And then floating in the English Channel.

“Another night we went out and we didn’t come back. That was it.”

Gast got to know the captain of the landing craft that would ferry his tank to the beaches of Normandy.

The skipper promised he would get them close enough that they would not be submerged in water, like so many tanks were that day.

He kept his word.

Another tank unit at Omaha Beach was less fortunate, with 27 of 32 tanks launched at sea five kilometers (three miles) from the coast sinking before they could reach land, despite being outfitted with a flotation screens.

“The order was given to go, we started our engines up, they lowered the ramp,” said Gast.

Amid German shrapnel and sea spray, he “could feel the tracks spinning.”

At last, the tank tracks took hold on the sandy sea bottom and he drove up the beach.

 

– Like throwing marbles at a car –

Down below in the driver’s seat, Gast tried to steer the tank with the aid of a small, manual periscope.

“You can imagine how much we could see, practically nothing,” he said.

The radios inside the tank were so unreliable that his commander would tell Gast which way to turn by kicking him on the left or right shoulder.

The difficulty in seeing the way ahead has left Gast with a gnawing sense that he may have run over the bodies of American soldiers on the beach.

“The saddest part about the whole thing is, not being able to see, I may have run over some of my own people.

“And if I did, I don’t even know it. I can’t ever get that out of my mind, you know?”

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Bill Gast awarded the Silver Star.

Corporal Gast heard machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank, “like throwing marbles at a car — that’s what it sounded like.”

“And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake.”

For Gast, it was a day of fear and terror, and following orders without reflection.

“I can’t tell much about what happened, I was scared to death to start with,” he said.

“It was just like putting it on automatic, you just did what you had to do, did what you were told to do.”

By noon, close to 19,000 American soldiers who landed at Omaha were still pinned down on the beach.

– High school sweetheart –

Carefully laid plans had unraveled as the beach became a killing zone, with troops mowed down under a fusillade of German machine gun, artillery and mortar fire.

Small teams of US troops eventually managed to break through on the bluffs between German positions, with the help of combat engineers blowing up obstacles.

The losses were staggering: more than 2,000 dead, wounded and missing on Omaha beach. The exact toll is still unknown. Of the 15 tanks in Gast’s Company A, only five survived without damage.

Gast, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart during his combat tour, and went on to marry his high school sweetheart.

Now 89 years old, he recently was awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur at a small ceremony for World War II veterans at the French embassy in Washington.

The short, soft spoken man stood up to receive the medal and shook hands with a French diplomat. But he has no plans to return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

His son, Bill, said his father did not want to relive that day: “It’s important we don’t forget, but you try to hide things somewhere.”

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

Mr. & Mrs. Gast, Holocaust Survivors-American Soldiers reunion, 2009.

*****************************************

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April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

Today, April 29th, is the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 71 years on.

Today, if it is brought up at all, some of us might respond with a vacant stare. More might shrug and turn away. I suppose that is to be expected. But you know me. I just think that as a nation, sometimes we allow things to slip from memory at our peril.

It was real, and it happened. And it was American GIs who overran this camp and many others in the closing days of World War II.

The men of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Division arrived independently of each other, here, in southern Germany, at Dachau, on this day. A concentration camp, they were told. Their noses gave them a hint of what they were about to uncover, miles before the camp appeared in sight.

Read the headlines, above. Note the subarticle:

Boxcars of Dead at Dachau. 32,000 captives freed.

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

And so after some resistance, into the camp they entered. Life changing events were about to unfold for the American soldier.

***

For me, it’s not about hero worship, or glorifying the liberator or any World War II soldier by placing him on a pedestal. Our time with them is now limited, but many of the liberating soldiers I know push back at this, to the point of rejecting the term, “liberator”- “It all sounds so exalted, so glamorous” said one. But they will all accept the term, “eyewitness”.

Witnesses to the greatest crime in the history of the world.

So instead I think it is about honoring their experiences, their shock, the horror, the puking and the crying, the rage-and then, the American GIs recognizing that something had to be done. And they did suffer for it, for trying to do the right thing. Many tried to help by offering food to starving prisoners who just were not ready to handle it, only to see them drop dead. Or having to manhandle these emaciated victims who were tearing away at each other as food was being offered.

Some guys never got over it. How could you?

I have learned so much over the past few years from these guys, just through the way that they carried themselves and tried to cope with what they witnessed. In my World War II studies and Holocaust class, we discuss these issues at length. I’m so lucky to be able to teach it.

Last year, I was privileged to teach a lesson to my high school seniors for NBC Learn, which was shared with other districts across the nation. Later, I stumbled upon this piece by the late author Tony Hays, who writes about his liberator father and his own encounter with the past. Thanks to the Get It Write folks; the original link is at the bottom.

***

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945. USHMM.

 

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.
Covering my eyes, embarrassed at the tears, I slipped back outside. It took more than a few minutes to regain my composure. I thought then that I understood why my father kept that photo close to him for so long. It was a reminder of what one group of people had done to another group of fellow humans. The obscenity of it had overwhelmed him as it had me.

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Now, nearly 70 years after that day in 1945, Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

The late Tony Hays.

 

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A survivor writes to his fellow survivors today, on the anniversary of their liberation. An excerpt:

For the 13th of April 2016.
Hello again to all of you ‘my twins’ on our 71st birthday.
I hope my good wishes find all of you in good health, both physical and mental.
It is a blessing to be alive and being able to think back of that ‘special birthday’ of ours.
To think about those who fought to give back our lives, whom we call ‘our angels of life’.
Like the years before; there are no words enough to express our thanks for them.

 

[My new book on this will be out this July. You can put in a pre-order notice, above- GET THE BOOK HERE]

30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, Nashville Tennessee, April 2015, 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Credit: Larry S Powell.

30th Infantry Division Veterans of World War II, Nashville Tennessee, April 2015, 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Credit: Larry S Powell.

Here also is an anniversary poem.

The poet Yaakov Barzilai was on the ‘Train Near Magdeburg’. Originally composed in Hebrew, a  translation has been provided by fellow survivor Micha Tomkiewicz. He has agreed to share his poem on the 70th anniversary of the liberation. ’11:55′  refers to the author’s recollection of the time of the day of the liberation of the train transport; ‘five minutes before the bitter end’.

Dedicated to Frank Towers and 30th Infantry Division soldiers, US liberators of the death train from Bergen-Belsen on April 13, 1945

 

At Eleven fifty-five.

Return to the Place of Liberation, April 13, 1945                                                                                 

The train stopped under the hill, huffing and puffing, as though it reached the end of the road.

An old locomotive pulling deteriorating train cars that became obsolete long ago, not even fit for carrying horses.

To an approaching visitor, the experience was of a factory of awful smell – really stinking.

Two thousand four hundred stinking cattle heading for slaughter were shoved to the train cars.

The butterflies into the surrounding air were blinded by the poisonous stench.

The train moved for five days back and forth between Bergen-Belsen and nowhere.

On the sixth day, a new morning came to shine over our heads.

Suddenly the heavy car doors were opened.

Living and dead overflowed into the surrounding green meadow.

Was it a dream or a delayed awakening of God?

When we identified the symbols of the American army, we ran to the top of the hill as though bitten by an army of scorpions, to kiss the treads of the tanks and to hug the soldiers with overflowing love.

Somebody cried: “Don’t believe it, it is a dream”. When we pinched ourselves; we felt the pain – it was real.

Mama climbed to the top of the hill. She stood in the middle of the field of flowers and prayed an almost a silent prayer from the heart.

Only few words escaped to the blowing wind:

‘Soon…Now

From the chimneys of death, I gave new life, to my children….

And this day-my grandchildren were born,  to a good life.

Amen and Amen’.

-Yaakov Barzilai.

*

בְּאַחַת עֶשְׂרֵה חֲמִשִּׁים וְחָמֵשׁ 

שִׁיבָה לִמְקוֹם הַשִּׁחְרוּר בִּ 13 בְּאַפְּרִיל 1945

                     כַּעֲבֹר 65 שָׁנָה

הָרַכֶּבֶת עָצְרָה מִתַּחַת לַגִּבְעָה

נוֹשֶׁפֶת וְנוֹהֶמֶת

כְּמִי שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לְסוֹף דַּרְכּוֹ

קַטָּר זָקֵן גָּרַר קְרוֹנוֹת יְשָׁנִים

שֶׁאָבַד עֲלֵיהֶם כֶּלַח,

לֹא רְאוּיִים אֲפִלּוּ לִמְגוּרֵי סוּסִים.

מִי שֶׁהִזְדַּמֵּן לַסְּבִיבָה

הֶאֱמִין שֶׁנִּקְלַע לְבֵית חֲרֹשֶׁת לְסֵרָחוֹן

אַלְפַּיִם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת רָאשֵׁי בָּקָר מַסְרִיחִים

שֶׁנּוֹעֲדוּ לִשְׁחִיטָה

נִדְחְסוּ לַקְּרוֹנוֹת

כָּל הַפַּרְפַּרִים בַּסְּבִיבָה הִתְעַוְרוּ

מִסֵּרָחוֹן מַדְמִיעַ.

חֲמִשָּׁה יָמִים נָסְעָה הָרַכֶּבֶת הָלוֹךְ וַחֲזֹר

בֵּין בֶּרְגֶן-בֶּלְזֶן לְשׁוּם מָקוֹם

בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי, בֹּקֶר חָדָשׁ זָרַח מֵעָלֵינוּ.

בְּבַת אַחַת נִפְתְחוּ הַדְּלָתוֹת הַכְּבֵדוֹת שֶׁל הַקְּרוֹנוֹת

חַיִּים וּמֵתִים נִשְׁפְּכוּ בְּיַחַד

אֶל הַיָּרֹק הַמִּשְׁתּוֹלֵל בַּשָּׂדוֹת.

הַאִם הָיָה זֶה חֲלוֹם

אוֹ הַצָּתָה מְאֻחֶרֶת שֶׁל אֱלֹהִים?

כְּשֶׁזִּהִינוּ אֶת סֵמֶל הַצָּבָא הַאָמֶרִיקָאִי,

כִּנְשׁוּכֵי עַקְרָב שָׁעֲטְנוּ בְּמַעֲלֵה הַגִּבְעָה

לְנַשֵּׁק אֶת שַׁרְשְׁרָאוֹת הַטַּנְקִים

וְלַחֲנֹק אֶת הַחַיָּלִים מֵרֹב אַהֲבָה.

מִישֶׁהוּ צָעַק: “אַל תַּאֲמִינוּ זֶה רַק חֲלוֹם”

וּכְשֶׁצָּבַטְנוּ אֶת עָצַמְנוּ

כָּאָב לָנוּ בֶּאֱמֶת.

גַּם אִמָּא טִפְּסָה אֶל גִּבְעַת הַנִּצָּחוֹן

הִיא עָמְדָה בְּתוֹךְ שָׂדֶה שֶׁל פְּרָחִים וְהִתְפַּלְּלָה

מִתּוֹךְ הַתְּפִלָּה הַחֲרִישִׁית שֶׁנֶּאֶמְרָה בַּלֵּב

רַק מִלִּים בּוֹדְדוֹת הִסְתַנְנוּ אֶל אֲוִיר הָעוֹלָם:

” וְכָאן… וְעַכְשָׁו… עַל פַּסֵי הָרַכֶּבֶת…

קָרוֹב… לַאֲרֻבּוֹת הַמָּוֶת…נָתַתִּי…

חַיִּים חֲדָשִׁים…לִילָדַי… וְהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה…

נוֹלְדוּ גַּם נְכָדַי… לְחַיִּים טוֹבִים…

אָמֵן… וְאָמֵן…                                                                     יעקב ברזילי

‘Yaakov Barzilai is an esteemed Israeli poet; he is also a survivor of The Shoah. Born in Hungary in 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany he shares, in poetry and prose, a child’s memories of the horrors that befell the Jewish people. He tells of acts of great humanity and others of exceptional, he recounts tales of transportation and eventual rescue. He speaks of losses – family, potential and describes the eventual triumph of man over inhumanity.’ [www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=8756081]

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Here is one that has been making the rounds for a while (note the age of the veteran- he would have been 11 in 1944). I’ve gotten it forwarded to me or seen it online for like the 25th time since it first appeared about a dozen years ago.

 

83 yr old army veteran

 

Give it to him, Gramps!

Too bad it’s not true. You can substitute the American soldier for British or Canadian, if you really want to google it.

I suppose I should laugh, take it as a joke, if that was the purpose.  There are rude customs officials, for sure. And on my first read,  I’m sure the tale resonated at some level that made me proud.

But, then I read comments online like this:

“I have heard about that encounter before and I love to hear it re-told……too bad some of the nations thatt America has liberated or protected no longer appreciate it….or even seem to remember.” 

And since that seems to be a very common reaction, maybe it’s time to call bullshit.

Here’s why.

I know a ton of American World War II veterans who returned to France and the Low Countries after they retired, well after the war. And far from forgetting, the memory of what the liberators underwent is indelibly seared into the consciousness on the continent where our troops fought, three generations later, and passed on to the children in who live in those places today. They turn out by the THOUSANDS to greet our veterans, and adopt the graves of fallen Americans to care for in their lands.

This American soldier was killed a month before the war ended and lies in the Netherlands, his grave tended by three generations of the same family. And the little guy, probably the 4th generation, is not American.

The vets are honored everywhere they go. One of my overseas acquaintances even runs a private museum (link above) dedicated to the sacrifices of the American soldiers who liberated his town in the Netherlands. I have been to WWII reunions here in the States where citizens and film crews from these countries have flown over to attend and honor these veterans. They are welcomed back to the concentration camp memorials in Germany with red carpet treatment and private tours.

The meme makes us feel good for our imaginary veteran, I suppose. But I get more misty-eyed watching my ninety-something year old friend from Buffalo, NY, Dick Lacey, riding in the jeep, overwhelmed at all the attention, who can only choke back five words- “Wow! Look at all the people!”  [1:51, below]- seeing the crowds who have come out to wish him well.

***

Look at the film clip for “Heroes of Old Hickory“. Listen to the Dutch mayor, the French historians, and  look at the monuments to honor the American sacrifices throughout NW Europe, through the eyes and the ears of our veterans returning one last time. (I know a lot of the guys featured in the film and got to watch this segment with them at its debut at their last reunion in Nashville last April, and I wish the filmmaker Lew Adams well as he wraps up post production on it.)

PNGAnd did you know that France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, is given to American veterans who fought in France? The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon, and is reserved for  outstanding service to France. A lot of my friends have received it in ceremonies at French embassies or consulates, and it proudly donned on very special occasions.  [Download the form below if you know a qualifying vet, before it is too late.  They don’t award it posthumously.] So when it comes to our veterans, so much for that legendary French snobbery and ingratitude.

The Legion d’Honneur for US Veterans

Upon presentation of their military file as detailed hereunder, US veterans who risked their life during World War II to fight on French territory, may be awarded this distinction. Those selected are appointed to the rank of Knight of the Legion of Honor.

thank you very much

 

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At my keynote talk in Rochester, NY, two weeks ago, several people came up to me after the ceremony and greeted me warmly. One man came with an envelope and shook my hand, explaining that his father had been an American medic. In the envelope were photographs and Vincent’s handwritten letter describing a talk that he had had with his dad a couple years before he passed. I have finally gotten around to transcribing it; it comes on the 70th anniversary of his father’s traumatic shock at a subcamp of Dachau where Jewish slave laborers were being worked to death mining out mountains so the Reich could shelter its fledgling jet industries from Allied bombing. Many of the prisoners were dying of typhus. Below you will find the letter and two of his photos.

Vincent F. Butler, Sr.

Vincent F. Butler, Sr.

4/15/2015

Dear Matt,

These are copies made from the original pictures taken by my father, Vincent F. Butler, Sr., at the concentration camp in Landsberg, Germany toward the end of World War II. He did not date the pictures, but I have included a copy in his handwriting of the location. My father was a medic in the XXI Medical Corps when his unit liberated this camp.

My father never really talked about the war except for a funny story once in a while. About 2 years before he died he first showed me these pictures. He described the encounter as “the worst thing I had ever seen”. That says a lot considering he was a frontline medic in Europe. He also said that he “could not understand how someone could do something so horrible against other human beings.” He uttered “Why…Why…Why…” several times during our talk. He gave me these pictures with the directive: “Never let anyone say that this did not happen. It did – I saw it.”

Landsberg Area, Germany. A subcamp of Dachau.

Landsberg Area, Germany. A subcamp of Dachau.

That was one of the few actual directives that my father ever gave me, and I must say, it was his most serious. Looking back, and finally knowing what he had been through, I am sure that this had the biggest impact and was the most traumatic effect on him.

He did talk about how they tried to save as many people as they could. He said they had to very slowly give people food because large amounts would shut their system down. He said he was not aware of these camps until they came upon this one.

Thank you for telling the story so that the Holocaust is never repeated. I think that my father’s pictures and his recollection through me may help in some small way.

Vincent Butler, Jr.

 

http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10006171

*************************************************************

Matthew Rozell is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow and teaches history at his alma mater in upstate New York. His work has resulted in the reuniting of 275 Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who freed them.

His first book, ‘The Things Our Fathers Saw’, is being released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. His second book, in progress, is on the power of  teaching, remembering the Holocaust, the Benjamin photograph and the liberation of the “Train Near Magdeburg’. He can be reached at marozell at gmail dot com.

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April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

April 30 1945 Headlines. Hangs in my classroom.

Today, April 29th, is the anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, 70 years on.

Today, if it is brought up at all, some of us might respond with a vacant stare. More might shrug and turn away. I suppose that is to be expected. But you know me. I just think that as a nation, sometimes we allow things to slip from memory at our peril.

It was real, and it happened. And it was American GIs who overran this camp and many others in the closing days of World War II.

The men of the 42nd and 45th Infantry Division arrived independently of each other, here, in southern Germany, at Dachau, on this day. A concentration camp, they were told. Their noses gave them a hint of what they were about to uncover, miles before the camp appeared in sight.

Read the headlines, above. Note the subarticle:

Boxcars of Dead at Dachau. 32,000 captives freed.

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

American soldiers view the bodies in one of the open railcars of the Dachau death train. USHMM

And so after some resistance, into the camp they entered. Life changing events were about to unfold for the American soldier.

***

For me, it’s not about hero worship, or glorifying the liberator or any World War II soldier as some kind of savior. Many of the liberating soldiers I know would resist this, to the point of rejecting the term, “liberator”… “It all sounds so exalted, so glamorous” said one. But they will all accept the term, “eyewitness”.

Witnesses to the greatest crime in the history of the world.

So instead I think it is about honoring their experiences, their shock, the horror, the puking and the crying, the rage-and then, the American GIs recognizing that something had to be done. And they did suffer for it, for trying to do the right thing. Many tried to help by offering food to starving prisoners who just were not ready to handle it, only to see them drop dead. Or having to manhandle these emaciated victims who were tearing away at each other as food was being offered.

Some guys never got over it. How could you?

I have learned so much over the past few years from these guys, just through the way that they carried themselves and tried to cope with what they witnessed. In my World War II studies and Holocaust class, we discuss these issues at length. I’m so lucky to be able to teach it.

Last year, I was privileged to teach a lesson to my high school seniors for NBC Learn, which was shared with other districts across the nation. This year, I stumbled upon this piece by the late author Tony Hays, who writes about his liberator father and his own encounter with the past. Thanks to the Get It Write folks; the original link is at the bottom.

***

Dachau Will Always Be With Us

by Tony Hays

This is not so much a post about writing as one about a writer’s education, about one of those experiences that molds us, shapes us into storytellers. I read yesterday the story of Joseph Corbsie, whose father, a World War II veteran, left him with a special legacy from the war, from the hideous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. I feel a particular kinship with Mr. Corbsie.

My father, Robert Hays, was the son of an alcoholic tenant farmer in rural west Tennessee. If the appellation “dirt poor” fit anyone, it fit my grandfather’s family. Daddy served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 30s. He and my mother, who was in the woman’s equivalent of the CCC, working as a nurse’s aide at Western State Mental Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee, met on a blind date in early 1940 and married in September of that year.

But just over a year later, Pearl Harbor happened. America was in the war. My father was among the first of those drafted in 1942. I won’t bore you with the details, but he participated in the North African, Salerno, Anzio, and southern France invasions, saved by the luck of the draw from Normandy. But they slogged through France and on to Germany. On April 29, 1945, Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I don’t know whether he entered Dachau that day or the next, but that he was there within hours of the liberation is beyond dispute. A few months later, after more than three years overseas, he came home.

In later years, he would talk occasionally about the war, providing anecdotes that showed the chaos and random chance of battle. He spoke of driving through Kasserine Pass in North Africa just hours before the Germans killed thousands of Allied troops in a stunning attack. He spoke of a friend, defending his position from a foxhole, who was thought dead after an artillery shell landed right next to him. When the dust cleared, the friend was buried up to his neck in dirt, but did not have a scratch on him. He spoke often of Anzio, where he was wounded, and of the massive German air assaults on those soldiers clinging to that tiny sliver of beach along the Italian coast.

But he never spoke of Dachau.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945.

The bodies of former prisoners are piled in the crematorium mortuary in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, April 29, 1945. USHMM.

 

Ever.

When he died in 1981, we found a photo in his wallet. An old sepia-toned shot like others he had taken during the war, pictures that he kept in an old brown bag. But this one was different.

It showed a pile of naked bodies. Well, really more skeletons than not, with their skin stretched pitifully over their bones. On the back, as had been his habit, was typed simply “Dachau.”

I was confused. Why would he keep this one photo in his wallet all of those years? Especially a photo of a place and event that he never spoke about. It obviously had some deeper meaning for him than the other photographs. If it had been a shot of the building he was in when he was wounded (hit by an artillery shell), I could have seen that. A reminder of his closest brush with death. Yeah, I could buy that. But this macabre photo? That, I couldn’t see.

So, for the next fifteen years, I remained puzzled.

Until the fall of 1996. I was working in Poland, and I had some time off. I took an overnight bus from Katowice, Poland to Munich. It was an interesting trip all in itself. We sat in a line of buses at midnight on the Polish/German border, waiting for our turn to cross, next to a cemetery, as if in some Cold War spy movie. I remember passing Nuremburg and thinking that my father had been there at the end of the war. And then there was Munich.

I spent a day or two wandering through the streets, drinking beer in the Marienplatz. I’m a historical novelist, so the short trip out to Dachau was a no-brainer. Of course it was as much my father’s connection with it as anything else that spurred the visit. But I’m not sure that I was completely aware of that at the time.

Dachau literally sits just on the outskirts of the Munich metropolitan area. I looked at the sign on the train station with a sadness, wondering for how many people that had been one of the last things they saw. It was only later that I discovered there had been another depot for those passengers.

The Dachau Memorial is a place of deep emotion. In the camp proper, mostly all that are left are the foundations of the barracks. One has been reconstructed to give an idea of how horrible life must have been. The camp was originally intended to hold 6,000 inmates; when the Allies liberated Dachau in 1945, they found 30,000. The museum and exhibits are primarily in the old maintenance building. I looked with awe at life size photos of prisoners machine gunned, their hands torn to ribbons from the barbed wire they had tried to climb in a futile attempt at escape.

I followed the visitors (I can’t call them tourists) north to where you crossed over into the crematorium area. It was there that the full brunt of what had taken place at Dachau really hit me. A simple brick complex, it seemed so peaceful on the fall day that I stood before it. But as I read the plaques and consulted my guidebook, as I stepped through the door and actually saw the “shower” rooms where the prisoners were gassed, as I stared into the open doors of the ovens, I felt a rage unlike any I had ever known consume me.
Covering my eyes, embarrassed at the tears, I slipped back outside. It took more than a few minutes to regain my composure. I thought then that I understood why my father kept that photo close to him for so long. It was a reminder of what one group of people had done to another group of fellow humans. The obscenity of it had overwhelmed him as it had me.

That night, I went to the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich, to wash the images of the ovens away with some beer. I hadn’t been there long when an elderly American couple sat at the table. They were from Florida, a pleasant couple. He had been a young lieutenant in the American army on the push into Munich. In fact, it had been his pleasure to liberate the Hofbrauhaus from the Germans.

Of course, I asked the question. “Were you at Dachau?”

He didn’t answer for several seconds, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes as his wife’s hand covered his and squeezed. Finally, he nodded, reached into a back pocket and pulled out his wallet.

With a flick of his wrist, a photo, just as wrinkled, just as bent, as the one my father had carried landed on the table. It wasn’t the same scene, but one just like it.

Here was my chance, the opportunity to ask the question I had never been able to ask my father. I pulled the photo from my own wallet and lay it next to his. “Why? Why have you carried it so long? To remind you of the horror of Dachau, of what had been done here?”

His face carried the faintest of smiles as he shook his head. “No, son, to remind us of the horrors that we are capable of, to remind us not to go down that road again.”

The difference was subtle, but in that moment, I learned two lessons invaluable to a writer, subtle differences are important, and when you want to know the truth, go to the source.

As I sit here now and look at that same photograph, I realize that it was my father’s legacy to me, of Dachau. Joe Corbsie’s father left him something more tangible, a reminder of the same thing for the same reason, but more forcefully stated — a tiny box of human ash from the ovens.

Now, nearly 70 years after that day in 1945, Dachau is still with us, and I hope the legacy left by our fathers always will be.

 

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