Brig. Gen. Patrick D. Frank (left), commanding general, Joint Readiness Training Center
and Fort Polk, presents guest speakers Rabbi Cantor Raina Siroty (second from left) and
Dr. Aliza Wong (middle) with certificates of appreciation along with Command Sgt. Maj.
David W. Bass, JRTC and Fort Polk command sergeant major, and Col. Sonja Whitehead,
battalion commander, 519th Military Police Battalion, at the Holocaust Day of Remembrance
event held April 17 at the Warrior Center.
Remembrance event looks at Holocaust from liberators’ point of view
By Jean Dubiel
Guardian Staff Writer
April 19, 2019
FORT POLK, La. — During the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s, Nazis operated hundreds of concentration camps throughout Europe to corral more than 11 million Jews, other minority groups that were deemed “inferior,” and any sympathizers. Some of these camps were used for forced labor, others were prisons, and some were extermination camps.
When people think of the Holocaust, images of emaciated men in black and white striped clothing may come to mind. Perhaps you can imagine the indignity of having a number tattooed on your hand or forearm, or the horror of being packed into railway cars and, eventually, gas chambers along with heartsick, fractured families — ordinary people living the final, tattered remnants of their lives in an extraordinarily cruel manner.
But there is another aspect of the holocaust that should be considered: The liberators. These are the American and Allied forces that came into the camps and freed any survivors, offering medical aid, food and other assistance. It sounds like heroic work, but many of these liberators didn’t feel like heroes — they were sickened by what they saw and felt deep empathy for the prisoners. Some of the sights and encounters were so horrific the Soldiers could never discuss them.
But someone found a way to get them to share their stories.
During a Holocaust remembrance event held at the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk’s Warrior Center April 17, sponsored by the Equal Opportunity Office and hosted by the 519th Military Police Battalion, Dr. Aliza Wong, Director of European Studies at Texas Tech University, discussed how the Texas Liberator Project collects and publishes such stories for historical and educational use.
“This project was sponsored by the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission which promotes education (on this subject),” she said. “The commission sought out World War II veterans who were present when the doors and gates of the concentration camps opened after the fall of the Nazi regime. We found 19 of these liberators in Texas, who had never been interviewed before, and they were willing to speak with us — many of them for the first time, 70 years after they had returned home.”
Wong said one veteran had lived through the Battle of the Bulge and fought his way through much of Germany, and he could tell those stories without hesitation.
“But the story he had not told anyone for 75 years was of being there when they opened the doors at Dachau,” said Wong. “He hadn’t been able to share the story with his children or his wife, and he only recently felt compelled to tell it because so many of ‘our greatest generation’ are passing on, and he wanted the history to be remembered.”
Wong said there were many such veterans who were touched and traumatized, who brought memories of man’s greatest inhumanity home with them.
Here are few examples of the histories collected by the commission:
- Bob Anderson was a psychology professor that went on to pioneer dyslexia research after the war. He was a wireman, and one very cold day he had lost a glove and needed something to replace it. “He went up to a pile of Nazi corpses and he found a glove. As he pulled the glove on, he noticed the belt buckle of the Soldier had a swastika on it and three words: ‘Gott mit uns.’ This translates to ‘God with us.’ During the interview, this is where Bob Anderson starts crying, saying, ‘God with us? I’ve been praying to God all my life, and this man too, and yet we are enemies? This doesn’t make sense!’”
- Ted Hartman was a tanker that described the prisoners he liberated as “walking skeletons in striped pajamas.” He said when he was 19 years old, driving his tank across a concentration camp, he found himself surrounded by these “walking skeletons,” who swarmed around him just to salute the American Soldiers and kiss the front of the tank.
- William Dippo was in his late 80s when he was interviewed about his experiences. “If you can just imagine this little old man,” said Wong. “This someone’s grandfather, someone’s great-grandfather, sitting in his chair at home, and he says ‘If something like the Holocaust happened today, I would go — if the U.S. Army would take me again, I’d go back and fight, because this was my duty. It was my calling.”
- Melvin Waters liberated a camp of female prisoners. He told the interviewers that when the American Soldiers first entered, the women ran screaming. “They had been rapes, beaten, exploited and abused,” said Wong. “Waters said he and his men used the utmost sensitivity and care to reassure these women that they were there to help and support them. He said it was a difficult experience to see and realize what the women had been through.”
- Lee Burg said during his interview that he wrote to his rabbi about what was happening as the camps were being liberated. “The rabbi wrote back to him, and said he had heard that there were people in the displaced persons camps, but he asked Burg to remember that even though they have survived their ordeal, the story is not over for them,” Wong said. “They have no home, no country, they have lost generations of their families and most of their possessions — be kind to these people, for they have suffered much. Lee Burg tells this story one time in his life, just for this interview, and said he can never speak of it again.”
Wong said many of the veterans interviewed felt like Burg, willing to share their stories now for the sake of preserving the history and teaching important lessons from it, but they won’t talk about it again. “They believe the story must be told, that we mustn’t forget of forsake it, that we must graphically point out within the realm of our experience what a lack of tolerance can lead to,” said Wong. “We recognize that we must teach the younger generation that (holocaust days of remembrance) is not just a time to listen, but also to speak out and to speak up. We believe that happens by educating children and giving them the opportunity to ask questions.”
You can read these testimonials and more at www.texasliberators.org.
Rabbi Cantor Raina Siroty was also a guest at the remembrance. She explained that on Yom Hashoah — the Jewish name for Holocaust Remembrance Day — those who suffered through the greatest crimes of man against man are remembered. Siroty also offered a prayer song in honor of the victims, survivors and liberators of the holocaust.
“The young, the old, the innocent, the 1.5 million children that were starved, shot, given lethal injections, gassed, burned and turned to ash because they were deemed guilty of the crime of being different,” said Siroty. “On this day we remember what happens when hate takes hold of the human heart and turns it to stone, when victims cry for help and no one listens, and what happens when humanity fails to recognize that those who are not in our image are nonetheless in God’s image.”