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2010 Days of Remembrance Browse

Witnesses to the Holocaust: Liberation 1945


Narration: Winter and Spring, 1945. As Allied troops advanced across Europe toward Germany, they encountered Nazi concentration camps and liberated thousands of prisoners. In the camps, combat-hardened soldiers witnessed first-hand the brutality and inhumanity of the Nazi regime and its so-called policies of “racial superiority.” They found piles of unburied corpses and barracks filled with dead and dying prisoners. The small percentage of inmates who survived often required immediate assistance after months and years of maltreatment, starvation, and forced labor at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. U.S. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower made a deliberate visit to the Ohrdruf concentration camp in order to witness personally the evidence of Nazi atrocities. He urged others to see the camps directly, lest “the stories of Nazi brutality” be forgotten or dismissed as “merely propaganda.” The weeks and months following liberation did not bring an immediate return to normal life. Survivors struggled to restore their health, regain their dignity, and rebuild lives disrupted and destroyed during the Holocaust. Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, we honor and remember the victims of the Holocaust and the military personnel who liberated and cared for the survivors.

George Salton, Survivor: I ran in that direction and as I came onto that place I noticed many prisoners yelling and screaming and jumping and dancing. And there, standing among them were seven giants, young people. They must have been 18 or 19... American soldiers. There were seven or eight of them standing inside the camp. Apparently they cut the wire and came into the camp. They were bewildered by us, wild and unkempt and dirty and, I’m sure, smelly people, jumping and dancing and trying to embrace them and kiss them. And I did too. I also joined the crowd and yelled and screamed and somehow knew that the day of liberation has come. It was a strange feeling for me, however, because as I remember it, on the one hand, I was, I was overwhelmed by this unexpected and unhoped for encounter of freedom, but at the same time, what was happening was outside of me. I really... I didn’t know what to make of it. I knew I was free, but I didn’t count on it. I somehow didn’t know what it meant. And I knew it was great, but I… I was overjoyed because all people around me were overjoyed and were singing and dancing and, and...But I was 17. I was free, but what it meant I wasn’t sure.

Nicholas White, Sergeant, U. S. 7th Army: From there we go into the barracks. They were long, almost like a poultry building that we might see down in Missouri, perhaps a hundred feet long and maybe twenty-five feet wide. But as we went into this first barracks, we were overrun almost by about twenty-five or thirty of these inmates, who came and hugged us and tried to show us the gratitude they had for us being there liberating them. Actually, we did not liberate them. It was the infantry units themselves that liberated these people. But anyway, they were so overwhelmed with emotion that they tried every way they could to show us appreciation. But I remember this young man. His name was, we called him Bud. He and I both had some caramels and I had some K-ration biscuits, and we started to distribute them among these soldiers, or rather, these camp inmates. And the net result was all, we almost started a riot because they fought like animals trying to get anything that looked like food. And this man and I have discussed that since then and we have never encountered such an atmosphere of complete desolation of the, of mankind. And then I recall that in these, in this building itself, it was made like shelves that went clear to the ceiling and they would be just maybe two feet wide and two feet square, and these went the full length of the building, and these people would climb up and slide into these slots, I guess you could call them, and not a blanket, not any kind of bed clothes at all, nothing but pure wood. And there they slept at night, and no, no ventilation, and no sanitary equipment that they would need. But that, what bothered me the most was out of these 25 or 30, there was 6 or 8 that just stared at the walls. I mean, there was not one bit of a feeling of or any kind of expression of who they were or what they were doing there. They just stared at the walls and I’ve often wondered, I wonder how many of these ever will be able to recover from that traumatic experience that they had been through. And so, that left me sad to say the least.

Pat Lynch, First Lieutenant, U.S. Army nurse: They were so thin. I couldn’t pick any of them up. I tried to, but if I were to pick them up I’d tear the skin. So we had to be very, very careful moving them out. The skin was just so terrible. So it would take, oh, about at least three people, one person take the head, one person take the legs, and very carefully lift them up and get them outside, go ahead and get them outside of that place. We put up tents outside. We had cots and clean bedding. So we’d take them out there. Or, if there was a hospital nearby, we’d go and take over that hospital and move them in there. But we couldn’t… for typhus, that was the main thing, there was no medication. Just supportive treatment and get fluids down them. Well they couldn’t drink anything, so we had to feed them with medicine droppers. And we couldn’t give them hypos because there was no place to stick them. There was no skin at all... no muscle, just skin and bone. There was no place to give them a hypo.

Bella Tovey, Survivor: I want you to know that when the war ended, I weighed the equivalent of probably what is 70 pounds, and I was skin and bone. And I do remember that when that British soldier came and asked me... he said he’s... can he do something for me? And I said to him I’d like two things. I’d like him to give me, bring me warm socks. We’re talking, this was already May. It was warm. I was cold. I wanted warm socks, knee-length socks. And I wanted sugar. So he brought me – I was craving sugar, I suppose – he brought me socks and I do remember two things. I remember when he... that I put on the socks and I started to cry because I didn’t have any calf. I was all bones and this... the knee-length socks wouldn’t stay on. But I also remember that when he gave me the sugar, and it may not have been more than maybe a quarter of a pound maybe, a little bag of sugar, but it was maybe, as I said, sugar, just plain sugar. I took that bag and I just poured it into my mouth. I just ate it like that. And I remember... I remember it because he got scared, and he ran out looking for the nurses because he thought God knows what I did to myself by eating all this sugar. And I remember the nurse said to him in German that it’s okay. I was probably just craving sugar.

Gerda Weissman Klein, Survivor, and Kurt Klein, Lieutenant, U.S. Army:
GERDA: My very clear view of freedom and liberation came that morning when I stood in this doorway of that abandoned factory and I saw a car coming down the hill. And the reality of that came when I saw the white star on its hood and not the swastika. There were two men in that car. One jumped out.
KURT: I saw some skeletal figures trying to get some water from a hand pump. But over on the other side, leaning against the wall next to the entrance of the building, I saw a girl standing, and I decided to walk up to her.
GERDA: I remember that aura of him, of that awe, of that disbelief in daylight, to really see someone who fought for our freedom, for my ideals. And he looked like God to me.
KURT: And I asked her in German and in English whether she spoke either language, and she answered me in German.
GERDA: And I knew what I had to say. And I said to him, “We are Jewish, you know.” For a very long time – at least to me it seemed very long – he didn’t answer me. And then his own voice betrayed his emotion. He was wearing dark glasses. I couldn’t see his eyes. He said, “So am I.”
KURT: I asked about her companions.
GERDA: He said, “May I see the other ladies?”A form of address we hadn’t heard for six years. I told him most of the girls were inside. They were too ill to walk. And he said to me, “Won’t you come with me?” I didn’t know what he meant. So he held the door open for me and let me precede him. And that was the moment of restoration of humanity, of humaneness, of dignity, of freedom.
KURT: We went inside the factory. It was an indescribable scene. There were women scattered over the floor on scraps of straw, some of them quite obviously with the mark of death on their faces.
GERDA: I took him to see my friends.
KURT: The girl who was my guide made sort of a sweeping gesture over this scene of devastation and said the following words, “Noble be man, merciful and good.” And I could hardly believe that she was able to summon a poem by the German poet Goethe, which was called, is called, “The Divine,” at such a moment. And there was nothing that she could have said that would have underscored the grim irony of the situation better than what she did.
GERDA: And this first young American of Liberation Day is now my husband. He opened not only the door for me, but the door to my life and my future.

Leon Bass, Sergeant, U.S. 3rd Army: On this day in April 1945, with some of my comrades, I walked through the gates of a place called Buchenwald. I was totally unprepared for what I saw. For someone of 19, they couldn’t be prepared. They haven’t lived long enough. I was still trying to develop my values system. I was still trying to sort things out. And then all of a sudden, slap, right in the face was the horror perpetrated by man against man. But nevertheless the story must be told. We must talk about the crematoriums. We must talk about the dead. We must talk about the denigration of human personalities. How they tried to make people less than human. And the purposes are beyond me. It boggles the mind for me to try to figure out, why? Why would someone take millions of people and in a planned, organized, systematic way try to destroy them and exterminate them? I have yet to come to grips with that in my own mind. But I know that I must share this so that the history books really tell the story as it is. That nobody sugarcoats the history as they did with slavery. And make you think that all slaves loved the plantation when it’s not true. We cannot, even though the revisionists are out there today writing books and telling students that it never happened, we cannot ignore our responsibilities to tell the stories. Yes, we must be graphic. We must use the media. We must come together like this to focus attention across the world. But in the final analysis my friends, if we want to avoid another Holocaust, if we want to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, then we have a personal responsibility to do something about it.