"This isn't easy." That is the way Abe Cheslow put it as he began to tell in detail of his hours at Dachau soon after his tank broke into the camp. It has not been easy, not for Cheslow nor for the other veterans who have volunteered their eyewitness accounts of Dachau, Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Nordhausen, Mauthausen, and other less famous concentration camps as they found them in April and May of 1945. What these vets saw was worse than any nightmare they had or would have, probably worse than anything else they would see in their entire lives. Yet each felt the need, sometimes after suppressing such memories for forty years or more, to bear witness to the horrors as a counterweight to those who against all reason deny the reality of what we now call the Holocaust and for a new generation that sought the truth.
Then as now, the liberations of Nazi concentration camps at the very end of World War II in Europe provide the most compelling eyewitness to the enormity of Nazi atrocities, Indeed, the opening of the gates of these camps, the filming of the piles of dead and the eerie stares of emaciated survivors, some with the very light of life half-extinguished from their eyes, marked a watershed in Western consciousness. Evil was nothing new in the world, yet these sights unmistakably told the doubters just what human destruction the modem nation-state could unleash when led by depraved men.
The dead and starving at Dachau, Buchenwald, and other camps uncovered by American, British, Dutch, and French soldiers actually represented a statistical pittance tens of thousands-compared to the millions murdered at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Maidanek, and the other Nazi extermination camps in Poland. The relatively successful efforts of the Nazis to hide photographic records of these factories of murder and the fact that the Russians, already somewhat at odds with their Western allies, discovered the remnants of these camps, caused their horrors to come to light slowly in the years immediately following the war.
What Allied civilians faced in 1945 were the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White and others and Edward R. Murrow's eyewitness broadcast from Buchenwald. They saw the grim newsreels of gaunt survivors at Dachau or of bulldozers pushing thousands of bodies into mass graves at Belsen. These scenes forced all humanity to face the later details of Auschwitz and underscored the frightening message that there seemed to be no limit to human cruelty.
Ironically, although we use the word "liberators" to describe those who unlocked the gates and first ministered to the dying, these events were in no sense ordinary liberations. The camps themselves were not military objec. tives and units were often whisked to their next encounter just hours after entry. Many of the camps were discovered accidentally, few soldiers knowing even minutes beforehand that they existed at all. Only in sporadic cases (the most important being at Dachau) did Americans face Nazi resistance. Most camps had been totally abandoned by the SS or left in the hands of recently recruited underlings.
If in military terms they seem almost intrusions on the steady march across Germany, in human terms the entries into the camps represented liberations more profound than the glossier, champagne. soaked celebrations of Rome and Paris. Vacant smiles, whimpers rather than tears, the stench of the dead and the soon-to-die: these greeted camp liberators rather than women, wine, and song. These American soldiers had been initiated into an exclusive order-those who would bear witness for those who had been treated to the worst tortures humankind had yet imagined. Thus it was that members of the 4th, 5th, 11th, and 20th Armored Divisions, the 29th, 34th, 42nd, 45th, 71st, 80th, 89th and 90th Infantry Divisions, the 82nd Airborne, and myriad other regular and floating army units, scattered all over Germany and Austria in April and May of 1945, felt and feel an enduring kinship of witness. They had seen the camps.
In many ways, the reactions of soldiers who directly faced the horrors crossed lines of race, religion, and nationality. Liberators encountered sights and smells that numbed their senses and emotions, that compelled them to reach for inadequate words of description, that finally left them only one word: "indescribable." Some broke down in tears, while others vented their anger on the captured German guards. Many instinctively reached out to the survivors, offering them food and drink only to learn later that such offerings might prove fatal. Others shunned the victims, literally as if coming close would pull them into the insanity of the camps. Most lived the rest of their lives haunted by what they had seen.
For Jewish GIs, the confrontation with the camps was inevitably more complex. Since the 1930s, American Jews had closely followed events in Europe, especially the Nazi campaign against the Jews which, with the invasion of Poland and then Russia, had spread to the homelands of most recent Jewish immigrants to the United States. Many spoke Yiddish and still had family in Europe. A few thousand more had come directly from Germany in the 1930s, bringing with them first-hand experience of the Nazi state. All followed the rise of Hitler not only in the daily newspapers most Americans read, but also in Jewish papers like the Forverts (Jewish Daily Forward), where coverage of Nazi anti-semitism was much more intense. When America finally entered the conflict, young Jewish soldiers had a keen sense of the war's meaning. Like most Americans they fought for their country, but as Jews they also fought to save their people. Before April 1945 they perhaps could only speculate on the true damage already wrought, but far earlier than most American soldiers they understood and cared deeply about what was at stake for Europe's Jews.
The special situation of American Jews and the Jewish American soldier was defined not only by events in Europe, but also by prevailing attitudes in the United States. Anti-semitism was alive and growing in America during the 1930s and the war itself. The depression bred demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin, such paramilitary organizations as the German-American Bund and the Silver Shirts, as well as the Reverend Gerald Winrod's Defenders of the Christian Faith. These were the most visible and radical activists in a domestic war against the Jews, Less extreme anti-semites, especially those who were enemies of the New Deal, taunted President "Rosenfeld" for appointing Jews to prominent offices in his administration and referred to his program as the "Jew Deal," Some spokespersons of the isolationist America First movement accused "influential" Jews of railroading the country toward war; certain members of Congress felt compelled to investigate Hollywood to make sure the "Jewish" film industry was not attempting to warp people's minds against Germany. Opinion polls tracked a shocking undercurrent of anti-semitism. As David Wyman has noted in The Abandonment Of The Jews, surveys taken between 1938 and 1941 estimated that between 33% and 50% of the American public felt Jews had "too much power in the United States."1
The coming of war in 1941, which did so much to unite public opinion against common foreign enemies, seemed only to increase anti-semitic attitudes. By 1945, 56% of the population agreed that Jews held excessive power, and among ethnic and racial groups only the Germans and Japa. nese, and only after 1942, were considered more of a "menace to America" than Jews. In New York, Boston, and other areas, this hostility sometimes expressed itself in street violence and desecrations.2
The war itself produced widely repeated bits of anti-semitic folk humor. Consider this popular mock roll of honor:
First American killed in Pearl Harbor-John J. Hennessy
First American to sink a Jap ship-Colin P. Kelly
First American to sink a Jap ship with torpedo-John P. Buckley
Greatest American air hero - "Butch" O'Hare
First American killed at Guadalcanal-John J. O'Brien
First American to get four new tires-Abraham Lipshitz3
In fact, American Jews contributed more than their share of soldiers to the war, suffered equally in dead and wounded, and earned as many or more than their share of combat ribbons and medals as a percentage of the population. But these facts became available only toward the end of the war, and may have at first convinced only those predisposed to believe the truth of the matter.4
Such knowledge and nastiness, in varying degree, informed the minds and hearts of those Jewish soldiers who found themselves confronting the camps. In many cases, they experienced deep conflict between fear and sympathy, as if on each survivor's face they could read the unavoidable comparison: "It could have been you." At the same time, an overwhelming sense of kinship between such strangely different human beings sometimes grew up, a connection built upon the simple but powerful mutual recognition of Jewishness. Unlike most of their comrades, Jewish soldiers often possessed enough Yiddish to speak to liberated prisoners. Eve those soldiers who could only say "Ich bin a Yid" soon found themselves surrounded by meek smiles on faces that a moment before had seemed without emotion.
Proficient Yiddish-speakers could bring to new life these wasted bodies and distorted faces, listen to their stories, and thus make human sense out of what to others seemed once-human remnants. Jewish chaplains could and did arrange services and burial ceremonies. Sometimes fighting men even managed to form an instant minyan and bring sacred senses to liberation and mourning. Al Ungerleider, who had fought in Europe nonstop after surviving D-Day's treacherous Omaha Beach and participated in the fire fight that liberated Nordhausen's Dora-Mittelbau subcamp, immediately identified himself as a Jew to likely fellow Jews among the survivors. He broke out a bottle of wine and made Kiddush (a blessing over wine, usually made before the Sabbath or holiday meal), and soon after led a group of mourners in the traditional Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead).
While the experience of most soldiers with a camp lasted an hour or two before orders sent them on to the next battle, some became deeply involved in the fate of the survivors. Al Ungerleider, while in the occupation forces in 1947, worked closely with the Jewish Welfare Board to find new homes for Jewish displaced persons in Palestine, America, or wherever a visa could be found. Kurt Klein, who happened upon a group of survivors starved and near death, found among them a woman who soon would become his wife. Yet even for those Jewish soldiers who did not have such extraordinary experiences, coming face to face with the Shoah (the Hebrew word commonly used to describe what in English is called Holocaust) made a difference to them as Jews.
Religious reactions varied widely. Some recoiled at the thought that a just God might include such horrors in the world and had little room left for faith. Others, whether impressed by the deep religiosity of survivors they encountered or simply awed by their brush with ultimate horror into a new state of religious consciousness, renewed their sense of an unknowable but powerful force. Yet most felt impelled to solidify their ties with the Jewish community, to support refugee relief efforts and the new state of Israel, and to foster unity and assertiveness among Jews in the United States.
The current exhibit offers the public a chance to view mementos and snapshots of Jewish-American liberators, and even to hear their stories in the voices of the veterans themselves. They are a varied group. Some were born in America, some in Europe, and one even served in a Polish unit of the Soviet Army that overran Maidanek. They are many kinds of Jews. They practice different professions, and vote for different political candidates. What they share is the bond of experience, one that befell them in two months of 1945 and forever changed their lives. They witnessed inhumanities impossible to imagine, and offer that witness to us so that their memories will live and have enduring meaning long after they are gone.
1. David Wyman, The Abandonment Of The Jews (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 14.
4. Indeed, the end of the war saw a flurry of hooks making the case for Jewish participation. See Mac Davis, Jews Fight Too! (New York: Jordan Publishing, 1945); Isaac E. Rontch, Jewish Youth at War: Letters from American Soldiers (New York: Marstin Press, 1945); and a two volume study, American Jews In World War II, by I. Kaufman, The Dial Press, 1947)
Robert H. Abzug is Director of the American Studies Program and Professor of History and American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written and edited several books, among them Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps.GIs RememberNational Museum of American Jewish Military History