Seventy years ago, on April 29, 1945, Dachau concentration camp was liberated. My father, may he be well, now 90 years old, was there. The death camp was filled with Jews who had survived the sadistic circumstances under the gun sights of Nazi guards. My father’s presence there was not as an inmate but on the right side of a rifle: a young American soldier whose regiment entered the camp in pursuit of the fleeing Nazis. His war experience was from the unique perspective of a soldier, a liberator, and an American but, most poignantly, as a Jewish boy from Philadelphia.
It was a different era, to be sure. Anti-Semitism was more socially accepted. He made no secret of his heritage. To the contrary, he recounts the night of Rosh Hashanah, 1943. He was 18 years old. His unit, which had just arrived for training at Camp Rucker, Alabama, was being punished for infraction of some military rule or regulation. The men were commanded to scrub the barracks floor until it sparkled. His fellow soldiers put on fatigues and assembled as ordered. There was my father, polishing his dress shoes, putting on his dress uniform, while the troops pulled on their boots. He walked down the long aisle between the beds, as every head looked up in puzzled expression.
“Zaslow,” barked the sergeant, “get yourself into gear, and get ready with everyone else.”
“I won’t be doing that,” said my father.
“And just why is that?” exploded the officer.
“It’s the Jewish New Year. I intend to find the synagogue and pray in it.”
The sergeant was speechless. My father just walked on by. In light of his boldness, there were no repercussions – at least on the surface.
He was issued a dog-tag with the letter “H” for Hebrew, the purpose being that, in the event of the soldier’s death, the burial ceremony would be in accordance with the soldier’s religion. He couldn’t help but wonder what it would mean if he were captured.
My father’s unit, Battery B of the 283rd Field Artillery Battalion, had been shipped to England, then across the English Channel, arriving 60 days after D-day. His crew dug in the Howitzer 105 mm cannon to which he had been assigned, by virtue of the sharp eye he still possesses. Along with the other 11 Howitzers of his battalion, they began bombarding the Germans from the town of Lamay, France, in the decisive August, 1944, Battle of Normandy, which resulted in the liberation of Paris. Their trucks and guns then rumbled and fought through Belgium, heading towards Germany.
My father wrote home to his parents after the night of September 27, 1944: Yom Kippur 5705. With other Jewish members of his battalion, he traveled to Charlori, Belgium, a beautiful town. “We held services with the most oppressed people in the world,” he wrote my grandparents. “While the Jewish people in America prayed in beautiful synagogues with their loved ones, in this Belgian town, the Nazis destroyed the synagogue flat to the ground. All the men and women were crying bitterly as they prayed. Out of 500 Jews in the city, only a small group remained. With my knowledge of Yiddish, I was able to hear their experiences and the brutality of the German Nazis. At the services, each Belgian Jew had a terrible story and someone missing – a sister, a husband, a child, a mother, a father, grandparents, uncles, and aunts. In spite of these cruel tragedies, the people were relieved, as our army liberated the town and what was left of its people, and they wished us safe return to our own families.”
There are Germans, or their descendants, alive today only by virtue of my father’s decision to save life when the taking of it was unnecessary. The war was winding down. It was April 16, 1945. His unit, having traveled under bombardment through several long, cold, rainy nights, was surprised at sunrise by the approach of a contingent of German soldiers, who were equally unaware of the American platoon dug in below a ridge. The American officer in charge quickly began gunning down the German soldiers; it was too much trouble, and potentially dangerous, to disarm them and then transport them to secure confinement. They were mere boys, and frightened.
“Lieutenant,” called my father to his superior officer, with the seconds ticking, “I speak Yiddish. It’s like German; they may understand me. It’s not necessary to kill them; give me a chance to get them to surrender.”
The lieutenant looked hard at my father. “You can try. One chance.”
My father jumped up, rifle in hand, calling out, (in his admittedly less-than-perfect Yiddish, (being an American boy) “Halt!...varfen sie avec diene bixen…legensie aff dem eart mit deine hent ausgetrecht – (Halt!...throw down your rifles on the earth...lie down on the ground with your arms outstretched.)” To my father’s amazement, the frightened Germans understood, complied, and lived. He was more amazed to see that the “soldiers” were all between the ages of 14 and 16, as Hitler conscripted the young and old remnants of the German people to fight to the last man.
Their rifles were gathered up, and my father directed them “Alle fun sie kenen off schtayen –All of you can stand up.” My father heard that at the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans lined up 80 captured Americans and shot them down without mercy. My father chose the opposite path. Did those boys later become adult friends of Israel, who today supply weapons and submarines to the Jewish State? Or did they spawn new neo-Nazi enemies of our people? I am curious, in the next world, to see the result.
Two other occurrences were less benign and prompt this recollection. On the morning of April 29th 1945, my father and three other members of his unit were ordered to proceed from their position and check out the town of Dachau, 12 kilometers away. Upon arrival in Dachau, my father stood by a sight that haunts him to this day. He wrote home to his parents, in a letter dated May 2, 1945 (interrupted in mid-sentence by “…but Mom and Dad, what I saw – wait a minute! I just heard over the radio that Hitler is dead!”), describing the beautiful flowers he saw along the road and then a horrific scene. Numerous boxcars of bodies: emaciated, twisted, with death masks on all.
Any reader of this publication knows well what he saw. On that spring day in 1945, however, the scene was new and beyond imagination. “My combat buddies and I were startled,” he wrote his parents. “I was bewildered and sickened at the sight. The railroad cars stretched for at least three city blocks; all I could see were bony heads, arms, and legs sticking out from a mass of deformed, chaotic bodies. In one car, there were victims dangling out of the door, machine-gunned. One would never know that these people once lived as you and I do now. Corpses, bony men – dead!” But it is not just the vision, and the stench, that stuck with my father to this day. It is something else. A single sentence said to him by another man of his own unit, uttered with a sadistic streak that my father thought was reserved for Nazis against their victims: “You better be careful, Zaslow,” said his fellow American soldier, “or you’re going to be in there with them.” Only then did the reality of the horror arrayed before his eyes become clear: piles of Jews, lifeless and discarded, his own brethren.
He described the courtyard of a well-kept administrative office, and Polish inmates beating and whipping Nazi guards. “To the left was a one-story structure. There were three rooms. Two of the rooms were stacked with bodies, almost to the ceiling. Bodies were dehydrated, one seemed to be alive. The middle room had three ovens heated up to high temperatures still burning. I opened the door of one of the ovens. I was shocked and sickened to see a burning body lying on a metal slab. Three ovens were burning bodies. The stench, the fumes, the sight of death all around me was too much to bear. But our group would not leave this inferno until the chaos was brought under some control. We were told to try to keep the inmates from action against the Nazi guards. Some of the Jews told me that if we had come 24 hours later, they and 1,000 other people would have died. No one would ever believe me if I told them what I saw, but please believe me, because I am telling you what I actually saw. I was in a Nazi death camp. That’s all for now. I’ll try to write again, as soon as I can. Your son, Harry.”
A final episode astounded him, being all of 20 years old, having fought through Europe in what he thought was camaraderie with fellow Americans, victors over the Nazis, and liberators of a concentration camp. In the days that followed, the remaining perpetrators of the death camp horror were rounded up, and an internment area constructed, with a guard tower overlooking the captured Germans. My father took his stint as lookout, climbing to the top of the tower, to oversee the prisoners of war below. Upon arrival at the top, he slung his rifle from his shoulder, and prepared for his watch. And then he glanced down at the railing, where he saw something carved deeply into the wood. He was stunned. Readers will excuse the expletive, but this is what he saw, carved by the hand of one of his own fellow soldiers: Zaslow is a d__n Jew. Here I am, he thought, an American fighting the Nazis, standing in a guard tower where only Americans have stood, members of my own unit, taking their turn in guarding enemy prisoners. We risked our lives to save others, to preserve Europe and what was left of the Jews, and this is what one of his own American countrymen carved with a knife? A testament to hatred for Jews?
These experiences of my father were written in a self-published book he entitled, A Teenager’s Journey in War and Peace. It turns out that he had written hundreds of letters home to my grandparents, back in the Wynnfield section of Philadelphia. Most of the letters reached them, after weeks and months, through the U.S. military mail delivery system. Upon the passing of my grandmother, in 1997, a box was discovered in her house. She had preserved each and every one of my father’s war letters, his eyewitness, contemporaneous, accounts of his daily routine: the sacred, the mundane, the horrible, and the victorious. The letters formed the core of the memoir which my father, at the age of 81, wrote and published. A copy is lodged in the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Excerpts have been quoted in books by other authors. The Spielberg Holocaust project recorded his recollections at length, and his eyewitness account is one of just three liberators’ testimony contained in the Audio Guide to the Memorial presented to present-day visitors at Dachau. I know his experiences well. The events in Nazi Germany, seven long decades ago, are crystal clear in his mind. I heard these occurrences recounted during my own post-War babyboomer childhood.
The world is now a different place. The American anti-Semitism of the 1940s, thinly veiled and close to the surface, has been replaced by ostensible acceptance, yet new forms of evil arise, intended for the Jewish people. My father, drafted into the army of the United States a day after his 18th birthday, took leave of his Zayda, who presented him with a prayer written in Hebrew on a small sheet of paper, for spiritual protection in battle. What else could a grandfather do? My father’s father sought to physically protect my father’s heart from bullets and shrapnel. He cut two steel plates, the size of his uniform’s breast pocket, inserted the prayer, and sewed heavy cloth around the steel plates, which protected the prayer which protected my father. Many boys from Philadelphia did not come back from the war. Most who did return are here no longer. My father, a liberator of Dachau, proud of his Jewish heritage, subtly abused for his Jewish heritage, a warrior for his Jewish heritage, enriched by his Jewish heritage, is privileged to have created his own Jewish heritage: children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, imbued, b”H, with the heritage our community shares, and for which he so valiantly fought.