This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.
As the war in Europe was winding down in the spring of 1945, exhausted troops probably thought they were immune to being shocked. But knowledge of the atrocities committed in Nazi concentration camps was on the horizon. Nothing could have prepared them for that.
Hank Josephs of Corpus Christi served in Intelligence & Reconnaissance during the war and recalls checking out reports of a concentration camp near the town of Dachau in late April of '45:
"We got there, and the first thing we saw was a sign over the entrance which says, Work Will Make You Free, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei.' We went through the gate, and we shot a few Germans. They were escaping. I looked at the—at the prisoners in their striped garb, so filthy and decimated. One of them moved. And I went over to him, and he said, ‘Bist a Yid?' Are you Jewish? I said, ‘Ich bin a Yid.' I am Jewish. And then I told him, ‘Alles geet. Alles geet.' I speak a little Yiddish. ‘Alles geet. Alles geet.' All is good. All is good. And I opened my C ration and fed him a little soup. And I asked him what his name was. He said, ‘Meine namen ist Herman.' ‘Ich.' My name is Herman, too. He died two hours later in my arms."
Wilson Canafax of Fort Worth was a member of the 1110th Engineer Combat Group and heard about the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after it was liberated. He decided to go see what it was and describes encountering a former inmate:
"Before I got to the front entrance, there was a young fellow, came up to me speaking perfect English. And he said, ‘I see you have a cross on your lapel. Are you a chaplain?' I said yes. He said, ‘Think you could do us a favor?' I said, ‘Well, I can try.' It turned out that this person talking to me was the young fellow Eliezer Wiesel, who's known better today as Elie Wiesel. And he said, ‘I'd like to take you through some parts of the camp here.' Went through the main entrance, and as you've heard the expression ‘dead men walking,' that's the way the people looked. I went to several of them, some who could speak English, and I'd talk a little bit with them."
Canafax explains he also led Jewish worship services, which was the second request of the young man:
"So many of them had—wanted nothing to do with religion, but those who were genuine in their faith and there was the opportunity to come to a worship service, they came. We got our carryalls, those big trucks, and put the people who could be carried in those things to a place where we could have a worship service. They had to be lifted on. They had to be carried on, crying. They never thought they'd be alive. And we had some little prayer books that were distributed among those that wanted them. And on one side of it was Hebrew, Hebrew prayers. The other side was English. So as they went through the service in Hebrew, then I could follow along in English itself. They cried. They shouted. When they got through, they just raising hands, sort of like our Pentecostals today raise their—they were just raising their hands in joy."
When the Nazi camps were liberated in Europe, Americans were encouraged to visit them, creating thousands of witnesses to this dark chapter of history.
This edition of Living Stories was made possible by a grant from the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission to the Institute for Oral History. Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. Learn more at baylor.edu/livingstories.
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