“In two years of combat you can imagine I have seen a lot of death […] but nothing has ever stirred me as much as this […] how could people do things like that? I never believed they could, until now.”
– US Staff Sergeant Horace Evers, among the liberators of Dachau, from a letter home featured in Echoes & Reflections
The liberators of the Nazi camps were young soldiers — many no older than 18 or 19 years old. They were the first outside witnesses to come face to face with the evidence of the monstrous crimes committed by the Nazis and their collaborators against civilians.
Their testimony is qualitatively different from that of survivors of the Holocaust. They had seen their buddies killed in war – they were all too familiar with death and destruction. But the scenes they saw as they liberated the camps were unlike their military experiences. They were suddenly and unexpectedly forced to become witnesses to horrific atrocities. This was a different kind of trauma. Their reactions ranged from shock to disgust to rage. Their “why remember?” comes from this place and this witnessing.
In November, I had the privilege of hearing Alan Moskin speak. Mr. Moskin was part of General George Patton’s Third Army. He fought in the Rhineland campaign through France, Germany and Austria. When the Nazis surrendered he was not yet 19. When I heard him speak he was 92 years old, yet the memories were still fresh. He liberated Gunskirchen, a subcamp of Mauthausen, on May 4, 1945.
Mr. Moskin spoke quietly of the overpowering stench and the thousands of corpses and the barbed wire, as though he could still see them. He spoke with great compassion for the skeletal survivors (the “poor souls”, as he called them) who were so hungry that they ate the tobacco from the cigarettes the soldiers gave them; who were so thankful that they tried to kiss his boots though they were caked with blood and feces; who were so covered with lice and filth and open sores that they literally reeked. He remembered his captain screaming into a walkie-talkie, “Get help up here, GET HELP!” He remembered feeling weak in the knees and, overcome with emotion, crying.
Mr. Moskin spoke in memory of the 6 million murdered Jews and the others who were persecuted. He also paid tribute to “his own band of brothers” who, as he said, made the ultimate sacrifice. He purposely, purposefully recited each of their names, rapping on a table for emphasis with every name he pronounced: Tex, Jimbo, Muzzy, RJ, Bulldog, Schoolboy, LZ, Rebel, Gonzo, Tony C., Tommy, who was blown to pieces by a mortar shell right before his eyes, and Captain B., the captain he loved, who jumped on a live grenade to protect his squad.
Alan Moskin’s was a different kind of testimony than those I’ve heard from Holocaust survivors. But even if his “why remember?” comes from a different place and a different experience, its goal is the same: not to let any of this be forgotten, “for the sake of humanity and everything decent and just in the world.”
I repeat his words here because they made a profound impression on me. They came from his heart.
“I speak here today for each one of those poor souls who was slaughtered by the Nazis, and each one of my buddies and all the other GIs who made the ultimate sacrifice. They can’t speak anymore but dammit I can and I will. I’ll speak out as long as God gives me the strength to do so. I feel that I’m their messenger. The message is that there was a Holocaust. I bear witness. It occurred. I saw it. I want these young people that I speak to, to be my witness. I don’t want them to forget. There are deniers out there now and when we’re gone who knows what they’re gonna say. That the Jews made it up? That it didn’t happen? Well it did happen. And I want these young people to bear witness for me. It’s been said many times that those who forget the events of the past are doomed to repeat them.”
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated on January 27th, the date in 1945 on which Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp, was liberated. The UN tied commemoration of the Holocaust to this important milestone of liberation. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated in 2008 that the essence of this Remembrance Day is a twofold approach: one that deals with the memory and remembrance of those who were massacred during the Holocaust, and the other that goes beyond remembrance to educate future generations of its horrors.
This is exactly the “why remember?” message of Alan Moskin’s testimony and that of other liberators like the ones featured in the Echoes & Reflections toolbox film, “Liberators and Survivors: The First Moments.” There are still liberators among us. We must listen to their stories and share them with our classrooms and communities while we still have the chance to hear them.
About the Author: Sheryl Ochayon is the Project Director for Echoes & Reflections at Yad Vashem.