Show reveals role of Jewish liberators

July 04, 1993|By Michael Richman | Michael Richman,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- In April 1945, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower summoned Yiddish-speaking Maurice Paper, a 23-year-old U.S. Army officer, to the Dachau concentration camp just north of Munich. As American soldiers liberated the camp, Gen. Eisenhower wanted Mr. Paper to assure Jewish prisoners that food and medicine were coming.

But Mr. Paper encountered some resistance. The inmates were leery. After all, Adolf Eichmann spoke Yiddish, and the prisoners, having seen their own executed in droves, didn't trust anyone.

"They wanted me to identify myself as to how I'm called up to the Torah in the synagogue," said Mr. Paper, now 72 and a resident of Baltimore. "I answered it properly, and they said, 'He's OK. He's Jewish.'

"And here I was an officer. You never heard of a Jew being an officer. So they had a little bit of apprehension until they tested me with words and questions that only a Jewish guy would know."

Little-known side

Mr. Paper's account is among 39 featured in an exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington. With pictures, memorabilia and recorded first-hand accounts from Jewish-American veterans, "GIs Remember: Liberating the Concentration Camps" portrays a relatively little-known side to Jewish military involvement in World War II.

The Americans liberated camps in Germany and Austria as Adolf Hitler's Third Reich crumbled. They started on April 4, 1945, by entering Ohrdruf in Germany, a slave-labor camp near underground V-rocket factories. Mostly by accident, they stumbled upon other infamous camps such as Buchenwald, Nordhausen, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, before concluding with Mauthausen in Austria on May 5, 1945 -- three days before the Germans surrendered.

Salzwedel, Landsberg, Woebbelin, Gunskirchen and Ebensee were also among the camps liberated by Jewish soldiers.

"All Jews had to die. The war against the Jews continued until the very, very last minute," guest curator Morton Horvitz said. "German armies . . . were defeated in the field. But as American units were coming upon the scene, they heard shots ringing out, and [the Germans] were still shooting Jews."

First conceived two years ago by museum director Leslie Freudenheim, the exhibit was coordinated by Mr. Horvitz, a World War II combat soldier.

"When I thought of it, nobody had ever done anything on Jewish liberators," Ms. Freudenheim said. "It was always Jews being portrayed as victims in the Holocaust. Here was a chance to show the other side of it."

"First of all, it tells that Jews were front-line soldiers, they were hTC riflemen, they were tank crewmen, they were paratroopers," Mr. Horvitz said. "Then there's the old story about Jews being reluctant to fight. These soldiers were fighters, they were patriotic Americans and they cared about their people."

Mr. Horvitz did not liberate a camp. But he was just 30 miles away when his future wife, Halina, was freed from the Krakow ghetto in Poland.

Concentration camp liberators witnessed emaciated corpses piled on top of each other, the stench of death, and the skeletal camp survivors.

Like Mr. Paper, Al Ungerleider, who liberated Dora-Mittelbau, a sub-camp of Nordhausen, is featured in a section with his uniform, medals and an oral history. What he saw at Dora-Mittelbau is "burned into my brain and my soul like nothing else in my life.

"My men and I smashed through the gates and witnessed the site of dead bodies, of human beings in the worst state of degradation," recalled Mr. Ungerleider, 71, who fought with Company I of the 115th Infantry Regiment. "There was absolute horror at what we saw. Then we asked, 'What can we do to help.' "

Mourning the dead

Mr. Ungerleider spoke Yiddish to the survivors and grouped them together to recite the Kaddish, a mourning for the dead.

The story of Jack Lerner of Pikesville is less dramatic than many others. A combat military policeman, his company entered Dachau, providing guns to inmates and clubbing to death some of the guards. Mr. Lerner, who was 20 at the time, said he was very "naive" in coping with the tremendous scope of human destruction.

"I was not the first one at the gates, nor was I the last one to leave," Mr. Lerner said. "I'm only sorry I wasn't older because I'd have had a better sense of handling a situation like that."

With some people still denying the Holocaust's existence, Mr. Horvitz says it has become even more important that liberators captured the barbarism that occurred.

"It's vital for people to know that these guys came in with their cameras and recorded this themselves," Mr. Horvitz said. "There are so many Holocaust revisionists floating around these days saying it didn't happen, or it happened to a different extent. These guys brought back evidence in addition to their testimony."

'GIs REMEMBER'

Where: The National Museum of American Jewish Military History, 1811 R St. N.W.

When: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sundays, through April 1994

Admission: Free

Call: (202) 265-6280

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