Liberation from horror recalled

Reunion: At a gathering of World War II volunteer ambulance drivers, a concentration camp survivor expresses her gratitude.

September 22, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Over the years, since he was an 18-year-old ambulance driver in World War II, Howard Mayhew has tried not to think about what he saw on April 15, 1945, when he and others carried thousands of insect-ridden bodies out of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

A tough, unemotional guy who went on to become a bank president, Mayhew didn't want to dwell on the smell, the rotting clothes, the skin hanging loose from skeletons.

He didn't even want to speculate about what happened to people he saved - the survivors who were half-starved, infected with typhus, but still strong enough to pull through after medical attention.

"You carry the stretchers from here to there - you do your job - you can't get too emotional about it," he said quietly. "I hope you understand."

But at 76 years of age, more than a half-century of emotions came upon him all of a sudden yesterday when a graceful woman of about his age, wearing a periwinkle-blue dress and a dazzling smile, grabbed his hand and looked into his eyes.

"You could have been the one who rescued me," said Alice Kern, 79, a Romanian immigrant whose numbered tattoo, applied in the concentration camp, remains visible. "That is why I am here - to meet and thank my liberators."

Kern, who is now an author living in Portland, Ore., was one of more than 100 people who attended a reunion of World War II ambulance drivers yesterday at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.

Fifty of those in attendance were drivers with the American Field Service between 1940 and 1945.

The AFS - which helped transport about 700,000 soldiers during World War II - started as a volunteer ambulance service in World War I to help soldiers in combat.

The New York-based nonprofit organization evolved after World War II into a foreign exchange program for students that has the goal of preventing war by encouraging international understanding.

The former drivers, many of whom were barred from serving in the Army during World War II because of poor eyesight or other physical limitations, came together from across the country to reflect on their experiences and to share a lunch.

"As a young man, I didn't realize the history I was witnessing," said Richard Nelson, 77, a retired salesman from Racine, Wis., who served in the ambulance corps in 1944 and 1945. "I always wondered what happened to the people I carried out."

Three of the drivers - including Mayhew - were with the British army when it liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near the city of Celle, Germany. They found thousands of corpses and about 60,000 starving and typhus-infected survivors, almost half of whom died in the weeks after their rescue.

Anne Frank died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in March 1945, a month before the British troops arrived with the American ambulance corps.

Alice Kern also was there. A 22-year-old when the Nazis rounded up the Jews in her town of Sighet, Kern was taken first to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen.

Imprisoned in a lice-infested, clay-floored barracks surrounded by barbed wire, Kern nearly starved to death, shriveling to 50 pounds. She drifted in and out of consciousness, nearly dying in the days before her rescue.

"I lay silently in a daze, weak and famished after almost a week without food or water," she recalls in a 1988 self-published memoir called Tapestry of Hope. "I did not hear; nothing was hurting. A complete, satisfying dark feeling came over me. Was this death?"

She remembers little about the day she heard shooting, running and shouting outside her barracks and an English-speaking man poked his head through the doorway.

Kern does not know who carried her out of the barracks. But she does remember seeing the letters "AFS" stamped on her stretcher. And so she's always been grateful to the volunteer ambulance drivers in the American Field Service.

In the decades since she immigrated to Portland, Ore., married, raised four daughters, she's always wondered who saved her life by carrying her out and bringing her to a hospital.

She attended yesterday's event to thank the whole organization. And she held Howard Mayhew's hand and thanked him personally while standing beside a World War II ambulance of the kind that he drove during the war.

"She is the first survivor from the concentration camp I've ever seen," said Mayhew, who now lives in Florida. "She's an amazing woman. And it's wonderful that I had this chance to meet her."

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