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At last, the everyday fighting men who were the first Americans to know the full and horrifying truth about the Holocaust share their astonishing stories. Rich with powerful never-before-published details from the author’s interviews with more than 150 U.S. soldiers who liberated the Nazi death camps, The Liberators is an essential addition to the literature of World War II—and a stirring testament to Allied courage in the face of inconceivable atrocities.
Taking us from the beginnings of the liberators’ final march across Germany to V-E Day and beyond, Michael Hirsh allows us to walk in their footsteps, experiencing the journey as they themselves experienced it. But this book is more than just an in-depth account of the liberation. It reveals how profoundly these young men were affected by what they saw—the unbelievable horror and pathos they felt upon seeing “stacks of bodies like cordwood” and “skeletonlike survivors” in camp after camp. That life-altering experience has stayed with them to this very day. It’s been well over half a century since the end of World War II, and they still haven’t forgotten what the camps looked like, how they smelled, what the inmates looked like, and how it made them feel. Many of the liberators suffer from what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder and still experience Holocaust-related nightmares.
Here we meet the brave souls who—now in their eighties and nineties—have chosen at last to share their stories. Corporal Forrest Robinson saw masses of dead bodies at Nordhausen and was so horrified that he lost his memory for the next two weeks. Melvin Waters, a 4-F volunteer civilian ambulance driver, recalls that a woman at Bergen-Belsen “fought us like a cat because she thought we were taking her to the crematory.” Private Don Timmer used his high school German to interpret for General Dwight Eisenhower during the supreme Allied commander’s visit to Ohrdruf, the first camp liberated by the Americans. And Phyllis Lamont Law, an army nurse at Mauthausen-Gusen, recalls the shock and, ultimately, “the hope” that “you can save a few.”
From Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany to Mauthausen in Austria, The Liberators offers readers an intense and unforgettable look at the Nazi death machine through the eyes of the men and women who were our country’s witnesses to the Holocaust. The liberators’ recollections are historically important, vivid, riveting, heartbreaking, and, on rare occasions, joyous and uplifting. This book is their opportunity, perhaps for the last time, to tell the world.
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Michael Hirsh is a Vietnam combat veteran and the author of three previous military books, as well as the co-author (with Michael Schiavo) of the New York Times bestseller Terri: The Truth. During a forty-year career in broadcasting, he produced documentaries and specials for PBS, CBS, ABC, and HBO, receiving multiple awards, including the Peabody.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
HOW DO YOU PREPARE TO SEE THAT?
In the final months of World War II, as American soldiers pushed the German army east toward the advancing Russians, the GIs began to discover—and to liberate—dozens upon dozens of camps large and small filled with the multitudes imprisoned by the Nazis. Some had been shipped to the camps to serve as slaves, to dig tunnels into mountains, there to build war machines for the Reich. Others had been shipped from camp to camp for one purpose only: to keep them from falling into the hands of the advancing Allied forces.
The prisoners who are the focus of this book had been liberated by the Americans, British, and Canadians. (The Russians liberated the notorious camps in Poland.) They had been consigned to death; the manner was, for all practical purposes, irrelevant.
They were marched to death, worked to death, starved to death, dehydrated to death, frozen to death, sickened to death, gassed to death, and sometimes shot to death—although this was not a preferred method, but only because bullets were not cost- effective. It also wasn’t enough that the victims of the Nazis died; they were always humiliated and usually dehumanized and tormented before death came.
The deaths occurred not just in a handful of concentration camps whose names are familiar to almost everyone, but in literally thousands of camps and subcamps sprinkled all over the map of Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and France. Wherever slaves could help the Third Reich accomplish its aims, there were camps. Some may have been nothing more than a barn where women workers making hand grenades in a forest armory were locked up at night; others were part of sophisticated underground manufacturing facilities where the first rockets and jet fighters were built and thousands of workers were used up.
Each of the major camps in Germany and Austria—like Dachau, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen, to name three of the oldest and largest—had jurisdiction over a wide geographical area, and each may have had a hundred or more subcamps. Workers were often transferred from one to the other as needed and then transported back to the main camp alive, to be killed, or dead, to be burned.
It’s this system that American soldiers discovered, much to their shock, horror, and surprise, as they chased the German army toward its mythical Alpine redoubt. The GIs had received no warning as to what they might find, but that may not have mattered, for as one of them said to me, “What if we had? How do you prepare to see that?” Most of the more than 150 Americans interviewed for this book were soldiers. Six were U.S. Army nurses. One was a 4F (physically unfit to be drafted) volunteer civilian ambulance driver who worked at Bergen- Belsen with the British and Canadian forces. Three were U.S. Army prisoners of war—two of them Jewish soldiers—who experienced the Holocaust firsthand alongside slave laborers imported from Eastern Europe. Five were concentration camp inmates who developed special relationships with particular GIs and are now American citizens. And one—also an American citizen now—served in the Polish army attached to the Russian army. With them he discovered some of the worst of the camps in Poland but only after all the inmates had been either murdered or evacuated to the west. He finally liberated prisoners in Sachsenhausen and eventually participated in the battle for Berlin.
At the time they were interviewed, the veterans ranged in age from eighty- three to ninety- six. All are among the relative handful of America’s witnesses to the Holocaust who are still alive, still willing and able to recount their experiences, still cognizant of the need to tell their stories.
While researching this book, I discovered that it’s not unusual for veterans not to know, even now, the names of the camps they discovered. Some U.S. medical personnel spent weeks at the camps, but it was more typical for combat troops to spend mere minutes to a few hours inside the gates before moving on in their relentless pursuit of the German army. Although they may not know the names, and though they may have spent but a short time inside their gates, they’ve never forgotten what the camps looked like, how they smelled, how the inmates looked, and how it all made them feel. And that is what this book is about. This is their opportunity, perhaps for a final time, to tell the world what they saw.
Writing about the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963, Hannah Arendt used the phrase “the banality of evil” to explain that the Holocaust had been executed by ordinary people willing to be convinced that their actions were normal. In interviewing American soldiers who confronted that evil face- to- face, I became aware of a banality of the language they use to describe what they saw. And through my own personal reaction I’ve come to recognize the danger in that for those of us who are anxious to learn from them. The most vivid example: soldier after soldier from camp to camp to camp described “bodies stacked like cordwood,” to the point that it’s very easy for the shock and horror of such a statement to evaporate into meaninglessness. When an individual soldier was confronted by “bodies stacked like cordwood,” he was seeing them that way, in all their brutal horror, through eighteen- or nineteen- , or twenty- year- old eyes, for the first time. Those kids were confronted with premeditated murders and attempted murders on a scale heretofore unimaginable.
A word, now, about the concept of the liberators. Aware that the Americans were coming, the SS guards—often with a final orgy of indiscriminate torture and killing—fled. It was left for the GIs to enter the camps, assess the humanitarian needs of the surviving inmates, bring up rear- echelon forces to minister to them, and arrange for the burial of the dead.
While I have observed the pride that members of specific Army units feel at having been officially designated the liberators of a certain camp, the truth is that their greatest achievement was not in cracking open the gates. Their achievement was in doing everything necessary to liberate an entire continent, and it took between three and a half and four million members of the U.S. armed forces (plus those of British, Canadian, French, and other Allied nations) in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) to do that job.
It’s unfortunate that because of what I believe to be a wellintentioned but poorly drawn agreement between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Americans who died in the surf at Omaha Beach or in the Battle of the Bulge, for example, are not given any credit for liberating concentration camp victims, while an entire 15,000- man division that may have had just a handful of its members drive past a camp en route to battle elsewhere is declared to have liberated that camp and honored with the display of its flag at the museum.* The soldiers on the scene were certainly, and importantly, American witnesses to the Holocaust—a condition that, as you’ll learn, often had lifelong negative consequences. Nonetheless, the flag of every division that landed on European soil, every Army Air Corps unit that flew over European soil, every Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine command that sailed in support of the war in Europe, should be displayed in a place of honor, and all the men and women who served anywhere in the European Theater of Operations should be honored as liberators at the magnificent and moving Holocaust Memorial Museum in our nation’s capital.
(* The agreement effectively holds that if just a truckload of troops out of a 15,000- man division reached a specific concentration camp at any time within the first forty- eight hours after the first American unit had reached that camp, the entire division would be declared to be a liberating unit of that camp and the flag of that division would be provided by the Army and placed on permanent display at the USHMM.)
I want to thank every one of the men and women who were willing to dredge their minds and their souls to bear witness to the Holocaust in this book. The process often brought forth painful memories that had never been shared even with wives or children and, quite often, tears from both interviewee and interviewer. There were several instances of a wife learning for the first time of her husband’s experiences at the camps by overhearing the interview for this book.
A word of caution: this is a book about crimes against humanity and about the reaction to those crimes by men at war. To soften the images and not tell the complete truth would violate the trust they placed in me when they agreed to speak. It would have been a disservice to them and to history. They know, and want you to know, that war is ugly despite rules and conventions negotiated far from the battlefield to make it less so.
A few words about what this book is not. Though the focus is almost solely on the actions of American fighting units, it is not a traditional military history of the final days of World War II in Europe.
There are many of those, nearly all of which share one trait in common: the discovery by the Allied forces of the death camps, the slavelabor camps, and the Nazis’ end- of- days attempts to murder tens of thousands of prisoners are barely a footnote, because they were almost never significant to the achievement of military victory. Bearing witness is not a soldier’s primary job. Even the U.S. Army’s official chronology of World War II, while detailing the day- by- day flow of Allied divisions across Germany—a country only slightly larger than the state of New Mexico—assigns no importance to the horrors discovered by the soldiers.
That said, what The Liberators does is trace the course of the fin...
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Book Description Bantam, 2010. Hardcover. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0553807560
Book Description Bantam, 2010. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0553807560
Book Description Condition: New. New. Seller Inventory # M-0553807560