The Liberators: America’s Witnesses to the Holocaust by Michael Hirsh (Bantom Books, 2010)


“It was bad. It was very, very bad,” said Jay Dakelman, a medic with the 3rd Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. He was describing to me the first moment that he stepped into a concentration camp, somewhere in Germany, during the final months of World War II. Jay Dakelman, who ended the war with the rank of corporal, was my father.

Since my great-grandmother was Russian, the only language that she had ever spoken was Yiddish. My father had learned to speak the language when visiting his grandmother, and then took German in high school and college, allowing him some fluency in the language. Therefore, when his unit marched into a German town and smelled a noxious stink in the air, my father was called upon to interpret a conversation with the mayor of the town.

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“What is that smell?” Dakelman asked the mayor.

The mayor shrugged and pointed down the hill. “It is the pig farm down the road,” he said.

Unsuspecting what they would find, the American soldiers marched on, unknowing that they were about to take their first steps into hell on Earth. When they came upon the gates of the camp, skeletal people implored them for “Candy? Where is the candy?” The inmates knew that Americans carried Hershey bars in the pockets of their uniforms.

“Weren’t they jumping up and down, and excited, ‘yay! Here come the Americans to save us?’” I asked my father.

“No, it wasn’t like that. They just wanted candy. And when we gave it to them, they ate it and they died, right on the spot.”

This is pretty much the extent of what my father could tell me about his experience as a concentration camp liberator. He also did confide that after their gruesome discovery of the camp, his unit returned to the village and insisted that the German townspeople come to the camp and bury the dead, “with their bare hands. They begged us to let them cover their hands with newspaper, but we wouldn’t let them. With their bare hands.”

My father, who could tell you every pontoon bridge that the 3rd Army Corps of Engineers built over the rivers in Germany, and details about the freezing days, as well as his close escape from capture, during the Battle of the Bulge,seemed to go on auto-pilot when asked about the camp.  The only other thing that he ever told me was that the men with whom he traveled, as well as himself, had no preparation for a concentration camp. The army leadership had not shared anything about what to expect if they came across a death camp, so the shock of coming across such a thing shook the young soldiers to their cores.

My mother, who also did not share any of my father’s experiences because he never told her, just reported that when my Dad returned from Europe and they began courting, there were often long periods of silence and sadness that he spent in deep thought, but did not tell anyone of what he had seen. This is how the men of World War II dealt with their PTSD, in silence, or throwing themselves into work so they would become too tired to think . . .but still the dreams came and came and came.

This past summer, I visited the Jewish Museum in lower Manhattan. The beautiful museum looks out to the Statue of Liberty, one of the world’s greatest symbols of hope. In the museum’s book shop, I found The Liberators: America’s Witnesses to the Holocaust by Michael Hirsh. I thumbed through the volume before buying it because I was on a search. I have been trying for years to find out what camp my father had liberated. I bought Hirsh’s book, and from the first page, the description given by the liberators whom the author had interviewed about their experiences were verbatim as to what my father had imparted to me.

Hirsh writes, “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 one had a hundred or more subcamps.” (xiv) Thus, there were literally hundreds of camps and sub-camps all over Germany, Austria, and Poland. Therefore, many of the soldiers had no idea of the name of the camp that they freed.

There are several predominant themes in the hundreds of accounts of aging soldiers and a handful of survivors that Hirsh’s book recount. First, not one of the stories begins without describing the stench of the camps. Joe Vanacore, a member of the 4th Armored, told of entering Ohrdruf, which had been deserted by the German guards. He and his buddies dismounted from their tanks and spotted a pile of bodies, piled high like a haystack. “The smell got me so bad I couldn’t eat for a week,” Vanacore reported. (p. 27) Even today that disgusting stink comes back when he hears people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. “I really can’t stand when people say things like that. We were right there; we saw it with our own eyes.” (p.27)

Later in April of 1945 Americans moved into Nordhausen, where “they couldn’t believe their eyes. It is all very well to read of a Maidenek, but no written word can properly convey the atmosphere of such a charnel house, the unbearable stench of decomposing bodies, the sight of live human beings starved to pallid skeletons.” (p.56)

Louis Blatz, an 18 year old at the time of the war, remembers smelling Buchenwald long before he saw it. “We were walking along the road, our company, and all of a sudden, somebody said, ‘Ooh! What’s that odor?’ and I said, “It smells like Mount Clemens. In the old days Mount Clemens, Michigan was noted for mineral baths that smelled like rotten eggs, sulphur gas, an unpleasant odor.” (p79)

Each description in the book of the revelation of a camp begins with the identifying odor of death, destruction, and decay. Captain Melvin Rappaport joined the Army six months before Pearl Harbor. He knew a little bit about concentration camps from a movie with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan called The Mortal Storm, made in 1940. Stewart and Sullivan played a Jewish couple who ended up in a concentration camp at the end of the film.

On April 13, 1945, Rappaport saw a concentration camp for real. He told Hirsh, “The stench was beyond your wildest dreams. It was unbelievable. And I still remember this crazy thing. On top of one of these carts---actually it had rubber wheels, it wasn’t a wagon---there was this naked body on the top, big fat guy about 220 pounds like me, with a crew cut and his tongue sticking out. So I remember I spoke to one of the inmates, a Polish youngster twenty-years old.” (p.87) When Rappaport question the Polish boy as to whom the body was on the top of the heap, the boy replied, “That’s Herman the guard.” Before the fat German had had time to escape, the inmates killed him and threw his body on top of the guard’s victims.

As Rappaport continued a quick tour of the camp, he came across 850 young boys interred behind a barbed wire fence. “They were starving and hungry and cold and miserable. It was like a pack of wild beasts, just running around this enclave in there. They looked at me, and I was looking at them. I didn’t know what to say. It was unbelievable. All youngsters. . . Oh God, what a mess.” (p. 86) Rappaport later came to find out that one of the boys imprisoned in that pen was Elie Wiesel, and another, Israel Lau, who was only six years old at the time, grew up to become the chief rabbi in Israel.

I realized as I neared the end of Hirsh’s book that I am unlikely to find out the name of the camp that my father helped to liberate, and in truth, it doesn’t matter. What remains important that Hirsh’s collection of first hand reports from liberators is testament to the fact that the Holocaust happened and millions of innocent lives were wasted so unnecessarily.

One of the witnesses whom Hirsh quotes, Leonard Lubin, touches the nerve of what the Holocaust truly was in a story that he relates. One of the starving inmates had found a can of tomatoes, and did not have a proper implement to open the can. “He had it with both of his hands jammed up against his face, trying to get his tongue into it to lick the contents and lick the top lid and the sides of the can, and the blood was pouring down his face, and he was acting totally insane, and that vision is what’s in my mind. . . So in my nightmares, that is what I see. And to me, that’s what the Holocaust was. . . It wasn’t the death, it was a torment of the kind that can reduce a human being to subanimal status. To be willing to lacerate himself to get a slight bit of nourishment.” (p.242I)

I would not recommending reading The Liberators before bed time, nor would I give it to a youngster, or an extremely sensitive person to read. Hirsh has memorialized the brave men who had the misfortune to stumble upon the most wicked, evil horror ever perpetrated against the human race. The book details many horrors that I had never read about, despite my broad reading on the Holocaust. However, as a historical document, Hirsh has done an outstanding job in finding, interviewing, and recording the soldiers who will be remembered forever as the liberators.