In the spring of 1945, units of the American, British, and Soviet armies were converging on Germany in the final phase of World War II. Whether as liberators of the concentration camps or in their encounters with groups and columns of disoriented, starving former prisoners along the road, Allied soldiers, even those accustomed to suffering and death on the battlefield, were very shaken by these initial contacts with Holocaust survivors.
Meeting the survivors and hearing them tell their stories for the first time had an especially profound effect on Jewish Gls. One such encounter occurred on April 15, 1945, near the town of Waldenburg, in Silesia. Master Sergeant Peretz
(Perry) Milbauer of the 179th Engineers Combat Battalion of the American Third Army, which was encamped in Remse, Germany, was among the first soldiers in that area to come across survivors of a death march: a group of twenty-two hundred starving people whom the Nazi guards, in their attempt to escape before the Allied advance, had abandoned by the roadside.
Sergeant Milbauer’s letter, written to his wife on the same day, captured the dazed astonishment, anxiety, and awe of those who seemed to be awakening from certain death to new life. It also pointed to the immense new challenges facing the victors: how to help the survivors restart their lives, how to punish the murderers, and how to make sense of the suffering. The world would struggle with these questions for decades to come.
April 15, 1945
I just had to write this letter in Yiddish …. Why Yiddish? It is because all my Jewishness has welled up in me, I feel myself completely a Jew. Also, since a Jewish historical situation is involved, I can only write in Yiddish.
Imagine! Midday today a Jewish GI came to me and said there were three Jews on the other side of the street. When I went over, before I could speak, one of the trio said in Yiddish, “He has a Jewish face.” I answered in Yiddish whereupon the three wished me well and blessed me to the very skies …. Oh how happy they were!
I soon learned that located in a nearby town was a group of Jews taken from concentration camps, that the retreating Germans were driving in front of them. There were about two thousand Jewish women, mostly from Hungary, and two hundred men, chiefly from Poland. They had been in different concentration camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau.
They were force marched thirty kilometers in twelve hours without food and with only one thirty-minute rest period. They were overjoyed when the column leader strayed and went twelve kilometers down a wrong road. At night he hid them in a wood. In the morning, American tanks came along, and they were suddenly “free.” I use quotation marks because many told me later, “Yes, we are free but we can’t quite comprehend what that means, we cannot
We loaded up the three men with food and soap and took a variety of supplies to the nearby town. There I greeted my fellow Jews with a hearty “Sholom Aleichem!” At first the Jews were skeptical. Very weakly they questioned, “Are you a Jew?” When I answered “Yes,” they became joyful and poured out their hearts to me.
It is impossible to report everything … the refugees described how pleased they were that the Americans were here. How did they put it? “Angels?” “The Messiah has already come.” One individual added that we will have a new Passover, [celebrating] not deliverance from Egyptian slavery but escape from the clutches of the Nazis. Then they started to describe their tribulations and mistreatment by the Germans. I listened endlessly to stories. But all the experiences – children’s heads smashed against walls, the crematoria, wanton killings, working twelve hours at night without sleeping during the day, being the only family survivor … Can anything be worse than what we already know?
How did one man put it earlier in the day? “In five years I had no one to cheer me up, with whom can I now share my joy? I have no one. I can’t go home and tell my wife: ‘Look , the Americans have given me food.’ But I can’t even share this happiness with anyone.”
Questions were asked: “Did Americans know what was happening here?” “Did people believe it?” I answered, confirming that there were reports that many had believed from the start, but that everyone was now convinced of the
atrocities. I felt that in reply there would be a protest that we in America knew but did nothing. No one registered that complaint ….
I also asked for the names of those who had families in other countries. I would see to it that the lists were printed in the Jewish newspapers… . One survivor asked me why I was so interested. I answered, “Because I am a Jew.” His response was to give me an affectionate pat.
I am sorry that I am not a writer and am not able to give a better report. There is so much to describe. I am overwhelmed ….
Blanche Milbauer, who worked in New York at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, saw to it that these survivors’ names, and those of their relatives in America and Palestine, were soon published. Calls immediately flooded into
YIVO as American family members began to learn of the survival and liberation of their loved ones.
In Waldenburg, Sergeant Milbauer spoke to a U.S. Army lieutenant who then went to the mayor of the town and ordered him to provide the survivors with food. Within two days, all 2,200 death march survivors were also sleeping inside houses, for the first time in years, like people once again.
But the story does not end here. A month later, Sergeant Milbauer was at the concentration camp at Ebensee, Austria. From here, he wrote his wife:
It is really impossible to describe the living. Some did not have a human expression at all …. American medics are caring for them. Two busloads were evacuated, and it was pitiful to see others trying to crawl on the roof of the
ambulance – a mass of bones with a spark of life!
He closed his letter to his wife by reporting to her that for some of his fellow soldiers, it took actually seeing “live models to really convince them that what they heard was true . One told me as we were coming back, ‘And I thought it was propaganda. ‘”