RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
We turn now to the story of a veteran of World War II. It's one of the stories on NPR coinciding with the documentary series "The War," airing this week on Public Television.
The veteran we're about to meet was honored for what he did after the fighting was over. Here a tribute to Vernon Tott at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Unidentified Woman: Hopefully as people see Vernon's name forever inscribed in the walls of this great institution, they will get a small sense of it all.
MONTAGNE: Vernon Tott fought in the Battle of the Bulge with the 84th Infantry and helped liberate a concentration camp in Germany. He died two years ago, and though many American soldiers had such stories, Vernon Tott's was different. Fifty years after liberating the camp, Tott took out photographs he'd snapped on that April day in 1945.
And as NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports, it's what he did with those pictures that got him memorialized at the Holocaust Museum.
SUSAN STAMBERG: Jon Sadler remembers the day in 1995 when his stepfather Vernon Tott retrieved a dusty old shoebox from his basement in Sioux City, Iowa.
JON SADLER: Every Sunday, we'd go to my parents' house and have donuts after church and visit. And one Sunday, Vernon came up from the basement and said a Jewish man wanted to know if anybody had pictures of this camp. He got on the phone and dialed the number.
BEN SIERADZKI: The telephone rang. My name is Vernon Tott, and I think you're looking for me. And I said, are you still a tall, blonde fellow? And he said, not any longer.
STAMBERG: Ben Sieradzki remembered Vernon very well. A survivor of the Ahlem slave labor camp, Ben was barely 18, emaciated, near death. Sick as he was, Ben will never forget the day that Vernon Tott's Army platoon passed by en route to Hanover and stopped for a break.
SIERADZKI: There was a road, and we saw soldiers. One of them brought out a ball - it was a baseball, and they started throwing it to each other. And one of our fellows - hey, this must be Americans because this is baseball. And we started screaming, come on up here, come on up here. And some of them were just bewildered.
STAMBERG: The soldiers didn't realize they'd had stopped near a concentration camp.
VERNON TOTT: And what we saw there we would never forget. We were witnessing hell on Earth.
STAMBERG: At a Navy Fourth Infantry reunion, Vernon Tott described what he'd seen at Ahlem.
TOTT: Piles of dead bodies, men in ragged clothing that were just skin and bones. (Unintelligible) the 84th, you know, we all just came through six months of bloody battle. But me and the soldiers with me, it made us sick to our stomachs, and even cried, what we'd seen there.
STAMBERG: Wraithlike prisoners lying in their own urine, ravaged by dysentery, waiting to die. Not quite believing what he saw and wanting to share his horrified disbelief with family back in Iowa, Vernon Tott pulled out his pocket camera.
TOTT: This is the little old Kodak camera that I bought in New Orleans in a pawnshop, and it wasn't much bigger than a king-size pack of cigarettes.
STAMBERG: A few years ago, Mr. Tott spoke about his snapshots on South Dakota Public Radio.
TOTT: Actually, the infantrymen were not supposed to carry cameras, but a lot of them did. So I got a lot of pictures during the war.
STAMBERG: Official photographs were take in at Ahlem; the Red Cross filmed the camp. But Vernon Tott's legacy, his name on the wall, comes from what he did with his pictures. Like many veterans, the first thing he did was to stash his memories away, put the war behind him.
Stepson Jon Sadler and his pals would sneak peeks, rummaging in the Iowa basement through Vernon's dusty history.
SADLER: In junior high, you know, we'd open up the box and think, boy, this is terrible. Look what my dad saw in the war. And we just always assumed nobody lived in those pictures. They looked so horrible and sick.
STAMBERG: For 50 years, Vernon Tott held the same assumption. Then, in his Army newsletter, Vernon spotted an inquiry from a retired engineer in Berkeley, California named Ben Sieradzki. Ben was searching for whoever took photographs of himself and other prisoners when Ahlem was liberated.
Vernon made copies of the black-and-white snapshots he'd buried in his basement and sent them off to Ben. In one of the pictures, Ben saw dead bodies piled on the ground in front of some barracks. In the foreground, a huddle of skeletal prisoners.
SIERADZKI: I am the last one on the left side. Several hours prior to that picture, somebody brought civilian clothes. I found a jacket and a hat but the pants were too long. I stuck them in my socks.
STAMBERG: The photograph released a flood of dark memories. Ben lost his parents and two sisters in the Holocaust and suffered endless depravations. Wanting to document his life for his descendants, Ben was grateful for the picture Vernon took.
SIERADZKI: Because I had no records of that horrible time, and here I am.
STAMBERG: Vernon Tott was his witness. Vernon and his photographs became very important to Ben, and for the first time the old pictures became important to Vernon. He realized there might be others like Ben and he launched a quest to track them down.
Unidentified Man #1: Who is this?
Unidentified Man #2: No, this is (unintelligible) his wife.
STAMBERG: Even though he had cancer, Vernon Tott was relentless. He went to reunions, attended commemorations with survivors in Poland and Germany. Eventually he was able to find 16 of the 40 prisoners in his pictures. Earlier this year, a few of them traveled to Vernon's hometown, Sioux City, to see a film about the late veteran and amateur photographer.
TOTT: Welcome to the Orpheum Theatre for tonight's world premiere of the documentary "Angel of Ahlem," featuring the story of the late Vernon Tott of Sioux City.
STAMBERG: More than a thousand people came to see the film and Vernon's photographs on public display for the first time. Ahlem survivors and family members poured of the pictures, piecing together broken memories.
SAM TRAMIEL: For me, it shows me what they've went through, what my father and grandfather went through.
STAMBERG: Sam Tramiel. His father, Jack, survived the Ahlem.
TRAMIEL: And it's also the answer to those doubters and deniers of the Holocaust. It did happened. Here are photographs taken by an American soldier in 1945.
STAMBERG: Riddled with cancer, crippled by a stroke, Vernon Tott knew he wouldn't live long enough to see the documentary, but so many others did. After the Iowa premiere, the film was shown in May at Lincoln Center in New York. Twelve Ahlem survivors were there, reunited because of Vernon Tott, his pocket camera, and his unwavering determination. The documentary, "Angle of Ahlem," was introduced by another member of the 84th Infantry - former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
HENRY KISSINGER: There's nothing I'm more proud of, of my service to this country, than having been one of those who had the honor of liberating the Ahlem concentration camp.
STAMBERG: Then Henry Kissinger made a special request.
KISSINGER: I said (unintelligible) survivors here; I'd be honored if they came up here and had a picture taking with me. I want to thank you all.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
STAMBERG: Slowly, deliberately, the white-haired survivors who had been brutalized, then rescued from desperate circumstances so many years before made their way to the Lincoln Center stage. As they gathered, it was clear that the most important person missing from this one last photograph was Vernon Tott.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
TOTT: That's a horrible way we met, Ben, but now we're good friends.
Mr. SIERADZKI Yes. We're going downhill but we are still good friends.
MONTAGNE: Thanks to the University of Florida's Documentary Institute and member station KWIT in Sioux City, Iowa for help with our story. To see some of the photos taken by Vernon Tott and to see a Holocaust survivor's family album, go to npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.