Holocaust Survivor, Camp Liberator Share Memories Holocaust victims and liberators of concentration camps are gathered in Washington, D.C., for a 60th anniversary commemoration. A former U.S. soldier who helped liberate one of the Nazi-run death camps in Austria and a survivor of a related camp meet to share memories of the end of World War II.
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Holocaust Survivor, Camp Liberator Share Memories

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Holocaust Survivor, Camp Liberator Share Memories

Holocaust Survivor, Camp Liberator Share Memories

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day; in Hebrew, Yom Hashoah, the Day of the Shoah, the Holocaust. This date in the Jewish calendar was chosen to mark the deaths of millions at the hands of the Nazis because it's close to the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. In Israel at 10 this morning, the nation came to a standstill as air raid sirens blared for two minutes to honor the millions who perished.

(Soundbite of air raid sirens)

SIEGEL: In Poland, at Auschwitz, more than 20,000 people began what's called the March of Living. They walked two miles to another camp, Birkenau, and there Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urged the world not to forget the six million Jews who died and not to forget the murderers.

Prime Minister ARIEL SHARON (Israel): (Through Translator) I'm sure all of my colleagues remember how the world kept silent in those days. The world was standing by passive and kept silent. Please don't let them forget. Don't let them be silent again.

SIEGEL: Here in Washington, DC, an observance brought together Holocaust victims and their liberators. They were joined by politicians on Capitol Hill to remember and to light candles. First lady Laura Bush spoke to the gathering.

Mrs. LAURA BUSH: The survivors of the Holocaust bear witness to the dangers of what anti-Semitism can become. And their stories of survival remind us that when we are confronted by anti-Semitism, we must fight it.

SIEGEL: In our studio, we brought together two men whose lives were shaped by the Holocaust. Both live in the Washington, DC, area: one, a survivor; one, a liberator. Martin Weiss is retired from the food service industry, but 60 years ago he was a 16-year-old starving and wasting away in a Nazi camp at Gunskirchen in Austria. It was a satellite of the concentration camp at Mauthausen. Edgar Edelsack is a retired physicist. Sixty years ago he was a 21-year-old private in General Patton's 3rd Army in the 11th Armored Division when he arrived at Mauthausen. I asked them both to reach back in time and remember May 5th, 1945. We begin with Martin Weiss.

Mr. MARTIN WEISS (Holocaust Survivor): By that time we were all living corpses rather than people. We were completely dehumanized, we had no strength, we was literally starved. Every day there were loads of people dying. And the fact that we were liberated, that itself was almost unbelievable. To show you how unbelievable is when we were liberated, we stayed an extra day in camp because we didn't believe it, because we thought it was a trap; that they're going to machine gun us on the way out.

SIEGEL: Edgar, do you remember that day when you first saw a camp?

Mr. EDGAR EDELSACK (Holocaust Camp Liberator): Yes, I do, Robert. Up until then, I was unaware that there were camps. We were never informed about it. So coming in and seeing these emaciated people of skin and bones really hit a very resonant note in me. I took many photographs and kept them for years. But after showing them, they so still emotionally upset me that I finally gave them away.

SIEGEL: It's interesting when you say, `We didn't know anything about that.' You hadn't just fallen off the proverbial turnip truck; you were a college-educated Jewish kid from the Bronx, and you had no idea this was there.

Mr. EDELSACK: No. If you may recall, the US press didn't report very much of the events there. What I heard in the States was, of course, three years prior because I was in the Army for three years. So for three years there was a hiatus in my knowledge of what was happening in Europe.

SIEGEL: First reaction when you saw what was there?

Mr. EDELSACK: First reaction was a very complex one. We gave out cigarettes, candy, all the things kids and people wanted. And night fell and we were just told to stay at the camp. The next day these people were so grateful to us they improvised a kind of circus for us, and that really touched me, that these people who had suffered so could still show enough menschlichkeit to want to entertain foreign troops.

SIEGEL: Martin, you remember the moment of gratitude for the foreign troops once you accepted the reality of what had happened?

Mr. WEISS: Oh, yes. What I remember most is that the GIs were like a godsend because they were jumping in and out of the jeep very healthy, looking good. We couldn't believe that it's real.

SIEGEL: In a way, this was a race as to when Patton's Army, or whichever liberating force it might have been, would arrive at a given camp and who would be in what state of deteriorating health by that particular moment as to who would survive. I assume, Edgar, that you found people who were on the threshold of death or past it.

Mr. EDELSACK: And we saw the many pictures that had been of stockpiles of bodies. But the 3rd Army's goal was not to liberate the camps; the 3rd Army had a military goal, which was far and above more important to Patton at all, to get as far as they could before the Russians got.

SIEGEL: So the Army was racing the Russians to the--well, they lost the race to Berlin, I guess...

Mr. EDELSACK: Right.

SIEGEL: ...but they were racing in that direction and along the way passing by camps and liberating them.

Mr. EDELSACK: Right.

SIEGEL: Have you ever thought, Martin Weiss, about if the Army had been a few weeks later in getting there, would you still have been alive at that point?

Mr. WEISS: Not only do I think it, I wouldn't have been here because if it lasted two more weeks, I don't think I would be here right now because we were already so emaciated and so weak. And to show you the extremity of it is we were--Gunskirchen was like in a forest, and there were puddles of water from the rain. And they were people who actually fell in the mud, or in a puddle, and they couldn't get up. So they raised their hand, like, for help, and we walked right by; we didn't even help them. And guess what? We were envious that they're dying already. Now I know this sounds severe, but I remember that's how we felt at that time.

SIEGEL: Do you get the impression that the lessons of the camps, of the Nazi Holocaust, the Shoa as we often call it, or the Hebrew name for it--do you think that they're still being learnt by people around the world, or is this experience that both of you saw with your own eyes something that is receding and less relevant to young people around you?

Mr. WEISS: Well, I find--and people are--I think they're more responsive now than they ever were before. Not only that, but a lot of times you think of people Jewish, but I speak many times to non-Jewish, some places where they have no Jews at all, and they are just unbelievably responsive and caring. So I think the education goes a long way, and we continue to do so.

SIEGEL: And, Edgar Edelsack, do you agree?

Mr. EDELSACK: I don't quite share Martin's experience. I find with the passage of time, at least the young people I interact with look at it as like another experience, and it has very little emotional impact on them. So my assessment of those youngsters I've interacted with--it's interesting. They listen, but I don't know how much it really impacts on them in terms of their emotions.

SIEGEL: Well, I'd like to thank you both for coming and talking with us today.

Mr. EDELSACK: Thank you very much for having both of here today.

Mr. WEISS: And thank you for having us here.

SIEGEL: We've been talking with Martin Weiss, who was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp 60 years ago, and Edgar Edelsack, who as a private first class in the US Army was a liberator, a member of the 11th Armored Division.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: And you can see photos of our two guests and hear other stories of Holocaust commemorations at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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