Tuesday, May 04, 2010

TOP STORY >> Petraeus salutes camp liberators

Beryl Wolfson in his World War II uniform with his wife Esther during a ceremony at the Holocaust Memorial Museum honoring soldiers who liberated concentration camps in Europe.


Leader executive editor

It was 65 years ago Monday that Beryl Wolfson helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp in southeastern Germany.

“We went into the camp on May 3, 1945,” he told me on the anniversary of the camp’s liberation. “Bodies were piled up everywhere.”

Wolfson, who is 87, was talking on the phone from his home in Hagarville, near Lamar in Johnson County, where he’s lived since he retired from the Army in 1965.

Wolfson and his wife Esther were recently at the U.S. Capitol and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, where Gen. David Petraeus, commander of Central Command, presented medals to 120 liberators.

“We’re still looking for a few good men,” Petraeus told the group.

“We’ll sign up for two weeks,” shouted one old veteran.

Wolfson joined the National Guard in early 1941 in New Orleans, where he was born and raised.

“I was 17 and lied about my age,” he said. “Nobody checked back then how old you were.”

He became a radio operator and fought with the 12th Armored Division in North Africa in 1942 with Gen. Patton’s Third Army, which made its way through Italy — Salerno, Naples, Cassino, Rome, Florence and then Marseilles in southern France and Alsace Lorraine and into Germany.

Wolfson was in the 935th Field Artillery Battalion, which was fighting its way toward Munich. The soldiers didn’t know there was a camp near there.

“We arrived early in the morning and entered through a side gate,” he recalled.

Nothing prepared them for the horrors of Dachau — the corpses everywhere piled up like cordwood, or the human hair and clothes and suitcases taken from prisoners before they were gassed and burned.

“There were 50 or 60 boxcars near the gate,” he continued. “You couldn’t see the end of them.”
Wolfson, who was then a 22-year-old Army sergeant, and a group of his men opened the boxcars and found thousands of corpses inside.

“We went through them to see if anybody was alive,” he said. “They were all dead. The prisoners were sent on the train from Buchenwald and were left to die inside. The smell was so bad, I was throwing up.”

He put on a gas mask he’d found on a dead German soldier, but it didn’t help. There were more horrors to come.

“Two or three survivors in their striped uniforms took us around the camp,” he continued. “They took us to the showers that were really the gas chamber, but I didn’t go inside,” Wolfson said. “They took us to the furnace. They weren’t working. The Germans ran out of coal. The bodies were piled up as high as a building.

“They showed us a moat near the gate with bodies of German soldiers. The prisoners said when they heard the Americans were on the way, they jumped the guards and threw them in the moat.

“They took us to the officers quarters, where they had lamp shades made out of human skin,” he said.

“They made soap out of hair that was shaved off the prisoners. In a basement they still had strapped up bodies that were attacked by dogs. The GIs shot all the dogs.

Even after their liberation, prisoners were still dying. “Their stomachs had shrunk, they couldn’t eat. They were eating grass before we got there. We tried to give them hash from C-Rations and make soup of it, but they couldn’t eat it.

“They were dying like flies. They had typhoid fever. Prisoners couldn’t stand up. They’d be sitting down, leaning against a wall one minute, and a minute later they were dead,” Wolfson said.

“It was the worst experience I had during the war,” he said. “I’ve had some bad experiences—I was shot in the leg and arm in Italy, and I still have shrapnel in my arm. But Dachau was the worst.”

Gen. Petraeus told the veterans in Washington, “The liberators with us here today should know that their actions continue to inspire those who wear our nation’s uniform.

“A generation of Americans fought in World War II and hundreds of thousands of them died, staring evil in the face, in the effort to defeat the Nazis and bring the Third Reich to an end,” Petraeus said.

“We, and indeed all of humanity, owe them an eternal debt of gratitude for accomplishing their mission in Europe and for giving Holocaust survivors the greatest gifts of all – their lives and their freedom,” the general said.

“I still get nightmares,” Wolfson said, “and I have post-traumatic stress. I’ll never forget what I saw.”