Last Wednesday, the Museum and the Daughters of WWII hosted an event for Victory in Europe Day. The original V-E Day, May 8, 1945, marked the end of WWII in Europe, as the Nazi regime officially surrendered. Fittingly, our program focused on the WWII veterans who assisted in liberating concentration camps and the Holocaust Survivors who were freed as a result of Allied victory.
We began the event with the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and an inspirational rendition of the National Anthem. To hear these American soldiers who were part of such an important event in our history singing alongside Holocaust Survivors from across Europe who are now proud to live in America was moving. Being able to sing with them was truly an honor for those of us in the audience who were there to hear their stories and honor their legacies.
As the event progressed, we heard from several men who each played a different role in liberating the camps. Some were medical personell, others spotted the camps and reported their location to their commanding officers, a few shared their stories of being among the first to see the prisoners, to notice the dead, to experience the horrors of these places the Nazis abandoned and later, denied.
No matter the role they played, each of the liberators had a unique story to tell. It was fascinating, yet chilling, to hear about the first impressions of these men. Many of them described the horrible smell that made them want to run away as soon as they neared the camps. They described living skeletons, zombie-like men and women, and the bones of the dead, laying out in the open for all to see.
These heartbreaking stories were matched with tales from Holocaust Survivors, focusing not on their time in the camps, but instead on how the sight of the American soldiers was at first a little frightening, but soon, filled them with hope. The Survivors all thanked the veterans for what they did as they shared their memories. They told the audience that they were grateful for these men and others like them, without whom they never would have survived. Angels, heroes, saviors. As the accolades were heaped upon the soldiers, one man summed up what many of them were feeling when he said, “I don’t know why I’m up here; I’m not a hero.”
More than once, the audience was in tears, or gasped collectively at the true stories of what it was like in the camps. We all felt shock at the cruelty humanity is capable of, as the soldiers did many years ago, seeing it in person. That feeling of shock is one reason events like these are so important. The raw, fresh feelings at the injustice of it all, the pure evil enacted on one man by another, the resolve these feelings bring to never stand by and let this happen again.
Liberators and Survivors together