(VIDEOS) As members of the “Greatest Generation” leave us, we should remember what they sacrificed and why.
William Dippo sat in a floral-upholstered wing chair, dressed in a patterned button-down shirt, a hat marked "Patton's Third Army–WWII" atop his head, hands gripping a walking stick. His knuckles changed from pink to white as the interviewer's questions shifted from more general queries about the Second World War to more specific questions about his experience at Mauthausen. The elderly gentleman, small in stature, frail, fragile, appeared in stark contrast to the gentle, shy, almost naïve young man in the service photo the Dippo family provided for the Texas Tech University and Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission collaboration, the Texas Liberator Project.
The photograph, like so many entrusted to us by the families of the 21 Texas liberators featured in the project, captured a young man at the "once upon a time" of an adventure, someone who had not yet seen the world or lived a life. The man in the video was a veteran of war at the "happily ever after" conclusion of a life well-lived, someone who had enlisted at age 17 with a falsified birth certificate because his nation called. He served as a combat engineer, built a water purification system for survivors at Mauthausen and bulldozed mass graves for those who did not survive.
This tender young man, driven by a sense of duty and civic responsibility, grew into this slight older man charged by the conviction to witness and speak truth to power. In October 2011, he sat down to give testimony and declare publicly that, should we face another Holocaust, even at 86 years old, walking stick in hand, slouched in his chair, he would be the first to go to prevent it from happening again.
Dippo is only one of many U.S. veterans, members of the "Greatest Generation," who are leaving us or have already left us. They ask not to be remembered – although we would serve them well by doing so – but that we respect the archival record of what they did during the Second World War, that we remember they witnessed one of the greatest acts of cruelty and depravity in history, and that we never forget that extraordinary, ordinary people can push back against fear, hatred and dehumanization.
Dr. J. Ted Hartman was another of these extraordinary people. At a ceremony at Texas Tech honoring veterans and launching the Texas Liberator Project, Dr. Hartman was surrounded by a group of medical school students who knew him as one of the founding members of the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center School of Medicine and a former dean of the medical school, but did not realize he had been a tank driver in the 11th Armored Division.An orthopedic surgeon, Hartman taught residents at all four medical schools in Chicago before arriving in Lubbock, yet even the grisliest of surgeries could not compare to the horrors he witnessed when he arrived at Buchenwald.
What could 20-year-olds understand about genocide? What could they understand about Holocaust? We could barely prepare them for basic training, these boys from Amarillo, Abilene, Dallas, Plainview, El Paso, Houston, Big Spring, Laredo, some of whom had never left their hometowns, others who had never left Texas. What can we imagine 20-year-olds experienced jumping out of planes; drowning after being dropped in too-deep water, weighed down by their guns and equipment; wading through the tortuous waters only to find themselves under heavy fire by Germans who had the advantageous higher ground? What can we imagine 20-year-olds felt, never having seen snow because they grew up in South Texas, yet having to dig into the earth itself in hopes of finding 1 or 2 more degrees of warmth during the Battle of the Bulge? What can we imagine 20-year-olds felt, holding their friends in their arms as they bled, as they exhaled, knowing they might never see 21? What can we imagine 20-year-olds felt, as they caught the stench of burning human flesh, the ash in their eyes and hair, as they walked, unknowing, into concentration camps? How could we have prepared them? These 20-year-olds now not only had the responsibility of war upon their shoulders, they had the responsibility of witnessing.
Perhaps that is why John "Jack" Ferguson Reynolds remembered not only the loudness of war, the extreme volumes of mortars, shells, bullets and sirens, but the silence he found himself in after returning from the Nordhausen concentration camp. In his interview, 66 years later, he recalled the disquieting quiet.
Maybe that also is why many veterans remained quiet about what they had seen, what they had been asked to do: move bodies, dig graves, witness an atrocity they could never have imagined. Herman "Hank" Josephs waited decades to share his memories. When he did, it was because he wanted his children to know that, even in that inhumanity, there was humanity, there was the most delicate flicker of hope, of kindness.
Lee Berg never told his family what he saw. While their Lee Berg was smart, cantankerous, demanding, rigorous and tough as nails, to me – who only knew through his testimony what he saw at Dachau – he was a person; a kind, hurt person who still struggled to accept what he witnessed, who still struggled to accept the reality of the depths of human depravity.
April 29 will be the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, and this spring there will be many solemn ceremonies to commemorate U.S. troops discovering firsthand what horror meant for the 6 million Jews who died, the millions of others the Nazis persecuted and the few who had to live with the memories of what they experienced, what they lost. Lee Berg will not be there. He died in 2006. But his words live on, and while his testimony was punctuated with pain and tears, he reminds a new generation of Texas youth learning the history of the Holocaust and the ramifications of genocide, what it means to witness, to give testimony, to be an upstander long after the war is over.
In watching these testimonials, we understand that people like these veterans – soldiers and nurses and doctors and officers and codebreakers and transport personnel – didn't have the luxury of leaving the war behind if and when they finally returned home. They carried it back across the ocean, into their homes, on the job and in everything they did.
Birney "Chick" Havey, who helped liberate Dachau, accepts every invitation he can to talk about his experiences in the war and especially to share what he saw in the concentration camp. Dressed in his uniform jacket, festooned with ribbons, medals and honors, Havey tells his audiences about fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and invading Germany. Now in his late 90s, Havey plans to travel to Dachau this May to participate in the commemorations, mourn those who did not survive the camp and share this solemn occasion with those who did – those who, like him, remember and still question how it all could have happened.
But perhaps we should never be able to come to grips with it. Perhaps it is when we do or can come to grips with it that we forget our humanity. Perhaps we should never be able to comprehend, nor be able to accept such injustice, hatred, fear, terror. Ben Love, who flew B-17 bombers as a pilot in the 8th Air Force and helped liberate Mauthausen, came home after the war and became an incredibly successful banker. But he lived a life of philanthropy, compassion and generosity because of what he witnessed – and he told his story to his children and grandchildren.Please note, this video quality is low due to its original VHS format.
So it falls upon us now. As our "Greatest Generation" leaves us, we have only the markers, signposts, histories and testimonies they left us. They answered a call of duty more than 75 years ago when we, as a nation, asked them to fight against fascism and defend the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness we Americans hold so dear. They answered a second call when we asked them to serve as witnesses to the Holocaust. Even three-quarters of a century later, they understood their civic duty to never forget, never forsake. Now, it is our turn to proudly, honorably, urgently answer the call they have left for us.
Will we stand for those who find themselves at their weakest, who are most vulnerable, unvoiced and unheard? As we honor the liberators 75 years later, can we recognize that, in answering the second call of duty, they sought to liberate us to step into their places?
Aliza S. Wong
Texas Tech University and Project Lead, Texas Liberator Project
About the Texas Liberator Project
The Texas Liberator Project was the final passion project of Pete Berkowitz, former chair of the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission (THGC) and Holocaust Museum Houston (HMH). It used the 19 oral histories collected by the Baylor Institute of Oral History, funded by the THGC, and two from the archives of the HMH as historical artifacts, along with letters home from U.S. soldiers from the Dallas Holocaust Museum and survivor testimonials from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in an educational digital app available at texasliberators.org.
The website houses the app, as well as educational resources, links to the original oral histories, interactive maps, teaser trailers, a video walkthrough and an Honor Roll of Texas Liberators that now numbers more than 500. The project also featured an exhibit at the Museum of Texas Tech University. A traveling exhibit, now touring the state of Texas, was featured at the HMH, the U.S.S. Lexington and Midland College. A book that features the voices and photos of the 21 liberators in the project, "The Texas Liberators: Veteran Narratives from World War II," is available from Texas Tech University Press.
For more information on the Texas Tech University/Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission collaboration, The Texas Liberator Project, visit texasliberators.org.
For more information on the Baylor Institute of Oral History/Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission project, Texas Liberators of WWII, visit www.baylor.edu/oralhistory.
For more information on the work of the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission, visit thgc.texas.gov.