If you know me, then you know I have made it my life’s work to ensure that atrocities such as the Holocaust never happen again. That means, I tell my story of survival regularly, not just via recounting moments I discuss in detail in my book, Living A Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream, but also to the public via speaking engagements, online conversations and many interviews.
If you had asked me a year ago if I would be a part of a documentary airing on The History Channel, I would have said “no.”
But, here I am, and soon — with the vision of Emanuel Rotstein, the director and creator — this incredible story “Die Befreier” (“The Liberators—Why We Fought”) of those who were liberated at Dachau 70 years ago, and the liberators, will air on The History Channel.
The filming process has spanned several months and is something I could not be more proud to participate in.
About a year ago, I received an invitation from the German government inviting me and other survivors to come and be a part of the liberation anniversary. I sent back the paperwork, accepting the offer. Then, in September, I received a letter from The History Channel, Germany. They had heard I would be attending the ceremony as a survivor and wanted to know if I had an interest in being a part of the documentary they were putting together.
My initial reaction? Happiness. A network like The History Channel was going to tell the story of the men who liberated Dachau, and the survivors who were there to be liberated.
Naturally, it didn’t take much thinking to accept this offer, and last December on the first night of Chanukah, a team from the network came to my house in Las Vegas to interview me, my wife, Jean, and my two daughters, Sherry and Gail. That was just the start of the filming process, and of this incredible journey I have been on.
In April, the channel flew us (me and Sherry and Gail) to Germany. We arrived a few days before the actual commemorative ceremony and began filming immediately. My family and I met the other participants in the program — a small group of liberators and survivors.
To say it was emotional would be an understatement.
There we were — decades having gone by, lives being lived — and yet we had one major thing in common: we had gone through this hell on earth. I know what survivors went through during and after liberation; I cannot begin to imagine what the liberators had to cope with, arriving to Dachau and seeing bodies stacked up, and the few who were alive, shells of themselves, one foot already in the grave.
Meeting these amazing souls brought such warmth to me. We were strangers, but only for a quick moment. Then, we were friends. Family.
My daughter, Gail, said it best:
“It took your breath away [when we met them]. It was so beautiful. Speaking to the liberators and survivors and bringing everyone together. It was something that you have to have been there to understand. Once you’ve been there, you’d never forget what you saw.”
The biggest piece of the story — returning to Dachau — played on my mind the most.
The thoughts running through my mind as we were in route back to Dachau were frightening. To recall the moments when those first steps were taken onto Dachau grounds – I was so young, so fragile, nearly 65 pounds of bones and barely flesh. Dead bodies, stacked up like logs of wood in front of the crematorium (although I didn’t know that is what it was at the time). We were put in barracks adjoining it and made to lie on the floor. A few kind people brought us soup and coffee. Those memories still haunt me to this day.
For three days, we laid in this filth, in this death. Then, liberation came. When we walked out and met the American GI’s who were liberating us, they looked like gods. Those who didn’t have the energy to stand dragged themselves. We were free, kissing the boots of our saviors. We couldn’t believe we were being liberated.
As we were about to revisit Dachau as a group (liberators, survivors, and the History Channel Film Crew) there was a solemn silence. Almost fear to speak aloud. But something came over me and I wanted to start singing. We exited the bus and reentered the Dachau grounds hand-in-hand singing “Hatikvah” or “The Hope,” which is the National Anthem of Israel.
We exited the bus and reentered the Dachau grounds hand-in-hand singing “Hatikvah” or “The Hope,” which is the National Anthem of Israel.
The grounds didn’t look like anything I remembered. It was lush with green fields of trees, grass and flowers. I couldn’t even find the train tracks initially. But, it only took a moment for the memories to return.
While I could write an entire book on the people who liberated us, I know the story of those who saved us (and the survivors), and now you can to with this documented film.
The following night The History Channel held a press screening for the documentary at Amerika Haus, although pieces still needed to be included. Packed with dignitaries and press, we were briefed on what to expect, and then we viewed the film.
Watching the story on the big screen and knowing the world would soon hear the moments which changed my life — and so many others – left me with no words to describe what I felt.
It was incredibly emotional for me. This story — the story of those who liberated prisoners in Dachau, and those who survived — it will live forever now. It is a powerful thing to know. I have made it my mission in life to ensure we don’t forget what happened and now, the world will see this documentary. After we are gone, our stories will continue to be told, and there is nothing I wish for more.
The first moment I saw myself on the screen, talking and telling my story, is one I will never forget. It was an overwhelming feeling. In that moment, I realized my survival, and the survival of the others, our lives, had meaning. There is a permanence to these stories and other people will benefit by what they see and what happened to us.
People ask me often how I feel about surviving when others did not. My response is always the same: Maybe G-d needed a witness. I don’t know why I survived, but the fact that I am able to speak and lecture about it, whereas many other survivors cannot because it hurts too much, is a blessing. Yes, I have sleepless nights, but someone has to continue to tell the stories, and I am grateful I can do it.
Being a part of this documentary means a lot to me, and perhaps it will make people think before they start to do something they shouldn’t. Before hatred can take hold. I believe we can realize we are all a part of humanity and must get along. I am an example. Living proof that life is beautiful and you have to appreciate life.
“The Liberators” debuted in Europe this last July.
An airdate for the USA will be announced soon.
About “The Liberators”:
“I did not even know what the word ‘concentration camp’ meant. I do now.” – On 29 April 1945, U.S.-American troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany. To mark the 70th anniversary of the event, former prisoners and U.S. soldiers speak about their experiences in the German HISTORY production “Die Befreier” (The Liberators – Why We Fought). The original order issued to the units on the ground was to destroy an assumed ammunition and fuel storage site and then move on from there. But what the U.S. soldiers discovered was beyond any imagination – a train full of corpses, and a camp with 32,000 prisoners inside, all of them on the verge of death. In the HISTORY documentary entitled “Die Befreier” (The Liberators – Why we fought), U.S. veterans and former inmates speak about the war-time experiences that changed, and continue to shape, their lives. Filmmaker Emanuel Rotstein, who has authored the documentary and is Director of Production at the German-language pay-tv channel HISTORY, has recruited these contemporary witnesses, some of whom appear in front of a tv camera for the first time ever. In addition to the exclusive interviews, the documentary features previously unseen colour footage of events 70 years ago. More information on http://www.history.de/befreier