The 20-year-old Army sergeant and his company moved swiftly over the western part of Europe in the waning weeks of World War II. As the American Army moved east across Nazi Germany in a race against time, the Russians marched to the west, first liberating Poland and then Germany’s eastern border.
“It was a very forested area. We were moving along quietly with ammunition falling on us,” said infantryman Robert McHaney of Reno as he described the dense Bavarian woods. “We were told there was a prisoner of war camp in front of us and told not to call in artillery. Very carefully we started to move forward, and then we started to smell death.”
About a half-kilometer away, said McHaney, soldiers arrived at the gate of the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany northeast of Munich, the first one built by the Nazis for political prisoners. When his unit arrived, McHaney, who had also stormed Omaha beach at Normandy during the June 1944 D-Day invasion and weathered the winter during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, said a company arrived before them, trying to snap open the gate’s lock.
McHaney scanned the crowd of more than 800 people from one side to another, dressed in his olive-drab World War II uniform with a medal hanging from his neck and his garrison cap tilted to one side.
McHaney and four Holocaust survivors recalled the horrors of incarceration and the struggles the Jewish people encountered during World War II in a presentation of Holocaust Remembrance: Survivors & Liberators last Tuesday at Reno’s Atlantis Casino Resort Spa. More than 800 people attended the event sponsored by Honor Flight Nevada, the Osher Lifelong Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno and other organizations.
On that late April day in 1945, the American soldiers and the remaining men and women who had been held at Dauchu stared at each other through the wire fence.
“The prisoners were standing there with very hollow eyes,” the 93-year-old McHaney remembered with remarkable detail. “They wouldn’t come out and take a step toward freedom. Anyone wearing a uniform, they were terrified of us and wouldn’t come out.”
What McHaney, who spent 25 years in law enforcement with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and his comrades didn’t know was the horror many prisoners faced daily over the years. Many prisoners before their arrival were put to death, while others had witnessed their loved ones being killed at the hands of SS guards or soldiers.
Another man from the audience said his father, who was in the U.S. Army’s 45th Infantry Division, also liberated Dachau.
“He told me a few things, but did not say a lot,” said the middle-aged son.
After his father’s death, he discovered his father had won the Bronze and Silver stars and the Purple Heart.
“I am very proud of my dad,”the man said.
Not all the help for the concentration camp survivors came from boots on the ground. One lady said her father flew B-17 bombers and was a captain … at the age of 19.
“He was on three bombing missions and after that, they were doing food drops,” she said.
For the survivors, four stories of heroism and survival … four people eventually coming to the United States to restart their lives … four speakers keeping the audience focused on their riveting stories … they all were eyewitnesses to the atrocities and the darker side of mankind. McHaney said he was astounded of man’s inhumanity toward each other with their stories.
“All the bravery weren’t wearing uniforms. I thought how brave they were in the camp,” McHaney said.
A GERMAN ROUNDUP
Born in the former country of Czechoslovakia in 1928, Esther Basch was the only child of Rabbi Moises and Fanny Roth. In 1944, the Germans entered their town and within several months, Basch said the Germans forced her family, along with others in the town, to move into a four-block section of the village, a restricted area to segregate the Jews. They stayed in the ghetto for more than a month.
“I was rounded up in my hometown and they took all the Jewish people to the ghetto. We had no idea where we were going,” she said. “After six weeks, they (German soldiers) put us in boxcars, and we wound up at Auschwitz.”
Separated by the guards, Basch headed toward the barracks with her mother, while her father went into a different direction, a fact she remembers vividly. The guard forcibly separated her 50-year-old mother from her. Basch never saw her parents again.
“My mom and dad went straight to the crematorium,” she said, her voice strong but then slightly faltering.
Basch paused in the large conference room, silenced by her testimony from more than 70 years ago. Basch worked in one ammunition factory for more than nine months, but as the allies moved closer in April 1945, the guards took the prisoners and transferred them to another ammunition factory, Salzwedel, located deep in Germany.
“The Americans were nearing the first ammunition factory, and we were taken on a death march,” she said, adding the prisoners walked about 100 miles in four or five days.
At their “new” factory, the Germans locked the prisoners in for two weeks, but the temporary tranquility of war shattered when the Basch and the other workers heard in the distance the noise of an advancing army, the 84th Infantry Division. After three days, allies liberated them.
“The German locked us in … until the Americans came and soldiers slammed open the door and said ‘you’re free,’” Basch said.
Once liberated near the end of the war, Basch met a man at the Displaced Person camp, and they later married, coming to the United States via Israel. In 2007, her daughter contacted one of the soldiers who liberated their camp. Max Lieber, an 89-year-old New Mexican, traveled to Phoenix to see Basch and her husband. As Basch explained it to the audience, her daughter told Lieber if it weren’t for the American soldiers, her family would not be here today. Sadly, Lieber died five years ago.
“I will never forget the Americans as long as I live,” Basch said.
ROUGH LIFE IN THE CAMPS
While the Americans liberated Basch, the Russian army freed Shirley Weiss, a 14-year-old Czechoslovakian girl who was taken to Auschwitz in 1944 and later transferred to a labor camp near Terezin. She also lost her mother and four siblings to the hands of the Germans.
“My first work was at a bomb factory, but we kept moving because the Russians were coming from the east and the Americans from the west,” she said.
Weiss said since she was a young teenager, the Russians left her alone, but she was horrified the soldiers raped some of the older girls.
“It was very rough. Finally, the Czech army came and told the Russians not to get near us because of typhus,” Weiss said.
When liberated, many prisoners were very ill. By her own accounts, Weiss said she was also sick and weighed between 50-60 pounds. Weiss, though, considered herself very lucky. She said a Czech soldier asked the people if they were Czech citizens, and if so, raise their hands.
“An ambulance with two nuns picked me up and took me to the hospital,” Weiss said, recalling she had broken out in hives. “When I woke up in the hospital, I said there is a God, still good people who cared.”
After she left the hospital, the nuns protected Weiss and moved her to an orphanage. Weiss discovered one of her sisters was still living and they began to write to each other. The nuns paid for Weiss to travel to Canada when she was older, and after a four-week wait, she was able to enter the Untied States in 1948.
“I married an American soldier, and he told me I wouldn’t have to suffer again,” she said, adding her husband died in 2000. “I miss him so much. He was my life.”
KEEPS HOLOCAUST ALIVE
Albert Garih (pronounced Gary), a young Jewish boy from Paris during the war, keeps his Holocaust memory alive each and every day. Not only did he survive World War II but he also volunteers at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. to help visitors understand one of the most tragic events that murdered millions of people.
Three years to the day of Reno’s remembrance, Garih approached an Honor Flight Nevada group of World War II veterans who had assembled for a group photo at the United States Naval Academy. Garih ran across the street, shouting his thanks to the veterans for saving his life when he was a young boy. He spent time talking with the veterans before they continued with their tour.
“I was in hiding most of the time starting in 1943 in Paris after my father had been sent to a camp in the Channel Islands,” he said. “I was 5 years old at this time, and we (his mother Claire and his siblings) were hiding in different places.”
Garih said his mother met a lady in a street market, and she was terrified knowing soldiers could take them away. A family housed the Garihs for six months until the patriarch of the family told the Garihs they needed to return to their home to be safer.
“Weeks later, we were visited by two French police inspectors, and they talked to my mother. They told my mother she needed to go in hiding again. Social workers found a place for every one of us.”
Garih was placed in a Catholic boys boarding school, while his sisters went to a Catholic girls boarding school. Not too long afterward, the advancing American Army loosened the Germans’ grasp on France and particularly Paris during late June 1944.
“I was in the boarding school when the allies were coming … the jeeps … the tanks … the Americans,” said Garih, who was 6 years old. “They (the soldiers) gave us chocolate and chewing gum. I will still remember the day for the rest of my life. It was a wonderful experience.”
In 1967, Garih married Marcelle Ohayon with whom he has three daughters and 10 grandchildren.
GRATEFUL TO BE ALIVE
Hungarian Stephen Nasser moved to the United States in 1958 and eventually relocated to Las Vegas, where he lives today with his wife.
Now 86 years old, Nasser, though, gave a terrifying account of his liberation, which he called a false alarm when he was aboard a train.
“We stopped at a small station, and the station master said everyone is free. The people near the door opened the jammed boxcar and got out,” Nasser remembered. “I was left alone in the boxcar … and said to myself, ‘We’re free.’ We did not realize the Nazis still occupied that small village. They came out shooting. The people who left the boxcar tried to get back to the boxcar. They trampled over my body. “
The Germans killed 64 people who were fleeing bullets and returning to the boxcar, said Nasser; meanwhile, German planes strafed both the train and depot. Six days later Nasser woke up in a German-American hospital.
“I couldn’t believe I was alive,” he said, still showing disbelief with his luck. “I never thought I would survive. I was 72 pounds.”
McHaney would have considered Nasser among the lucky ones based on his account of survival.
“We came to a boxcar with bloated bodies on top of each other. Their fingernails had been ripped off,” McHaney recalled when his company was on patrol. “Inside we could see where they (the prisoners) had scratched and scratched and scratched inside to get out. They were trying to get the door open. Once again, we got the smell of death.”
Nasser, though, strongly remembers Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army liberated him along with scores of other prisoners, a day in his life for which he is continually grateful, yet sad considering his family’s fate Nasser said he was the only person in his family of 21 who survived. His brother died in his arms, and he was an eyewitness to the death of his uncle’s wife and son. Three years after the war Nasser moved to Canada as an orphan — sponsored by the Canadian Jewish Congress — and then he relocated to the United States in 1958.
Nasser co-wrote a play about his experiences, “Not Yet, Pista” that had a recent three-day run in Las Vegas. He said one critic called it one of the most powerful plays he experienced. Nasser also keeps the holocaust alive with his numerous speeches to schools both in the United States and abroad. His first lecture was at a school in Pahrump, a small community 64 miles west of Las Vegas.
“I just finished my 1,065 lecture,” Nasser said, drawing a thunderous round of applause at the Reno remembrance. “I talk to students. I don’t use a script but talk from my heart.”
The four speakers said it’s important for people to remember the Holocaust so it doesn’t happen again; however, each one showed their anguish with the crisis in Syria and how the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gassed its own people in early April.
In looking back at her experiences and looking ahead, Weiss said she is proud of her Jewish faith, a common sentiment expressed by the other three survivors.
“I was born a Jew, and I will die a Jew,” Nasser asserted. “I am just as good as any other human being. We should be respectful of each other.”