What was it like when you were liberated? Did you know anyone?
No, well I knew some people but during the last night, like I said earlier, they bombed the camp terribly. It was packed with people, there were so many people they couldn't sleep in the barracks anymore, but they brought them all in there and then they started bombing the camp. And then, of course, the Americans opened the gate and we had to scream at them. "Don't touch the wires!" They had no idea because they didn't know the camp was there, they found it by accident we were told later. And they had to bring the Corps of Engineers to take the electricity off those wires. Then they found that there was typhoid in the camps, so now they said, "Wait a minute, you guys can't get out of this camp," because they had to close the camp up again, the Americans had to, because they didn't want the American soldiers to be infected with typhoid, it would have been devastating. So they closed the camp again.
And one day, after about a week or two, five of us, we get out, we conned one of the soldiers into letting us out because we could work. We got out and went to the next town, the town of Dachau, Dachau is a town. We went to the first house we saw, which was a nice home, we needed food and clothing. We looked like hell, and we were hungry and more so. This German wouldn't open the door, so one of the guys just took his foot and opened the door. So we got inside and we took what we needed, it was food and some clothing. There were women in the camp in the next door, we found about forty women who were almost dead, and we brought things for them, clothing especially and food, we took whatever there was in the house. And one of the guys says, "I'm going kill the SOB, he wouldn't let us in," he got so mad.
And the reason I tell you this, is because I take deep pride that none of the prisoners, none of the survivors–and I have checked it out, numerous numerous occasions–ever killed a German who was a civilian next to the camps. And people said, "Why didn't you kill them? You must have been mad." Yeah we were mad, we were angry, we were worse than that, but we weren't murderers. So we never killed a German living near the camps, even they knew it. We knew they knew it because they couldn't help but knowing what was going on in there. But I take deep pride in all my friends, and I know a lot of them because of the positions I have taken in the survivor community, we all agreed to it, in all the different parts of Europe where the camps were, no civilian living near the camps or in the area, were ever killed by inmates of those camps. And the reason is simple, we weren't murderers, we had seen enough murderers, and we didn't want to be like them. I take deep, deep pride in that, there is part of when were liberated how we felt. Were we mad? Damn right. Were we angry? Yeah, all of that. We didn't kill anybody. German guards yes, we killed all we could find the German guards who had done it to us, but not German civilians.
Do you have any stories of any contact with the guards throughout any of the camps you were in?
No, except at the tail end of the war, it had to be about maybe February, March of '45, one of the guards – by now you knew their faces, and they knew your faces, you got to work with them every day when they were standing around with their weapons and their dogs – he said to me – because I could speak German, there weren't many who could speak German, because we had mostly at that point Hungarians there – he said, "You speak German, I hear," because I was talking to someone. And he said, "You know, I'm from Munich," which is out near Dachau. He says, "Why don't you escape? I'll let you go. I'll give you the address of my house, and I'll tell my wife that you're coming." He said that to me. Well I didn't trust him because they used to trick you all the time, used to throw a cigarette butt, so you went there, you know, some guys did, to pick up a cigarette and the minute you did, you stepped over the line, and then they shot you. We didn't trust any of those guards. So he says, "Go there." I don't know what happened to the guard. I know that I didn't want to go and listen to what he said because he could have shot me. If I said "yes," then he could have, you know – we didn't trust them, we were scared to death. That's the only German that I ever had any discussion with, and it lasted maybe two minutes. You were scared, couldn't trust him.
What did you do the first day you were liberated?
I can tell you that. We were liberated by the American army. We were in the side camp of Dachau, but then when the American army was breaking through from the west, they took us back to the main camp, which was Dachau Allach – which was just immediately across the street – another camp. It was early, very early in the morning, and all of a sudden we saw tanks going over the hill. We knew there was something going on because the Germans started bombing the camp. There were aircraft batteries – they were there to shoot at airplanes, because they were bombing – the Americans and the British were bombing the German positions. We saw those tanks come in, and we didn't know what we were seeing. They were killing hundreds and hundreds of people in that one last night when they bombed the camp, the Germans. They used huge cannons to shoot these planes out of the sky, and instead of having them go this way, they went straight into the camp – killed a lot of people.
Then all of a sudden the Americans came with the tanks. We had to scream at them, "Don't touch the wires!" because the wires were all high voltage – 2000 volts of electricity. Then they had to bring in the Corps of Engineers to take the electricity off those wires. Then they opened up. I got out with about five or six of us immediately and we took over a German barracks and we killed a bunch of Germans – the SS, the guards. I could walk at that time, not all could. We then were told we had to get back in the camp because the American army knew there was a typhoid epidemic and other diseases at that point. They closed the camp up again, but they gave us food. They were very good.
Then we broke out of the camp, about five or six of us went to the next town of Dachau trying to get some food and some clothing. People were dying like flies. There was no food, for ten days we hadn't had any food. We went into some of the homes, the German homes, and took what we could get. We took it back to the camp. Then the Dutch government came after a week or so and they took us back to Holland. There was some communication – I don't know where it came – I think it was from the American army.
The American army. The first thing I remember, a soldier gave me a cigarette – I remember that vividly – he gave me a cigarette, I know, because they knew we hadn't had any cigarettes. I took a cigarette. I was a kid when I got in but I used to steal a cigarette sometimes from my uncle and my father. Boys – you know how you do that. I smoked the cigarette, and I fainted. I didn't realize that I shouldn't have smoked at that point because I was too weak and I fainted.
We got food very, very fast. The American soldiers were terrific. They were so angry when they saw a German, they killed him immediately because they saw what they had done to us. The soldiers were great. That's why I joined during the Korean War, I volunteered for the Korean War to thank the American army. I gave them two years of my life, which was a good investment for me. I wanted to do it, and I did. I went in as a Private, I came out as a Sergeant. I still have quite a few good friends from those days, 1953. The army, they were angry, the American soldiers, very angry at what they saw.
Have you kept in contact with your liberators?
No. Except some twenty years ago – no, it's not, it's ten years ago, pardon me – when we opened the museum in Washington – some of you may have seen it, the Holocaust Museum, I was the vice-chairman of it – we invited some people who had liberated the camps. There was one man – the staff found him first, he lives in New Mexico – we've become friends. He talked me into it. He knew where I'd been, and we started talking. He's older than I am, of course. We still correspond or call each other once a month. He taught me that the Rainbow Division of the army was the liberating unit of the camps in that area. Whenever they have their annual convention – that Rainbow Division – I go to the convention. I didn't go this last year, because I just couldn't, it didn't work out for me. But I've been to several of their conventions. They're all getting older, of course, they're people in their 80's. I became an honorary member of the Rainbow Division because I went to their conventions. It's a great bunch of guys. That's the only contact I have with that. That's the only man I knew. I know some others but this man, [name], he and his wife, we are in touch with each other. His son visits me, he travels, whenever he's in San Francisco we have dinner together.
What were the first things you wanted to do when you were liberated?
I wanted to find my parents. I didn't. I thought, "Maybe, maybe there was a miracle." Actually, I saw them being marched into the gas chambers – and my sister – they came after I was in Auschwitz. But you still have that hope, you know, because I never saw their bodies, their dead bodies. I went back to that hometown I was born but they weren't there.
Then what happened, I was busy, the mayor of the town gave me a job in city hall. I had no education, I went through five grades – the first five grades. He gave me a job and before long, about three-four weeks after I had come back, the police chief comes over – there were a couple of policemen in that town – and he said, "Come on. I got to show you something." He told me to go to uptown and there was a Red Cross van, and he says, "Go inside." Who was in the van? My grandmother! They had taken her from Holland all the way to Czechoslovakia to Terezinstadt – you may have heard – all over Europe, all across Europe. She was there because they kept people there when they had too many people in Auschwitz they couldn't handle the killings, they kept them there for awhile. My grandmother survived that. She went to Czechoslovakia in 1942-43 about.
Now I had my grandmother to mind. I was living with our neighbors, we had wonderful neighbors, they took me in right away. But I had no place to put my grandmother. She was 86 years old. I said to my grandmother, I said, "How was it?" She says, "How was it? Have you ever been on a plane that goes like this?" That's the only thing she remembered at that moment, that she was brought back on a small plane, some Red Cross or whatever – and I'm not an admirer of the Red Cross, I'm not selling Red Cross because they didn't do anything for us – she was coming back on a Red Cross plane and they brought her to the town. She had lived with us. She only remembered that, the first thing when I asked her how was it, about the turbulence on the plane. Then, of course, later she told me about the camp, etc. She lived another ten years. She died at age 96. Never been sick in her life. That's good genes, apparently. That's all she remembered that first day when she came back. Then the neighbors helped me, and they took her also in. Then we got a house, finally, somebody wouldn't come back and the city gave us a house to live in.