Do you think the United States government knew more than what they told people?
From what I read and learned after the war, I am convinced that President Franklin Roosevelt knew about the concentration camps. It appeared he felt the Jews were not a priority and he did nothing to help. This was very disturbing and hurtful to me on a personal level because I, and everyone I knew, had always loved and admired F.D.R.
You told me that when you encountered survivors, you said “Ich been a Yid”? What was their reaction?
It was very weird because I didn’t really know how to speak Yiddish! My parents and grandparents always spoke English in my presence and that was second nature to me. I think what I said was actually German. I must have heard it before but I don’t know from where. When the survivors heard me they started to smile and give thanks. One elderly man was so emotional that he knelt down to the ground and started kissing my boots, which were covered with mud, feces and blood. This made me uncomfortable so I picked him up and as I did I saw these open festered sores all down his neck covered with lice. This and the stench from his body made me want to pull away, but I hugged him and he hugged me and we started to cry. It was very emotional and something I can never forget.
After the war ended, you remained in Europe until June 1946 as a member of the U.S. Army of Occupation. What was that like?
One of my tasks was to try to help survivors in the Displaced Person’s camp locate their family members. Most often the information we were able to obtain was not very good – that unfortunately some or all of their relatives had not survived. To have to give them this terrible news on top of what they had already experienced was extremely difficult. This was like hitting them on the head with a sledgehammer. Here these poor souls had survived the worse hell and horror humanly possible and now to inflict more pain on them – I found this to be very upsetting.
After the war ended, I also had the opportunity to attend the Nuremberg war crimes trials. To summarize, the hours of testimony that I heard at these trials about the treatment the inmates received from Dr. Mengele and the other Nazis were horrific; it curdles my blood. Simply put, it was mind-boggling bestiality.
Do you harbor any negative feelings towards the German people?
No I do not. I realize that many of my survivor friends, who lost their entire families feel otherwise. They hate Germans in general and will not purchase anything made in Germany. But I feel differently. As the saying goes, I do not believe that the sins of the father should be placed on their sons or daughters. I think we should try not to hate. In my judgment “hate begets hate.”
Has the experience of liberating a concentration camp made you resentful or doubt God?
It is very hard for me to properly answer that question. I really never felt a personal resentment towards G-d as a result of what happened during the Holocaust. But many of my survivor friends, who lost their entire families, have expressed to me their bitterness and resentment and ask how could G-d let something like the Holocaust happen and allow millions of men, women and children, to be murdered etc. I can certainly understand how they feel. My only answer is that G-d often acts in very strange ways that we have difficulty in understanding.
Many veterans suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome. What has been your experience?
They didn’t know about that during the World War II era. The term they used is “shell shock.” I am fairly certain that I had it. I remember having trouble sleeping right after the war ended. I had horrible nightmares and would wake up crying, shaking, sweating etc. As the years went by, thankfully the nightmares gradually dissipated. In this regard, I believe that finally going out and speaking to both students and adult groups about my experience in combat and as a liberator has been very helpful in keeping me in good health.Ita Yankovich
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