I didn’t experience the comfort of a chair or table for more than 6 months, until the war in Europe ended for us in Innsbruck, Austria. It was also the first time in more than half a year that I slept in a real bed, in a house that we commandeered from a Nazi Austrian family.
I recall a memorable incident when our unit had reached the outskirts of Munich, Germany. We didn’t know what day of the week it was, or what day of the month, but the snow was no longer on the ground, and the weather was turning mild so it must have been time for Pesach. I asked our commanding officer if we could get a place so I could round up a few GI’s and have a “seder.” We found the basement of a bombed out school; it was pitch black so we used a couple flashlights for light. Naturally we had no wine, no matzos, and no Haggadas. As I was finishing the Mah Nishtana someone called out from the darkness, “Arthur is that you?” It was a cousin of mine, Hy Federman who was with a medical unit passing through. He had heard there was going to be a seder, so he came.
Hashem truly opened the door to all the needy Jewish soldiers for their own special redemption from their personal hell.
Did you encounter any religious persecution in the Army?
In the States we encountered some anti-semitism, but once we got into combat (I was in the 103rd Infantry Division) there was no hint of it. We all depended on each other. There were no thoughts of anti-semitism when our only thoughts were avoiding being torn to pieces by the German artillery, or their Stuka dive bombers or their tanks, infantry or mine fields. We were also too occupied with trying to kill as many of the Nazis as possible, in return.
What was it like liberating Dachau?
Dachau was made up of six death camps. We liberated the Kaufering camp just outside of Landsberg. I can’t begin to describe the horror of that camp. It is impossible for the Germans to say they were ignorant of what was happening there. We could smell the stench of the rotting victims at least 5 miles before we got to the camp. We saw hundreds of naked bodies piled one on top of another. The smell and the sight were so overwhelming, there was not one of us, tough battle hardened soldiers, who didn’t vomit our guts out and cry like babies.
Naturally, all the SS and Gestapo guards ran away before we got there. The German civilians from the surrounding area were brought to the camp so they could be shown the horror that they claimed they knew nothing about. They were made to pick up the skeleton bodies for a decent burial. We found a few survivors, some wandering aimlessly about, some too weak to stand or walk, crawling along the filthy ground. In the huts we found a few more who didn’t have the strength to move or get up. No one who had not been in any of the death camps when they were in operation, or during liberation, can possibly know or feel the enormous catastrophe. The smell of death and decay and the sight of the wretched remnants of the camp could never be adequately portrayed in a movie, a book or in photos.
What was life like after the war?
By the time I returned home I was already married. I returned to City College (I had started there in 1939, left temporarily to fight in a war) and eventually ended up being a CPA.
Do you harbor any ill feelings toward Germany today?
We are taught to forgive and forget. After having seen Dachau in operation, I will never forgive or forget. It is true that Germany has paid compensation in the form of reparations to some of the survivors, but no money in the world could ever compensate for the horrible crimes they committed. I blame not only the Nazi government but the German people who were complicit. The Nazis and the German people will always be a bloody stain on this good earth.Ita Yankovich
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