Seventy years ago on May 8, the Allied nations declared victory over Nazi Germany.
The German surrender ignited rapturous celebrations of the end to a long and devastating war, especially in the European countries that had been brutally occupied by the Nazis.
Europe’s nine million Jews suffered the most under the Nazis with a staggering six million – two-thirds of the prewar Jewish population – shot, gassed, or left barely alive in a web of concentration camps. Thousands of emaciated Jews still languished in those camps on V-E Day and had nowhere to go; their families and communities had been obliterated, their worlds destroyed. But as Jews they still retained hope.
My father, Kurt Lion, of blessed memory was 20 years old at the time and he remembered V-E Day as “bittersweet.”
“It was bitter because we lost so much; our families were gone, our homes were taken away. So many of our relatives were missing, we did not know where they were, if they were even alive. Your mind couldn’t be at ease; you could never stop thinking about them. But it was also sweet because the war was over and we were alive and we had hope for the future.”
My father had been born in southwest Germany near the French border, and he and the region’s 15,000 other Jews had been deported to internment camps in southern France. His father died amid the hard conditions and when the Nazis starting rounding up boys my father’s age for deadly work details, he escaped and later joined the French Resistance. He never saw his mother again.
While fighting in the Resistance some six months before V-E Day, my father’s unit, accompanying the U.S. army, had stumbled upon a makeshift satellite concentration camp set up in a meadow in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France.
“It was horrible,” he remembered. “There were mass graves and piles of rotting bodies stacked like cordwood.” My father paused, shook his head and added, “I knew then that my mother had gone like that.” It was only in the 1950s that my father learned of his mother’s fate – German war records revealed she had been transported from the Rivesaltes internment camp to Auschwitz where she was killed.
His last words to his mother in the camp had been a promise that he would survive the war, reunite with his two sisters who had immigrated to New York in the mid-1930s, and there they would have a new life. So all his energies were focused on that promise – to not only survive but to thrive.
As the war drew to a close, he was able to reconnect with his sisters through GI Mail. Their letters, now family treasures, provide a poignant insight into my father’s bittersweet feelings – his sadness at the loss of his parents and his hopeful eagerness to begin life anew with his family.
In many of these letters he practiced his English, thinking of the future and telling his sisters that he planned to reunite with them and begin a “normal life and all together like our Mama wished.”
In one post apparently written on a Friday afternoon, he daydreams about life before the Nazis, how he “remembered when we were all gathered around the family table especially on Friday nights.” In another he reassures his sisters that despite the horrors of the war he has witnessed, he is still their devoted brother. “My dear sisters, do you think because I have not seen you in 7 or 8 years that I won’t know you? Every night I dream of you both and my heart is always with you. And so I will be able to recognize you when we meet again.”