‘You’ve never seen anything like this’: WWII death camp liberators’ stories

Herbert Stern recounts his experience in helping liberate a Nazi death camp on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Herbert Stern recounts his experience in helping liberate a Nazi death camp on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas World War II veterans are being honored for the pivotal role they played in ending the horror of the Holocaust.

Hundreds of Texans took part in liberating Nazi death camps, and Thursday the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission is bringing many of them to the capitol to receive special recognition at an afternoon ceremony in the Senate chambers.

Families of at least 27 Texas liberators will be on hand, as well at least six of the liberators themselves, to receive medallions and meet with survivors of the death camps.

It comes as the THGC debuts a project, in conjunction with Texas Tech University, that collects stories and memories from 21 Texas liberators and organizes them into a book, an exhibit and an interactive app to communicate their experiences to future generations who might not hear the stories firsthand.

Sgt. Herbert Stern is one of the soldiers included in the Texas liberators project. Now 98 years old and living in a retirement community in northwest Austin, he’s spent years speaking to students and recounting his stories to all who will listen.

“It’s been a tremendous watershed in my life,” Stern told KXAN Wednesday. A member of the 9th Infantry, Stern and his unit were sent into the Harz mountains in northeast Germany in the spring of 1945, tasked with cleaning up the remnants of several Nazi SS divisions.

“We knew nothing about any concentration camps or slave labor camps there,” he said. After coming across a rail yard littered with parts of V-2 rockets, the unit came across the camp at Nordhausen, which included an underground missile factory.

“What we saw almost immediately was — outside of bombed-out long barracks — bodies,” Stern said. “I would say probably 300-400 of them, all in a row, laid out — skeletons.”

Another unit was there already helping to free prisoners, he said. “Our mission was really not to liberate that camp. We happened to come upon it and we did our share of helping.” The images inside the camp left their mark on the young soldier.

“You’ve never seen anything like this,” Stern said. “It just was a terrible thing to see.”

Herbert Stern recounts his experience in helping liberate a Nazi death camp on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Herbert Stern recounts his experience in helping liberate a Nazi death camp on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

It was made more terrible by what had come before. Stern was born in Berlin and escaped Germany in 1936, but not all of his family was so fortunate. His maternal grandmother and her husband were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941; both would die in the gas chambers there.

“There are a lot of people that I’ve encountered over the years who will not utter a word,” he said. “They are very withdrawn from it all.”

“It is something that is very hard to relive,” Fran Berg, a commissioner with the THGC said. Berg walked KXAN through the interactive app (you can find it here) the commission created with Stern’s and the other liberators’ stories. It takes users inside the liberation of Dachau, and incorporates video interviews with survivors and liberators. “It’s as if you are a soldier going into the Nazi concentration camp.”

Berg’s father, Lee Berg, was among those soldiers. “He was in Dachau, the day that they liberated,” she said. “He was a Jewish officer. He did not know what he was going to find.”

What he found and what he saw haunted the young man to the point that he wouldn’t talk about it with his family for a long time. “He did it one time on tape, and he has provided a legacy for us, his children, to carry on,” Berg said, tearing up.

It’s that legacy that the liberators project aims to preserve. “Many of them are gone,” Berg said, “and this is all that we have left of them.”

The commission hopes that same legacy will help future generations understand the atrocities people are capable of commiting; Berg wants to make sure we all learn the lessons of history. “We’re still encountering massive genocide all over the world in different ways,” she said. “It started with the Holocaust. How can we change this?”

It was hard at first for Stern to share his story, too. He was inspired by the same mission of ensuring the horrors he witnessed in Germany aren’t forgotten. That’s why he’s spoken to so many students about it.

“I thought to myself,” he said, “‘you know, I think the younger generations should really know a lot more about this.'”

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