Fifty-five years ago on April 11, Harry Feinberg, then a 25-year-old American GI, woke up prepared to continue wearing down a war-torn Germany. On that same day, Mike Gerstner, then a 19-year-old prisoner in a Nazi labor camp, woke up prepared to do nothing but survive. At the time, Feinberg didn't know he would play hero, and Gerstner was unaware that his six years of hell would end in a matter of hours.
This week at the Holocaust Museum Houston, Gerstner and Feinberg will meet for the first time.
By 1945, the Fourth Armored Division had already been labeled the best in its class leading the attack into Germany. It had won battles across Europe and rescued the 101st Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge. As soldiers, they were accustomed to seeing life stolen away in seconds. But as the first American combat unit to see a concentration camp up close, nothing -- even the discovery a week earlier of a mostly deserted Nazi slave camp -- could have prepared the thousand or so men for what they saw as they stormed into Buchenwald.
"It was a big surprise to us. We had no idea of what a concentration camp was; we came upon it accidentally. When we did crash through the gates, we saw dead bodies in the courtyard, a big pit with logs of wood placed in it so the Germans could bulldoze the bodies and burn them. It was disgusting and horrible. If I remember correctly, some of the soldiers started crying looking at the inhuman animal instincts that the Nazis had. We saw death every day as soldiers, and this was the worst thing any of us ever saw," Feinberg explains.
When the Nazis disguised themselves as regular people and broke camp, Gerstner knew the war was coming to a close. For half a dozen years he had suffered at the hands of the Nazi troops, which worked him down to a 70-pound skeleton. During a three-week trek from one camp to the next, with only snow and chicken feed (which he stole from villages along the way) to eat, his feet froze. Upon his arrival at Buchenwald, Gerstner's big and pinkie toes on his right foot were amputated.
On the day the gates to Buchenwald came crashing down, he was more eager than surprised. Using what little English he knew, he met the GIs and tried to thank the soldiers as they handed out anything they had to offer. "I was one of the fortunate ones, and I could barely walk," Gerstner says. "They were very good to us. They gave us everything they had -- cigarettes, food, anything -- and there was nothing but tears in their eyes."
A recent visit to Gotha, Germany, where Buchenwald was located, taught Feinberg that as a young man he was fighting against not the Germans but the Nazis. There, the townspeople personally thanked him for liberating their ancestors from the second-oldest concentration camp in Germany.
And this week Gerstner will have his turn to thank his liberator. "They were good to us," Gerstner says. "They are my heroes."