We've learned about the Holocaust through photographs, archival footage, Hollywood cinema and oral histories. But one story rarely told is that life-changing moment when soldiers walked through the gates to free the Jews, homosexuals, Roma gypsies and others held prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
Now, in a new exhibit at Holocaust Museum Houston, based on a State of Texas mandate (SB 482) to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to students, and brought to fruition by faculty and students at Texas Tech University, we'll discover how it felt for those young soldiers on the day those prisoners were freed.
"The Texas Liberator: Witness to the Holocaust" focuses on men who were either born in Texas or lived here, and who were present at a Nazi camp during the first three days of the camps' liberation, or who cared for survivors or even assisted with the removal of bodies.
Four Houstonians are included in the exhibit: Johnnie Marino, A.I. Schepps, Birney T. "Chick" Havey and Ben Love. The testimonies of the latter two also are featured in the companion book, The Texas Liberators: Veteran Narratives From World War II, published by Texas Tech University Press.
Havey, who is the only Houston liberator featured in the book who is still alive today, remembers coming upon 300 railcars full of dead prisoners, all starved to death. In his interview with Stephen M. Sloan he wonders "how could human beings do that to human beings" and points out that the nearby villagers in Dachau had to have known what was happening. "A blind man would see what was going on."
Dr. Kelly J. Zúñiga, CEO, Holocaust Museum Houston, tells us that some of these oral histories will be available in the exhibit. "It’s really impressive because you’re hearing their stories firsthand and it's very, very meaningful from that perspective," says Dr. Zúñiga, adding that the HMH exhibit includes interactive aspects, military artifacts and literature.
"How it got started is really interesting. Pete Berkowitz at the time was the chair of the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission; he was responsible for the idea as a research project. He got Dr. [Aliza S.] Wong at Texas Tech to curate the exhibition; they utilized graduate students.
"[Berkowitz] traveled the state trying to find as many liberators as possible from archives. He thought it was really important that these people were honored; they had no idea there were so many people from Texas," says Zúñiga.
"When you hear someone like Chick, it changed his whole perspective on life. They were very, very young men — 18, 19 years old — witnessing this. Being in a situation that they weren't trained for, and the fact that they stumbled upon these concentration camps and knowing there was a humanitarian aspect," says Zúñiga.
"The lasting aspect is there is a lesson of what human beings can do to one another. So devastating and so horrific and that is the primary response that you hear is that you never forget the horror," she adds.
Houston Banker Ben Love died in 2006 but his story also has been preserved. In his testimony he recounts how shocking it was to see survivors at Mauthausen so emaciated they looked like skeletons, down to 65 pounds. In his interview he spoke about how he tried to convey his experiences to his children and grandchildren, but how it would be impossible to truly grasp the atrocities fully.
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"They were just — you just can't imagine how man, civilized man — and presumably the Germans were civilized — how they could have inflicted that cruelty here in this century on people who had never harmed them, innocent people." — Ben Love, in his interview with Lydia Osadechey and Ronnie Morgan, from the book The Texas Liberators
The exhibit also includes the stories of survivors from the camps who still remember the soldier that saved them. "It's a key point in their memory. They developed relationships, healing," says Zúñiga.
This exhibit was curated in collaboration with the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission. For more information about the Texas Liberators project, visit texasliberators.org.
"The Texas Liberator: Witness to the Holocaust" is scheduled for September 7-October 28, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, Holocaust Museum Houston, Morgan Family Center, 9220 Kirby, 713-942-8000, hmh.org, free to $12.