Those of us who recall viewing Band of Brothers, the classic HBO film that recreated the final days of World War II, will remember the harrowing depiction in the final episode, when American soldiers discovered the concentration camps and “liberated” the remaining victims of the Nazi genocidal ideology. This film comes to mind because of The Liberators by Michael Hirsh who, through his interviews with veteran G.I.s of World War II, now in their eighties and nineties, along with the British and Canadians, entered the German and Austrian concentration camps and liberated the prisoners who had been consigned to death.
As American soldiers entered camps such as Dachau, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen (the Soviets liberated Auschwitz), they were shocked by what they encountered: masses of dead bodies stacked like cordwood, skeletonlike survivors, diseased inmates, and other horrible examples of Nazi cruelty. As Hirsh, a Vietnam combat veteran and the author of the bestseller Terri: The Truth, informs us, the G.I.s received no warning as to what they might find, but that might not have mattered for, as one of the veterans told the author, “what if we had? How do you prepare to see that?” Hirsh discloses that many of the liberators suffered from what we now call posttraumatic stress disorder and some still experience Holocaust-related nightmares.
What is often overlooked in the ongoing confrontation with Holocaust deniers is that among the witnesses to the Holocaust are not only the survivors, but also the Allied liberators who rescued Jews and other victims from certain death. When I wrote my own history of the Holocaust, I was asked by the publisher to supply photographs to include in the book. In my own community in Lancaster, PA, I was surprised to find a number of veterans who had been among the troops who liberated the camps and who were willing to provide photos of what they had witnessed, snapshots of the horror that they encountered. Hirsh’s book is an important contribution to this often ignored aspect of the Holocaust, the role of American soldiers as witnesses to the Shoah.