I cringed on Saturday when comedian Larry David, hosting “Saturday Night Live,” told a concentration camp joke. Those last three words are a phrase I never thought I’d type.
It will always be too soon for concentration camp jokes. Just as it will never be too late to honor those who liberated the camps.
That’s why I call your attention to a Thursday event at 1:30 p.m. in the Senate chamber in the state Capitol when the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission will honor Texas liberators of Nazi concentration camps.
So far, the commission has identified about 350 Texans who served in units that liberated the camps. Several are scheduled to be on hand Thursday, including Birney T. “Chick” Havey of Seabrook and Herb Stern of Austin, both of whom told their stories in 2012 to the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. Those oral histories were used to help create the Texas Liberators Project, a great effort put together at Texas Tech University as an educational tool for high school students.
Havey, now 95, grew up in St. Louis where his dad was a traveling salesman and his family did OK at a time when many families did not. As a kid, Havey cut lawns for a quarter.
“And that’s trim, too, with a hand trimmer and a hand push (mower),” he said in the oral history interview. “Or in the winter I shoveled snow and built fires for people.”
In 1942, Havey enlisted and sealed his place in the Greatest Generation. In November 1944, aboard a troop carrier captured from the Germans in World War I, he shipped out to France.
“It was crowded,” he recalled, “but we kind of enjoyed it. I didn’t get too sick and we enjoyed the ocean.”
He remembered big things, including frigid nights, and little things, like a brandy and 7-Up at a village saloon in France. And he remembers horrible things that cannot and should not be forgotten. Or joked about.
“The town of Dachau was a small country town,” he said of his first memory of the German city indelibly linked to the depths of human cruelty.
Some senses create stronger memories than others.
“Well,” Havey said when asked what he remembered, “the stink. It’s a stench. But that wasn’t from the gas ovens. Just human stench. Death stench.”
“There were 300 rail cars full of dead,” he said in the oral history, “and they all looked the same. They had striped suits on and they just died in there, starved to death.”
And what about the surviving prisoners?
“Well,” Havey said, “those that could walk, they were like walking skeletons. You can’t believe that a person can walk that thin. It’s just amazing.”
“There were four ovens that I recall. I guess if you put 10 bodies on a roller, four ovens, that’s 40,” he said. “And it took an hour to do it, to burn it. I try to think of how many — going 24 hours a day — how many people that could die, that’d burn in there. That’s a lot. They had a lot stacked, ready to go,” he said.
After the war, Havey returned to St. Louis and later moved to Galveston in 1986, opening a successful business. He later moved to nearby Seabrook, about 35 miles southeast of Houston on Trinity Bay. His war memories never faded.
“It always makes you wonder how could human beings do that to human beings,” Havey said. “But worse than killing is the deprivation that he inflicted upon those people by starving them to death. The misery over years and years and years. I haven’t ever come to grips with. … The privation that he inflicted, or they inflicted — not he, they. Because there were plenty of people to blame. Because you could, you know, a blind man would see what was going on.”
Herb Stern also has memories of liberating a camp. He’s a German-born Jew who came to the U.S. at age 16. He’s 98 now.
“Because, had I stayed there, the inevitable would have been, just as has happened to many of my family and close friends, that we would have ended up either in Auschwitz or somewhere else,” he said in the oral history, adding, “Almost everybody that I grew up with was gone.”
His mother committed suicide in Germany, a victim he said, of the notion that there “was no way out to anywhere to do anything.”
It was in mid-April 1945 that Stern was with U.S. troops who entered a concentration camp in Nordhausen, Germany.
“Here, the living and the dead were lying side by side,” he recalled. “The living were too emaciated to move their limbs. The dead were unburied or half-buried. SS troops had stacked bodies in ditches. The stench was unbelievable. Many of us threw up.
“We learned that one group, which could not walk, had been chained in the mountain tunnel for three months without seeing daylight. I also spotted a bank of very large ovens on the premises. There was no doubt that camp personnel burned the dead in these ovens. On the grates, you could see bones.”
None of this is news. Despite the twisted evil nonsense of Holocaust deniers, the world knows what happened. We’ve heard this all before. It’s important to hear it again to remind us the proper time for jokes about it will never come.
Searingly painful though it always is, it’s necessary that we hear it to keep alive the memory of those who perished and to honor the liberators whose lives were forever changed by what they saw.
A grateful nation thanks these liberators for what they did. So does a grateful human race.