“A World War II veteran dies every four minutes,” said Stockton University Professor Douglas Cervi to a small group of patrons of the Atlantic County Library in Mays Landing.
His talk, a day before Veteran’s Day, focused on Allied soldiers who liberated Nazi concentration camps. The talk, “Always Remember, Never Forget,” was part of the library’s fall series, “Pathways to History: Remembering Rescue and Resistance During World War II,” which ended this month.
Tragically, many World War II veterans will carry to their graves untold stories about their role in liberating prisoners of Nazi concentration camps and death camps—stories that the world needs to know and to never forget. That is in part because the World War II veterans “typically did not talk about their experiences,” and partly because what these veterans saw and experienced when liberating the camps was so horrible it was beyond words.
According to Cervi, government officials in Washington did not believe American military leaders who reported back to them about what took place in the Nazi concentration camps. In response, some
U.S. commanders chose to take as many troops as possible into the camps, so that they could bear witness to the atrocity and back up the commanders’ stories.
A portion of the documentary film “The Last Days,” by
Steven Spielberg, which included first-hand accounts of veterans who liberated
Dachau, was shown at
Cervi’s talk. Veterans appearing in the film spoke of the horror they saw and the unforgettable smell of burnt human remains that pervaded the camp, which had a crematorium rather than gas chambers.
One veteran vividly recalled his first impression of seeing the camp’s prisoners. “They looked like walking skeletons,” he recalled. “More and more kept coming” as they realized that the soldiers entering the camp were there to free them. Another veteran described the concentration camp as “the worst sight I saw in my life….To this day I cannot forget it.”
One of the liberators, who is now a clergyman, said that one survivor he’d liberated had left him a gift upon that survivor’s death: a menorah made of welded nails, which the survivor had made himself. The clergyman said he treasured this gift.
Cervi, who has taught classes on the Holocaust and genocide at Stockton for the past four years, is a former history teacher for Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing. Cervi himself also attended Oakcrest High School while growing up, along with many children of Holocaust survivors who owned local chicken farms. Yet he said he had never heard anyone mention the Holocaust until his senior year of college, when a professor showed a film about it.
When Cervi, a history major, asked his professor what the Holocaust was, the professor incredulously asked the class if anyone else, like Cervi, had never heard of it. As it turned out, only one of the 25 students in the class had heard of it—because he was Jewish. After class, Cervi went to dinner with the Jewish student and asked him questions for hours on end about the Holocaust. “That’s how I got involved in all of this,” explained Cervi, who said he ended up studying the Holocaust for the next 45 years.
The Atlantic County Library System lecture series on World War II was presented in cooperation with Stockton’s Sara and Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center.