America's Witnesses to the Holocaust
By Michael Hirsh
(Bantam, Hardcover, 9780553807561, 384pp.)
Publication Date: March 16, 2010
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At last, the everyday fighting men who were the first Americans to know the full and horrifying truth about the Holocaust share their astonishing stories. Rich with powerful never-before-published details from the author’s interviews with more than 150 U.S. soldiers who liberated the Nazi death camps, The Liberators is an essential addition to the literature of World War II—and a stirring testament to Allied courage in the face of inconceivable atrocities.
Taking us from the beginnings of the liberators’ final march across Germany to V-E Day and beyond, Michael Hirsh allows us to walk in their footsteps, experiencing the journey as they themselves experienced it. But this book is more than just an in-depth account of the liberation. It reveals how profoundly these young men were affected by what they saw—the unbelievable horror and pathos they felt upon seeing “stacks of bodies like cordwood” and “skeletonlike survivors” in camp after camp. That life-altering experience has stayed with them to this very day. It’s been well over half a century since the end of World War II, and they still haven’t forgotten what the camps looked like, how they smelled, what the inmates looked like, and how it made them feel. Many of the liberators suffer from what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder and still experience Holocaust-related nightmares.
Here we meet the brave souls who—now in their eighties and nineties—have chosen at last to share their stories. Corporal Forrest Robinson saw masses of dead bodies at Nordhausen and was so horrified that he lost his memory for the next two weeks. Melvin Waters, a 4-F volunteer civilian ambulance driver, recalls that a woman at Bergen-Belsen “fought us like a cat because she thought we were taking her to the crematory.” Private Don Timmer used his high school German to interpret for General Dwight Eisenhower during the supreme Allied commander’s visit to Ohrdruf, the first camp liberated by the Americans. And Phyllis Lamont Law, an army nurse at Mauthausen-Gusen, recalls the shock and, ultimately, “the hope” that “you can save a few.”
From Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany to Mauthausen in Austria, The Liberators offers readers an intense and unforgettable look at the Nazi death machine through the eyes of the men and women who were our country’s witnesses to the Holocaust. The liberators’ recollections are historically important, vivid, riveting, heartbreaking, and, on rare occasions, joyous and uplifting. This book is their opportunity, perhaps for the last time, to tell the world.
Michael Hirsh is a Vietnam combat veteran and the author of three previous military books, as well as the co-author (with Michael Schiavo) of the New York Times bestseller Terri: The Truth. During a forty-year career in broadcasting, he produced documentaries and specials for PBS, CBS, ABC, and HBO, receiving multiple awards, including the Peabody.
"These eyewitness accounts are powerful, detailed and horrifying. Of particular note is the last chapter, in which some of the veterans record what happened to them after the war; decades later, many still struggled with nightmares and rage." –USA Today
"The survivors of Nazi concentration camps can never forget – and, as Michael Hirsh shows in his spellbinding work, neither can the young soldiers who liberated them." –The New York Post
"Never forget is the message that these vets and survivors carry to schools, churches, and synagogues, and other places…Hirsh’s The Liberators helps [them] carry on that important work." –Philadelphia Inquirer
"Hirsh should be commended for the diversity of his interview subjects, which include former GI and Ohrdruf liberator Charles T. Payne, President Obama’s great-uncle, who gained fame during the 2008 presidential campaign. . . . A worthy tribute to these soldiers and a valuable historical document. A necessary history."
"A fine and necessary addition to the lexicon of Holocaust literature…A powerful and emotional telling of the trials these soldiers faced."
"Hundreds of often chilling, heartbreaking but ultimately exalting stories of ordinary soldiers from all across the country who banded together to not only defeat a great military threat to the entire world, but to battle for something even deeper – the very soul of humanity…an intimate look at the common men who had come from farms and factories, cities and small towns, to places such as Dachau."
–The Chattanooga Pulse
"The victory over Nazism is given a first class presentation by noted military historian, Michael Hirsh, himself a veteran of US military service in Vietnam. In…The Liberators, Hirsh gives full vent to the searing experiences that our young and untutored American troops faced at the liberation of Buchenwald and numerous other Nazi slave labor camps in Germany during the closing days of the war. In a heart-rending series of biographical sketches and interviews with many of those GIs, the author graphically details the human and emotional trauma that many of them experienced and the horrific emotional and even spiritual toll this took on "our boys.""
–The Jewish Star
"Hirsh allows us to see the terrible atrocities through the then young eyes of the Americans who rescued the survivors and buried the many dead, memories that remained vividly compelling years after the historical Allied liberation of Europe from Nazi control. By telling these dramatic untold stories of the first young American soldiers to discover Hitler’s death camps, [he] has written a must-have addition to any library on the Holocaust, and another ringing rebuttal to the shrinking cluster of die–hard holocaust deniers."—Peter Arnett, Pulitzer Prize-Winning War Correspondent and author of Live from the Battlefield
"The Liberators delivers a riveting reading experience. The memoirs are deeply personal: Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, the images, sounds, and smells as experienced by the Nazi-death-camp liberators provide compelling testimony to man’s inhumanity to man and capacity for evil as well as good and kindness. This is an extraordinary book that is strikingly important in its ability to deliver the scope and gravity of the war.—Thomas Tradewell, commander in chief, Veterans of Foreign Wars
"A striking catalogue of inhumanity."—Richard C. Hottelet, member of Edward R. Murrow’s CBS Radio reporting team during World War II