Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A story of local interest is the liberation of Dachau by Morris Hoffman, a Navasotian and local business man.  He spoke to my class probably close to 15 years ago and typed up the following to leave with the students.  He has since passed away, but his legacy lives on through my history classes.  

My name is Morris Hoffman.  I live in Navasota, Texas with my wife Sarah Silverstein Hoffman.  I have been in the grocery business and a Pecan Broker for the last 40 years.  I was part of the American forces that liberated Dachau Concentration Camp on April 30, 1945.  It was the blackest and most horrible day of my life.
I was 21 years old and lived in Marshalltown, IA when I entered the army in World War II.
In 1944, I was shipped overseas on the Queen Elizabeth, landing at La Harve, France.  I joined up with the 157th infantry, 7th Army, 45th Division called the “Thunderbirds”.  At that time my rank was a Staff Sgt.  During the European Campaign, I received the Bronze Star for Meritorious service in the European Theater of WW II.  The men in my unit knew that I was an Orthodox Jew, and traded C-rations with me so that I could keep our dietary laws.
We fought a three day battle through the Ziegfried Line called “The Tiger Teeth”.  We also fought the Battle of the Rhine River and drove the Germans across France back into Germany and we ended up in Munich.
A week before this came about, we were told we were going to liberate a prisoner of war camp.  Little did we know what was in store for us.  We thought we were going to liberate some of our own prisoners.
It was April 29, 1945 at 10:00 in the morning when our company moved out to take a small town northwest of Munich.  My army unit surrounded the camp located inside the Dachau city limits.  AS we approached the concentration camp, we saw the towers, electric barbed wire fences, and moat that surrounded the camp.  Other members of our unit knew that I was of the Jewish faith and came back to tell me to be prepared to see all the terrible things the Nazis had done to our people.
As Sgt. I was leading a squad of soldiers when we entered the gates of Dachau.  When we reached the parade grounds, the stench made us sick.  We saw the barracks with naked dead bodies stacked like cordwood.  They looked like sacks of bones.  As we entered other parts of the camp we saw a railroad spur with 8 box cars half full of naked bodies being shipped out by the Nazis, but we did not know where.  The prisoners that were still living in the barracks were half dead from torture, disease and starvation- emaciated faces and bodies.  The prisoners had their heads shaved and wore black and white striped uniforms.  Jewish prisoners wore patches – a yellow star of David—with letters in Germany saying Jude (Jew) on their clothes.  There were other prisoners of many faiths and countries.  Some of the prisoners were so weak that they could not stand up.  Some had work duty, but were given very little food.  There was a pit filled with naked dead bodies, but the Nazis were unable to cover them because our American soldiers advanced so fast.  They also buried bodies next to the railroad tracks hoping no one would see them.  We found corpses not completely consumed by flames in the furnaces of the camp crematoriums.  There were also baskets of gold eye glasses and gold fillings that the Nazis left behind.  In the barracks, there were prisoners still alive that were stacked in bunks 4 high.  All had numbers tattooed on their arms with blue dye so that the Germans could keep records
Two Jewish students who were prisoners asked to speak to a Jewish soldier, so they brought them to me, being the only one they could find.  They were Americans studying at the University of Munich and were captured and brought to Dachau.  They wanted to join our unit, but our Captain said that they could not as they were not trained as soldiers and needed medical attention.  Documentation also had to be sent back to the US.
All prisoners at the camp were told that we could not let them go until the medical team got to the camp to examine them.  The Army set up field kitchen to serve them something to eat and drink, but some were so weak that nothing could save them.
It was very difficult to keep Americans soldiers from shooting the Nazis that were captured after seeing the horrors that had taken place in the camp.  The American officers brought the Mayor of Dachau and its citizens to view all of the atrocities that the Nazis had committed.  They denied knowing that any of this had happened.
Since I was a leader of my squad, the Captain asked my to lead an honor guard across the parade ground.  I was given the honor of carrying the American flag.  Three other soldiers carried rifles and the Battalion flag.  The sound of the prisoners hollering rings in my ears, even though it has been almost 49 years ago.  They were so excited that I was afraid we might be hurt if they got over the fence.
The memories I have of Dachau are still impossible for me to comprehend or forget.  It was many years before I was able to talk about them.  I am still unable to believe that one human being could do such horrible things to another.  I hope and pray these atrocities will never be seen again.

This once in a lifetime trip and educational venture is through the generosity of the Lea Kreel Weems Fellowship.  What a wonderful way to impact the world!!   I hope the family sees the ripple effect of their generosity.  Not only will I be a better teacher of the Holocaust to my students, but I'm sharing this information - through this blog and other avenues- to the history teachers of College Station ISD, Bryan ISD and my fellow teachers at Navasota.  I'm hoping we can all use this as a way to not only remember the Holocaust, but also as a way to teach lessons of hate, bullying and tolerance in today's world to our students.  I am very appreciative of this opportunity and much thanks to Lea Weems and family.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

We were sent a reading list and it was suggested that we read at least two books from it in addition to the Vladka Meed's book.  In case someone is interested in reading up on the Holocaust this summer- here are the suggested books:

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
Defiance:  The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec
Salvaged Pages by Alexandra Zapruder
Denying the Holocaust by Deborah Lipstadt
Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning
The Destruction of European Jewry (student edition) by Raul Hilberg
Nazi Conscience by Claudia Koonz
Holocaust:  Nazi Germany and the Jews: Vol 1: the Years of Persecution, 1933-39 by Saul Friedlander
Holocaust:  Nazi Germany and the Jews:  Vol 2: The Years of Extermination, 1939, 1945 by Saul Friedlander
Every Day Lasts a Year by Christopher Browning, Richard Hollander, and Nechama Tec

The Houston Holocaust Museum has a channel on Youtube- which will provide information on the museum and its various programs.  I'm very appreciative to them for sponsoring me on this trip.  It's a great museum- so much so that I've taken my history classes there for the past 20 years.  My students each year look forward to this field trip because of what they hear from the students before them.
Found on Youtube is the testimony of Vladka Meed (author of the book we are reading) from the archive of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and featured in Echoes and Recollection:  A Multimedia Curriculum on the Holocaust:  The interview is over 2 hours.  I've also included the website of the featured Holocaust Curriculum.

Vladka Meed's testimony:

Holocaust curriculum:
The details of the trip are--we will be gone from July 1 through July 20.  The people arranging the trip have been very gracious in allowing me to return a day early as I have a nephew getting married July 21 in Ohio.  So here's to me making all my flights from Warsaw Poland to Toledo Ohio.  The group will meet in Washington DC on July 1st and then spend the next day at the US Holocaust Museum.  On my birthday, July 3rd, we fly to Israel.  After that we spend time in Germany and Poland.  More later on the exact itinerary.  Needless to say, it will be a very busy, yet fabulous three weeks.  
An old Japanese proverb says:  "When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends."  If this is true, I must have great character, not because of me, but because of the company I keep.  Many of my friends are supporting me in this trip of a lifetime and I hope I can find a way to repay them.  Too numerous to mention, but they know who they are, I am most grateful that I consider them my friends and my life has been greatly enriched because of them.  
One of the books we've been asked to read is "On Both Sides of the Wall" by Vladka Meed, who is one of the founders of this teacher's program.  She worked with the Jewish underground in the Warsaw Ghetto, which is an often little told story of the Holocaust.  Many of my students will ask why there wasn't more resistance and this book will provide some of the answer.  
After the initial shock wore off, I made a list of things to do  (1)  Get off Mountain Dew (still working on that)  (2)  Need some new clothes - for traveling and little opportunity for laundry rooms and (3)  Get to walking.  That regimen began with my visit to San Francisco a few weekends ago, when my college roommate and husband gave me the tour of the hilly city.  I've taken care of my passport as this is the first time ever for me to be outside the US and now am in the process of buying luggage, clothes and other things needed for this overseas trip.  NHS valedictorian Ramon Galvan took time out of his busy schedule, here at the end of his senior year, to set up this blog and has patiently helped me figure this out.  What he doesn't know- his job with helping me navigate this thing is not over!!   Thanks Ramon and best of luck on the speech graduation night!  Oh, did I fail to mention- he's going to Harvard this upcoming fall!!!!
Congratulations- we just got a call from the Houston Holocaust Museum and they've chosen you to be part of their 3 week teachers' seminar this summer.  With that surprise visit from my principal and grant directors begins an unforgettable summer.  Thanks to Susan Myers, the Executive Director at the Houston Holocaust Museum and local teacher Bonny Burger, I was chosen to participate in the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Summer Seminar Program Summer Trip sponsored by the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust  Survivors.  And what is especially nice it's an all-expense paid for trip, minus one meal a day and souvenirs.  What a fabulous experience- for a public school history teacher from Navasota!