I spoke in several communities in New Jersey and New York for Yom Hashoah, the day of remembering the victims of the Holocaust -- or the Shoah, which in Hebrew means utter destruction. My talk differed from the usual Yom Hashoah focus. Since the day was inaugurated in 1951, communities worldwide have typically observed the day with public readings of the names of the victims, talks by survivors and prayers. When ceremonies have included World War II veterans who helped to liberate the Nazi concentration camps, it has been to reunite them with survivors of the camps they liberated. My talk conveyed a new perspective: that we have been limited and short-sighted in our view of who the victims of the Holocaust have been. Through the trauma of the GI liberators, the Holocaust came to American shores and infected not just the families of those liberators but American culture as a whole.
First, it is time to recognize, honor and address the trauma of the liberators. These men and women have spent the past 66 years locking away their vast anguish and denying their grief, because they have deemed their trauma insignificant in comparison to that of the survivors. And they went silent, because in 1945 no one at home wanted to hear the horrors the liberators witnessed or the new dimension of evil the Nazis created.
In fact, all World War II veterans went silent, doing their best to lock away their trauma, as society had little capacity to acknowledge it, let alone treat it. The Veteran Administration's main treatment of severe psychological anguish in the late 1940s was to perform lobotomies on the veteran. Many veterans turned to alcohol to numb their pain or to work to keep their minds busy. (Aaron Glantz of The San Francisco Chronicle has reported on a deeply disturbing high suicide rate among World War II vets.)
Like most other children of World War II veterans, I took my father's war service for granted (what little I knew about it was that he had been a part of the landing on Utah Beach on D-Day and had participated in the Battle of the Bulge), never considering that it might have any relationship to his silent detachment, depression and melancholy, or to my mother's alcoholism and subsequent disappearance from our lives. Only after his death, when I found photographs that he had taken during the war that revealed he had been among the liberators of Nordhausen, did I begin to wonder if the war might explain his enigmatic personality and our family's dysfunction.
Because I could not find a single book about the emotional consequences of liberating the camps or about the trauma of World War II veterans, I traveled around the country in 2005 to talk with liberators. Of the 82 men and one woman I interviewed, all but four remained in the grip of trauma, manifesting melancholy and intense discomfort, and describing flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks. Most could not bring themselves to describe what they witnessed behind the gates of the camps.
The children of these veterans who knew that their fathers had witnessed the Holocaust learned where their fathers had been from discovering their photographs. Very few of the veterans have shared the memory with their children, who, like me, grew up in emotionally repressed homes where alcoholism or workaholism were often present. We children have struggled with depression and attenuated relationships with our parents and siblings.
When General Eisenhower visited Ohrdruf and witnessed the burned bodies, the piles of bodies, the massacred, he said to the troops present, "You may not have known what you have been fighting for, but you now know what you have been fighting against." Anticipating that one day some people would try to deny the Holocaust, Eisenhower ordered every American soldier in the area who was not on the front lines to visit Ohrdruf and Buchenwald.
I have yet to find any formal accounting of how many GIs witnessed a camp. But given that Buchenwald alone was a system of 180 camps; that after the Berlin Wall fell and we gained access to Nazi archives in the eastern half of Germany, we learned that the Nazis had over 20,000 camps scattered across Europe; and that 35 divisions were involved in either liberating the camps, burying victims, treating and relocating survivors, then at least 300,000 GIs witnessed the Holocaust. In the midst of interviewing veteran liberators, one told me, "I have struggled to stay alive every day since." Those words conveyed on a physical, irrefutable level that not only had my father been a victim of the Holocaust, but so had my mother, my brothers and I. Through the American GIs, the Holocaust found its way to American shores and infected an entire generation with emotional numbness and insecurity.
Genocide creates endless ripples of destruction. War creates an endless aftermath of anguish and devastation. All participants are casualties, and through them, so, too, are their families.
After 66 years, veteran liberators such as Nat Futterman of New Rochelle, N.Y. is ready to tell his story. May we listen. And learn.