For years, Louis Sneh had been going back to the little station at Seeshaupt, Germany, where he and 3,000 other slave laborers riding a freight train to oblivion were freed by the advancing soldiers of Patton's 3rd Army.
"It was like my second birthplace," said Sneh, 67, of Santa Monica.
But he had never told his story to anyone there until last April, when a casual question gave him a visible role in a debate over how Seeshaupt should deal with Germany's Nazi past.
An amateur photographer, Sneh had hoped to take a picture that an artist could use as source material for an oil painting of the scene at Seeshaupt, an isolated village in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, on April 30, 1945, a week before Germany surrendered.
The painting might show the train stopped dead at the station, corpses in striped camp jackets lying in an open car, German guards tossing away their guns and uniforms and running off, GIs in a big green tank throwing biscuits and chocolate to hordes of emaciated men, and American planes doing aerobatics overhead.
For the purposes of his photo, Sneh asked a ticket agent at the Seeshaupt station when the next freight train would be coming through.
There hasn't been a freight through here in 49 years, the agent said, but there was something about it in our local paper just the other day. It was a long, long train, he said, with 3,000 concentration camp inmates on it, some of them alive, some dead.
"I know," Sneh responded. "One of them is facing you."
As it happened, his April visit came at a time when the people of Seeshaupt were at odds over where--and whether--to build a monument to that day in 1945, when evidence of Nazi evil appeared on their doorsteps.
The prisoners, ill from the brutal conditions at forced labor camps near Dachau in southwest Germany, had been jammed into freight cars without food or water for five days.
"When they climbed off that train, they brought their misery, their anxiety, their humiliation into Seeshaupt, which until then had been protected from the full realization of the atrocities and the horrors of the war," said Peter Westebbe, an organizer of the campaign to build the monument.
"For many of the villagers, it was their first insight into what was done to human beings in the name of Germany. The impact . . . was so shocking that even 50 years later most witnesses can't talk about it without tears in their eyes."
Supporters of the memorial--a sculpture of plastic and rusty iron suggesting hands and feet reaching out of a boxcar-shaped frame--wanted it to be placed right at the train station. Uwe Hausmann, a doctor and a member of the village council, came up with the idea for the memorial.
But opponents gathered 700 signatures of protest, a considerable number in a town of 2,700. They said the work by Stuttgart artist Jorg Kicherer could scare off tourists and give the impression that Seeshaupt had been the site of a concentration camp. Better to place the memorial in the village graveyard, they said.
A local newspaper quoted one pensioner as complaining that the train memorial would be out in the open, unlike the village war memorial, which had been placed behind the church.
"No, this memorial should not be at the station under any circumstances," said Erich Pohl, a retiree. "Anybody who gets off the train would see it."
Another opponent brought up the controversy over the place of immigrants in modern-day Germany.
"I am only against the memorial because I believe that we cannot accomplish any reconciliation with a piece of metal," said Anna-Maria Kelley, a housewife. "One cannot simply say, 50 years later, 'We are sorry,' and in the same breath throw foreigners out. Aside from that, I find it a shame that the discussion is so divisive."
There was a well-attended town meeting covered by TV and newspaper reporters, and three debates in the village council.
In the end, after Sneh recounted his experiences in a letter to the mayor and in newspaper and television interviews, the council decided last summer to place the memorial on a park-like open space on a street between the train station and the town hall. It is to be dedicated on April 30, 50 years to the day after the train came to its final stop in Seeshaupt.
Organizers credited Sneh for helping them realize that survivors might still be available to tell their stories of what happened that day. Since then, more than a dozen have been located through ads in Israel and in Jewish newspapers in the United States.
"Now that we have come to agreement in our community . . . we would like to thank you for your touching letter and contribution," Hans Hirsch, Seeshaupt's mayor, wrote to Sneh, who donated $250 toward the memorial's estimated $14,000 cost.
"The depiction of your suffering and your liberation in Seeshaupt reminded us again, quite sharply, of our present-day responsibility in dealing with our past," Hirsch said.
Born Lajos Szunyogh in Vegegyhaza, a tiny village in southern Hungary, Sneh was raised in a traditional Jewish home. His father was a merchant who traveled to weekly markets in neighboring villages, his mother was a housewife.
In his early teens, he was apprenticed to an electrician in a larger town, but the German takeover of Hungary in 1944 forced him back home.
His father was sent to a Hungarian army labor battalion on the Ukrainian front, never to be seen by the family again.
Soon, the youngster was removed with his mother to a ghetto in Mezokovachhaza--the Hungarian town they lived in at the time--as part of Adolf Eichmann's highly organized plan for the extermination of Hungarian Jewry. In June, they were packed into a sealed boxcar with 80 to 100 others, guarded by Hungarian police with plumed hats and extra-long bayonets.
But that was nothing compared to what awaited them across the Polish border at Auschwitz, where the prisoners were set upon by fierce dogs and truncheon-wielding guards amid cries of "Leave everything! Out! Out! Out!"
With blows, the guards formed them into two columns, women and children to one side, men to the other.
"In front of all that was a man who was so elegant--Mr. Blackwell would give him an A for elegance," Sneh recalls. "We found out later it was Dr. Mengele." Mengele was the infamous Nazi doctor known by Auschwitz inmates as the "Angel of Death."
Fitted out with a monocle, black uniform, shiny black boots and shiny silver insignia, he flicked a little stick from side to side, determining in a moment the difference between sudden death or yet another day of wretched existence for all who passed in front of him.
Sneh went one way, his mother, who stopped to take the baby of a younger woman, the other.
After being shown their barracks, Sneh and other youngsters who had been spared asked when they would see their mothers. The Jewish inmate guards, known as capos , answered with bitter laughter.
"Your mother? There she is," one said, pointing with his truncheon to the chimneys of the crematory.
"We saw the smoke going up and smelled the stench, and then we knew where we are," Sneh said. "And (there was) only the overwhelming feeling to survive. For what, we didn't know. . . . It killed something in you, too."
Soon, a friend learned of a draft to work in the Silesian coal mines in what is now southern Poland. Sneh volunteered, but after four days their cattle car arrived at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany, where they stopped for tea and bread.
With shaved head and striped canvas work clothes, Sneh was counted as prisoner No. 83500 and sent to a work camp at nearby Muhldorf.
It was only because of his sketchy experience as an apprentice that he survived, Sneh said. Having identified himself as an electrician, he was assigned to help German craftsmen at the site. Fellow inmates, condemned to carry 110-pound cement bags to build an underground airplane factory, were worked until they dropped, then were shot on the spot.
Help, however, was on the way. The Allies were closing in from both sides and the Third Reich was nearing its end. On April 25, 1945, Sneh and his fellow inmates were ordered out for their final railroad journey, part of a German plan to kill off concentration camp survivors and dump the bodies somewhere in the Alps.
Instead, they were shuttled back and forth for a week as the train came under air attack by American fighters. At one point, prisoners managed to break out and disperse into a nearby field, but armed Hitler Youth troops rounded them up and forced them back into the boxcars.
Finally they came to a stop in Seeshaupt, either because the engineers ran away or because American forces cut the train's electric power.
The guards ran. The boxcar doors were thrown open. American soldiers threw C rations to the starving men.
"Now we believed it," Sneh recalled. "We are liberated."
Sneh spent only one day in Seeshaupt, choosing to wander off with some friends rather than move into refugee housing that the American authorities had arranged at a former SS recreation camp on the edge of a lake.
But he remembers to this day the taste of a jar of apricot preserves that a housewife gave him as he and other hungry survivors straggled into town.
"We had a fear, even by the good Americans, to be concentrated in a camp," he said. "Just to go away, even in a field by yourself, that was liberation, even among the cows, to drink from a stream that runs through the farmer's field."
Sneh eventually took up residence in a nearby town, and returned to Seeshaupt by bicycle for a brief visit in 1946. Then, after adventures that included a brush with Communist partisans in Yugoslavia and a return to his home village in southern Hungary--where only nine Jews survived out of a prewar population of 400--he made his way to Israel, and eventually to Southern California.
Starting as a business machine repairman in Israel, he moved to the United States in 1964. He opened a business machine repair shop in Hollywood in 1967 and later ran a camera shop in Beverly Hills before retiring to spend much of his time traveling as a dealer in rare and antique photographic equipment.
But even before his retirement, he found himself drawn to Seeshaupt around the anniversary of his liberation, visiting the town at least a dozen times in the last 30 years.
The first visit came in 1963, when he was sent to Germany for training by his employer in Israel. His wife and two young sons came along, but Sneh did not speak of his experiences in detail.
Then the family moved to America, where Sneh concentrated on making a living before resuming in 1969 what became a frequent schedule of stops to shoot pictures in Seeshaupt.
He has no hatred for Germans, he said, despite what he suffered at their hands.
As for Seeshaupt, Sneh said in fluent English that retains more than a hint of his native Hungarian, "I always had a good feeling here. Here, I was liberated."
Knowing no one in the village of 2,700, he would content himself during his brief visits with taking dozens of photographs. He would capture the sights yet again--the station building with its old Gothic script, the tracks and the bushes where the guards disappeared--often to the irritation of his wife, Dina.
Then, last April 30, Dina got tired of waiting for a freight train to come by and suggested that he ask the ticket agent for schedule information.
Soon, the couple was sitting in the sunny back garden of Renate von Fraunberg and her husband, Bero, editors of the local quarterly newspaper, where Sneh told his story.
Renate von Fraunberg wrote it up in the local news section of a Munich newspaper, saying in a commentary that "the 'second birth' of Louis Sneh has to make it easier for the opponents to say yes to the memorial."
Other supporters of the memorial were at the von Fraunbergs' too, including Westebbe, who was planning an exhibit that will accompany next month's dedication of the memorial.
"I developed the idea . . . and I found out that nobody knew exactly what happened," said Westebbe, a medical sociologist who lives in the village. "(Sneh) was the one who made us aware that we needed the survivors."
Sneh said he was satisfied by the compromise location for the memorial, and he plans to be there with his wife and two friends on April 30.
"I don't know if they do it out of guilt or humanity," he said of the German villagers. "I don't send them to psychological analysis."