Saved by a Saint in a Tank
For 60 years it percolated in Sam Goetz’s mind, rising to the level of obsession -- this need to find the American soldier who had loomed so large in the most critical moment of Goetz’s life.
On May 6, 1945, Goetz, then 16, was among 18,000 prisoners liberated from the Nazi concentration camp at Ebensee, Austria, by the U.S. Army’s 3rd Cavalry. The squadron commander, a tall, young sergeant, climbed down from his tank and pronounced them free.
We “kissed his hands and touched his uniform, as if touching a saint,” Goetz would recall years later in his memoir, “I Never Saw My Face.”
“Each of us wanted to make sure the man was real ... that this was neither an illusion or a dream ... “
Goetz spent years combing through war archives in Washington, D.C., without ever learning the soldier’s identity. “I was haunted by it,” says Goetz, now an optometrist in West L.A. “Who was that man in the first tank? What is his name? Is he alive today?”
On Saturday, Bob Persinger -- now a bespectacled, gray-haired veteran -- strode through the lobby of a Century City hotel and reached out to shake Goetz’s hand. The Holocaust survivor stared back, measured reality against his memories, then opened his arms for an embrace.
And the soldier who had seemed so tall 60 years ago stood cheek to cheek with the man he had saved.
The Final Chapter
The Holocaust is not the kind of experience you put behind you. For most survivors, there’s no making peace with memories from concentration camps where millions were humiliated, tortured and forced to witness unspeakable brutality.
How do you write the final chapter of the story, now that both generations -- victims and liberators -- are passing?
About 120,000 Holocaust survivors live in the United States -- about 10,000 of them in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Los Angeles is home to one of the largest and most active survivors groups in the world, The 1939 Club, which takes its name from the year Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. Goetz served as the club’s president in 1965-66.
Some survivors emerged warped by anger and bitterness. Others spent years locked in silence and shame. Most, like Goetz, healed through hard work -- avenging, through their eventual success, the evil done to them.
“For years, many didn’t even talk about it with their children,” Goetz said. “They didn’t want to impart guilt to the kids. And the kids wanted to know, but didn’t know how to ask.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s, “when these Holocaust deniers began to surface, with all their talk about the ‘lies of the 6 million’ [Jews killed], that I couldn’t keep quiet. I said education is the only way we can leave our legacy.”
So Goetz proposed to UCLA a chair on Holocaust studies. He helped raise the money, most of it through small individual donations, because institutions and corporations “didn’t want to get involved.” The chair was created in 1979, the first at a U.S. public university.
Twenty years ago, Goetz organized a project to videotape the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. “I realized the survivors are dying at a fast rate,” he said. “There’s a great danger of losing their stories, of not knowing.
“But it was difficult getting people to participate. We had 600 members. Only 30 responded. It’s too painful.”
Ultimately, 56 survivors agreed to share their stories. “And once they got started, they couldn’t stop,” Goetz said. “We had to go to two-hour tapes.”
Still, many couldn’t confront some memories, like “the moment of separation from their parents. They would go round and round it.... To see your parents taken away, without even a kiss, a goodbye. Those moments stay with you the rest of your life. There is no healing, no closure.”
Death Comes to Tarnow
For Goetz, that moment came the week after his 14th birthday, in June 1942. The schools in Tarnow, Poland, had already been closed to Jewish children. Parks, skating rinks, movie theaters, even city streets were off-limits. Gestapo agents began roaming the city’s Jewish quarter, randomly shooting Jews.
Sam’s parents were herded at gunpoint with thousands of their neighbors onto trains bound for Belzec, a death camp in Poland where German officials were pioneering the use of gas chambers for mass killings.
In one week, 8,000 of Tarnow’s Jews -- one-third of the population -- would be executed or imprisoned at Belzec. During its 10 months of operation in 1942, historians say, 434,508 Jews died in Belzec’s three gas chambers. Only a handful survived.
In September 1943, Sam too was deported from the Tarnow ghetto and moved to a series of concentration camps in Eastern Europe, where inmates were beaten, starved, forced to endure biting winters without shoes and dressed only in flimsy cotton pajamas. They were worked to the point of collapse and death.
For inmates, the sight of smoke and the smell of bodies burning in the camps’ crematoriums were a grim and constant torment.
Answering the Call
Bob Persinger knew nothing about concentration camps or the tragedy unfolding for Europe’s Jews when he was drafted at 19. Pearl Harbor had been bombed seven months after his high school graduation, and the Iowa farm boy was proud to be called upon to defend his country.
As the chief breadwinner for his mother and four siblings -- his father had died years earlier -- Persinger could have gotten a deferral. “But everybody went in the service then,” he recalled. “We were all so patriotic.” His two younger brothers also enlisted.
In March 1943 he left for a year of training in Georgia, then boarded a British ship for Europe. He saw comrades fall to German attacks as they pushed through France and Germany. But nothing had prepared him for Ebensee, the brutal sub-camp of Mauthausen.
“We had never even heard about the concentration camps until a few weeks before the war ended, when I read in the Stars and Stripes [the U.S. military newspaper] about one of the camps, maybe Bergen-Belsen, and how the American [soldiers] were running into this.”
His reconnaissance unit was patrolling “a beautiful little town” in the Austrian Alps, with roads flanked by forests and lakes. Another unit had spotted the camp, two miles from town up a mountain road. Persinger was dispatched to check it out and report back.
He rolled his tank up to the compound’s barbed-wire gates. Inside, thousands of people -- dressed in rags, looking more dead than alive -- were “milling around like bees,” he said.
“We stopped and peered down in amazement. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.” There were “dead bodies scattered here and there, all over the ground.” Thousands of inmates surged forward, as thin as skeletons, shivering in filthy, striped pajamas. “Some just wore the tops, some the pants, some had no clothes at all, standing ankle-deep in mud,” he recalled.
The German camp commanders had deserted and left elderly Austrian civilians in charge. Persinger emerged from his tank, snatched a rifle from one of the guards, broke it over the turret of his tank and hung it over a lamppost beside the gate.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing,” he said. “It brought on such a roar; it was pandemonium.... The prisoners surrounded us, dirty, open sores all over them, loaded with lice.
“I’d seen death before, but nothing like that. I remember thinking: If everybody could see this, there wouldn’t be nothing like wars anymore. To treat human beings like that ... I couldn’t have imagined.”
In the crematorium -- which had operated around the clock, turning hundreds of corpses each day to ash -- they found bodies stacked along a wall, 400 or more, waiting to be burned.
Explaining the Yearning
For Goetz, the reunion with Persinger -- arranged through a combination of persistence and luck -- was an important step toward closing the circle.
The hunger among survivors to connect with those present at their liberation can be universal.
“By finding that person, you construct some element of goodness in that landscape of evil,” said Saul Friedlander, chairman of Holocaust studies at UCLA. “So this soldier, he was not the army of liberation, of course. But he symbolizes the good side for those who have experienced the worst. It helps them psychologically to remember the idealized goodness of the liberators. That explains the yearning.”
The liberator, with his shared horror at atrocities endured and unspoken, is a validating force for survivors, especially as their memories dim with age. “His account, his corroboration, confirms from a totally independent source the reality of what we are speaking about. It has a kind of healing effect,” Friedlander said.
Goetz mentioned to a patient, a World War II veteran, his attempt to track down the mystery soldier. The patient was heading to Austria for a commemoration marking the 60th anniversary of Ebensee’s liberation. The speaker was supposed to be a GI who had been present at the liberation. He agreed to pass along Goetz’s business card. A few weeks later, the phone rang and Persinger was on the line.
Ovation for a ‘Peon’
Last week, Persinger and his wife, Arlene, flew from their Illinois home to meet Goetz and his wife, Gertrude; speak to college students about the Holocaust; and accept an award at the annual luncheon of The 1939 Club.
More than 300 people -- survivors, most of them now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and their children, grandchildren and friends -- gathered at the Beverly Hills Hotel to honor the man who, in Goetz’s words, “liberated 18,000 people on May 6, 1945.”
Persinger insisted that he was “just a soldier, one little peon.” The real heroes, he said, were the men and women who persevered, without succumbing to self-pity and rancor, to “get their education, raise their kids, make something out of themselves after coming out with nothing. I have nothing but respect for these people. They’re head and shoulders smarter than I ever was.”
Still, they rose for a standing ovation when Persinger walked to the lectern, then again at his speech’s end.
When the cheering stopped, the dancing began. Dozens of gray-haired men and women crowded the floor, offspring in tow, linking arms and circling around the room in a rousing version of the hora.
The man who “freed our people in their darkest hour” rose above the crowd on the shoulders of the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors. He was, at that moment, as tall as Sam Goetz had remembered him.
Videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors, including Sam Goetz, can be seen and heard on www.1939club.com.