Some six or seven years ago I happened to see an Academy Award-winning documentary, “The Last Days,” directed by James Moll and with Steven Spielberg as executive producer. It was of interest to me because, like the novel I was then writing, it dealt with the Holocaust and tangentially with the role of African American troops in World War II.
In the film, Paul Parks, an African American WW II veteran and civil rights activist, recounts being one of a number of black troops of the then-segregated U.S. Armypresent at the liberation of Dachau, the first concentration camp the Nazis built and one of the last to be liberated. Although it was not one of the six death camps created specifically for mass murder, many thousands of people died there during the Third Reich. The historical and moral significance of African American troops taking part in the liberation of Dachau was of interest to me.
Subsequently I learned that “The Last Days” and “Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II” — a 1992 PBS documentary that also drew attention to the presence of black troops at Dachau — were roundly attacked either for their unquestioning acceptance of claims by allegedly dishonest black veterans or for allegedly fabricating the story.
I was curious about the motives of each side in this dispute. Why would black veterans say there were black troops present if there were not? There are plenty of examples of the heroism of African American soldiers in WW II. It is also generally accepted by historians that the all-black 761st Tank Battalion had taken part in the liberation of a satellite of Mauthausen concentration camp, Gunskirchen, on May 5, 1945. There was no need to make up a role for black GIs in the liberation of Dachau.
Equally perplexing to me was the vehemence of the deniers. Why would the assertion by black veterans that they had helped liberate Dachau engender a rebuttal so passionate that it seemed to have the hallmarks of a campaign? Could racism be a factor? And, in any event, how do you prove a negative? If a given white veteran, or even a number of them, failed to see any black soldiers at Dachau at the relevant time and then testified honestly to this effect, does that prove that no black troops were there?
In terms of the evidence, there were black veterans asserting their presence and their role in the liberation of the camp, and there were people who could find no white veteran to say there were any black troops there. Surely, I thought,U.S. militaryrecords could clear this up.
Not really. Apparently black outfits were frequently split up and “lent out” to other outfits. The 761st, for example, was often called a “bastard outfit” because it didn’t seem to belong to anybody. This meant that often nobody “officially” knew where all of its members were at any given time. Nevertheless, given the controversy the two documentaries had generated, in 2006 I contacted the Army. The result was inconclusive. The U.S. Army Center of Military History reported that it had no records “to prove or disprove that there were African American units that participated in the liberation of Dachau.”
After my novel was published in Australia last year, a reader there contacted me to ask whether there really was, as is portrayed in the novel, a controversy concerning the presence of black troops at the liberation of Dachau. She had grown up hearing her Polish Jewish father tell the family about his liberation from Dachau, and the story always contained his wonderment on seeing a black person for the first time. As soon as was possible I met with the woman, checked her story and interviewed her father.
An initially reluctant interviewee, her Holocaust survivor father did indeed confirm the presence of black troops at the liberation of Dachau. The momentousness of his liberation notwithstanding, he distinctly recalls seeing, and being astonished by the presence of, black soldiers there that day. Coming from a Polish shtetl, this man had never seen a black person before.
Thus the accounts of African American veterans, and in particular of the late Paul Parks, are supported by the testimony of at least one Jewish survivor. Is it time to apologize to the Parks family? One wonders whether there are still some people for whom the eyewitness testimonies of an African American veteran and a Polish Jew are not enough proof.
Elliot Perlman is the author of, most recently, the novel “The Street Sweeper.”