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July 2024
1min read

Reader William F. Hamilton of Lakewood, Ohio, recently wrote to author Paul Engle and was kind enough to give us a copy of his letter. Portions of it follow:

“Your story ‘Those Damn Jews…’ in the December, 1978, AMERICAN HERITAGE was beautiful, touching, hurting and, to me, one that needs to be continually retold.… In 1942 I was drafted and left Wittenberg College to begin my service in the Army Medical Corps. In 1945 I found myself in Gotha, Germany. One day my ambulance platoon was ordered to an unidentified location—coordinates, but no place name. We arrived at what looked like any camp and reported into an armored unit and asked where we were. The troops there told us to put our equipment and packs in a room in a large building and come back down. We did. They then told us to take a ride and look around the camp. What I was to see in the next hour should never be seen by any nineteen or twenty year old—or a person of any other age. I was in Buchenwald one day after it had been liberated. As I looked out the ambulance window I could see bodies piled like cordwood. All I could think of was a line from cheap mysteries, ‘the smell of death.’

“Our platoon was to spend two weeks at Buchenwald helping the living. We moved them to a civilian hospital in Weimar where they were cared for by American medics and German civilians who had been pressed into service.… This experience changed a person who was slightly aware of prejudice to a person who knew and respected the worth of every human on this earth.…

“An experience of twenty-two years later is an important closer for this story. In 1967 I received a fellowship to the State University of New York in Stony Brook, Long Island. My wife, son, and daughter lived in a rented house in Levittown. During the summer, they got to know a family across the street who helped them by taking them to the beaches and the shopping centers, and by just being friends. I came home on weekends and met the family. One day, as we walked around Bernie’s yard counting the dandelions and crabgrass, I noticed the tell-tale tattooed numbers on his arm and asked the obvious: ‘Bernie, were you in a concentration camp?’ Bernie answered, ‘Yes. Buchenwald.’

“What had happened? Did I ever carry Bernie on a stretcher? Did we ever speak to each other two decades before? I don’t know. But I do know that in 1945 I was in Buchenwald and in 1967 I was in Levittown, Long Island, with a survivor. And his family and my family were enjoying a summer together. The Holocaust had not destroyed this.”

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