Jerry Himmelfarb was a GI from Buffalo, New York. He wrote this letter to his Rabbi about his experiences. It is one of the most powerful testimonies I have ever read.
Jerry, serving with the U.S. Army in Germany, wrote to Rev. Harry H. Kaufman, Cantor of Temple Beth El, telling of what the J.D.C. is accomplishing in alleviating the desperate plight of his Jewish brethren in Europe. The letter, in full below.
May 15, 1945
You’re going to find this a strange letter. I think, perhaps, you will not understand why I write such a letter—until after you have read it. I have written my parents a similar story. Now I write you—for a little different reason. You’ll see what I mean by some pages from here.
The Seventh Army has authorised us to write—has allowed us to say—that we’re in Munich. I’m there now. Munich—Hitler’s cradle city. It’s damaged and quiet. We’re near Berchtesgarten, but I haven’t been there.
We’re also near Dachau—remember Dachau? It’s Jan Valtin’s Dachau—Jan Valtin of Out of the Night. Remember? Dachau—an early mystery place of Nazism. But there remains no aura of a mystery today. No, it’s all clear—so very clear.
I met a Polish Jew the other day. He had been liberated from Dachau. He was twenty-four years old—and looked fifty. His face looked fifty—his body was about as healthy looking as a normal patient at Harrisburg, Penn. He had no teeth—but they hadn’t fallen out. Hitler’s S.S. were the dentists. He was just one of the lucky ones. There were other unfortunates.
I haven’t seen Dachau—but all I say is true—I swear it on my own life. Disbelieve me—call me a liar—if you dare! There were found some fifty, fully-loaded boxcars—loaded with bodies. I saw a picture of one—it was overflowing. We buried—with bulldozers—some 4,000. They were from the railroad cars and from rooms in the camp where they were stacked like cordwood covered with lime. We spoke to a Pole who had been forced to throw his parents into the incinerator. And how would you like to hear about these incinerators—it makes for nauseous reading. There was a plaque in front of each one saying something about “ashes to ashes” being better than “dust to dust.” Some compensation for the victims, eh? And they were run in a very businesslike fashion. It was necessary to burn 250 bodies each day to keep the furnaces in good working order. How was the quota met? Easy. They always had at least 150 on a list. But the rest were gotten like this.
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These prisoners were divided into groups of sixteen. These sixteen slept on four shelves, approximately six by six, with six inches of clearance between shelves. Any infraction by one of the sixteen resulted in the death of all of them. And infractions were easy. Under the S.S.—the trained beasts—the quota was always met. And how were they killed? No outright death for them—oh, no! They walked or were pushed, through a door when they fell through a four-by-four hole in the floor to the cement floor some fifteen feet below. There a noose was thrown about their throats and they were hung on hooks on the wall to meet their God. If any still lived after a reasonable length of time—a “man” with a heavy mallet crushed their skulls. The room—hooks on the wall—accommodated fifteen. Then the furnaces. The heat generated was not wasted, by the way. It was piped to the S.S. barracks for warmth – the barracks, where the S.S. troopers celebrated their 10,000th killing by drinking toasts from the scoured skulls of their victims. A lovely people—the Germans!
And don’t let me forget to tell you about the wife of the Commandant of one of these camps—not Dachau, another one—there were plenty in Germany. She loved the beautiful knick-knacks in her home. So any prisoner who bore tattooing on his or her body was stripped and taken before this woman for her O.K. Then death—next skinning, and curing the skin—and a new lampshade or book cover adorned the lovely lady’s home. What’s wrong—don’t you believe me? Take my word for it—you have to believe me—those who were tattooed can’t tell you!
And that isn’t all. We have some 5,000 people in hospitals here. We’ve lowered the death rate to seventy-five a day. And we have statistics to prove that of these seventy-five—some forty-five are Jews. And even though only 8,000 of the 38,000 prisoners of one camp were Jews—the deaths were some 40% or 50% Jewish. The chaplain told us that the other day—after his return from services conducted over that common grave of 4,000—there were bound to be some Jews in it—we didn’t know how many. Which brings me to the point of this letter.
The chaplain told us about the American Joint Distribution Committee’s borrowing $10,000,000 on their name—and about setting a goal of $46,000,000 for this year. He asked us to contribute what we could. And he asked us to write our families a letter. I did, but I write to you, too, because you can reach more people. He didn’t suggest a letter like this—I guess it was the farthest thing from his mind. I just decided it was the best kind. Eloquent pleas are swell things—but pictures are better. Maybe this wasn’t a very pretty picture—I didn’t want it to be. I tried to make it as disgusting, as revolting as nauseous as possible without leaving the bounds of conventional decency—without distorting the truth. Believe me, I have done neither. Every word is true. I swear that before God.
I know of some people who say, “that money goes into the pockets of the black-coated, pie-hatted men with beards.“ I thought so once, too—until I learned this. While the chaplain was reciting the services over that common grave I spoke of before, a convoy of Swiss Red Cross trucks came in. He spoke to the man in charge. The convoy was leaving some fifty tons of food, medicines, clothing etc.—all loaded and paid for by A.J.D.C.—black-coated men, indeed! The stuff comes here.
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Don’t let anyone believe otherwise. It came here. You can supply more statistics on how many Jews still live in Europe and on what remains for us to do—now that it is too late to save the many. That’s not in my line. Neither is putting in a good old-fashioned touch in my line—but I’m doing it. Here it is. You’ve read it. You can see what I’m getting at. Cantor, I beg you—tell this to the well-fed, well-clothed members of your congregation. Read them what I’ve written. Maybe they’ve seen some of these facts in their papers. I don’t know. So, in case they haven’t, read them this first-hand dope. I know you’re going to mention the J.D.C.’s drive—you always do. I know you’ll have your own plea to make. But consolidate mine into yours, will you please? Jolt them right off their seats. Tell them to do something about the crocodile tears they shed and have been shedding for the past ten years. Tell them to stop that, “how awful, tsk, tsk” talk and start some real talk. Money talks. Don’t give them a chance to say, “But.” It’s too late for “buts” now. Talk is O.K. in its place. The place isn’t here.
We must do something to help these people over here.
We’re not giving only to Jews—I know that. Every poor dog is aided over here. Tell them that, too. If you must get down on your knees and beg them to give, Cantor—do it—for God’s sake—do it! There can be no degradation to surpass what I have seen and heard. And if the complacent doubts why we won this war—while 4,000,000 died—then read them the 94th Psalm. It was news to me—maybe it will be news to them. Maybe that will let the moths out of their purses.
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