Often, around the time of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Commemoration Day, Community has printed the stories of survivors and their families.
In addition to the survivors stories, we must also take time to remember the liberators – the soldiers who liberated the concentration camps. I spoke with one of those liberators, Donald Guss, last summer, and as he told me his story, I promised him I would share it with Community’s readers for Yom HaShoah this spring.
Unfortunately, by the time I sat down to talk with him, Donald Guss was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and on March 20, he passed away. His widow, Madilyn Guss, agreed to let Community publish his story as planned in tribute to him.
While his memory of the time was not as clear as it once had been, Guss was able to supplement his stories with excerpts from an autobiography he had put together several years before and with some prompting from his wife.
In March 1945, toward the end of World War II, Guss and his Army unit were serving in Germany. In his memoir, he wrote, “Some days, we walked eastward and some days, we leap-frogged in trucks over a town already held by our guys and detrucked at another unopposed town – none that I remember the names.
“A name I well remember and will until I die is Gotha,” he continued. “It wound up in east Germany after the war. We were the first to open a concentration camp there. We broke the lock on the gate, but no one rushed out. We saw only human wrecks.
“The German guards had recently fled. No civilians bothered to let them out or even offer some food. We had only the wrong things to give them – chocolate D bars, highly concentrated bars of chocolate which were too rich for starving men. We had K rations and C’s, all too heavy a fare for these poor souls. We gave them anyway.
“Once in a while, even today, I hear of some Nazi sympathizers who claimed concentration camps and death camps are not true – ‘world Jewry has made it up.’ Don’t believe a word of it … I saw it firsthand,” Guss wrote. “After we left, medical people with proper rations moved in. We could only watch a few more of them die.”
When Guss’ unit arrived in town, he was one of the first ones to reach the camp door. The soldiers heard noises, so they broke the door down and, “these people came marching out that were like skeletons. Everybody was astounded by the condition of the people.”
Guss couldn’t remember the name of the camp, but described it as a holding facility for people en route to other camps. Inside the camp, he passed an open grave filled with skeletal bodies.
He also broke into a large barracks. Many of the people there couldn’t walk. There wasn’t much they could do to help. “A couple of men came out,” he said. I gave them chocolate and it made them sick because they weren’t used to eating chocolate, so I stopped giving out the chocolate bars,” Guss recalled.
All they could do was wait for the Red Cross and the medical personnel.
Guss, only 18 years old at the time, was posted at the door “to keep people from getting out or in” because he spoke a little Yiddish.
For his service during the war, not just as part of the team that liberated the camp, Guss received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.