May 5, 1945, was a gloriously sunny day in Europe. For a young Army tank commander and the prisoners of war he was about to liberate, it was also a day they will never forget.
On Wednesday night, alumnus and veteran Don Behm, ’51, and Holocaust survivor Jimmy Lichtman – who met for the first time more than 60 years later at a 2009 reunion of Don’s Army unit – shared their stories of survival, hope and gratitude. The two, unable for decades to speak of the atrocities they experienced and witnessed, pridefully shared the stage and their incredible and at times, emotional, stories with students, faculty, staff and community members, more than 500 in number.
Earlier in the day, Jimmy visited Columbian High School and was the guest speaker at an assembly of about 150 students, and in a more intimate setting, he spoke with Heidelberg students in Dr. Marc O’Reilly’s Human Rights class and Professor Rita Barga’s Civic Engagement class. His visit to Heidelberg concluded on Thursday with an interdenominational prayer service for the campus.
President Rob Huntington, who participated in the Civic Engagement class earlier in the day, said. “It is an overwhelming experience to begin to understand what these two great human beings have done for us.” Directing his comments to Jimmy, he added, “You survived an incredible hell, and it is an honor to be in the same room with you.”
A liberator’s recollections
Don opened the presentation by taking the audience back to May 5, 1945 – three days before the end of World War II. “We had no idea what we were getting into,” he said of his orders to drive his tank through the gate of the Mauthausen Prison Camp in Austria. “The Army had not told us anything.”
“We broke the chain and lock, a 2-by-6 on the inside shattered and the gates swung open. Now, I have seen happy people in my life, but I’ve never seen anyone as happy as these people. We had just saved their lives,” he recalled.
The jubilation quickly turned to horror for Behm, who witnessed the carnage inside the gates of Mauthausen, where more than 60,000 Jews lost their lives during the Holocaust. The sights of corpses piled several feet high, a crematorium with a still-warm oven and a gas chamber were nearly more than a young man at the tender age of 19 could bear to see. Many of the POWs stormed the gates when the U.S. soldiers arrived, but Jimmy was not among them. Badly injured and perilously close to death, he was simply too weak to walk the short distance to the gates. Once inside, an American soldier tended to his wounds and gave him chewing gym, chocolate and cigarettes.
Ironically, it may have been Jimmy’s injury that saved him. Many of the prisoners, he said, rushed to eat large meals of heavy food which their starved bodies couldn’t tolerate, but again, his immobility prevented him from joining them. Several hundred died shortly after being freed.
For the liberators, there was no celebration. Instead, they prayed. “We went to a local church, got down on our knees and thanked our Maker. And then we came out and got drunk,” Don admitted to a chorus of laughs.
Auschwitz, then Mauthausen: No. 67245
Rewind 18 months. Jimmy was 17 years old, an only child who had just been expelled from school for being Jewish. He was sent to a camp, instructed to pack a bag and then, placed on Auschwitz-bound cattle wagons with a large group of people. There was no food, no water, no space to sit and two large drums for human waste. “This is time the hell started,” he said.
Arriving at Auschwitz, Jimmy was separated from his mother, and then, at the hand of the notorious Josef Mengele, he was herded with a group of men who were able to work, divided from those who were less able. The prisoners inquired about a familiar yet odd smell. They were cruelly informed that the smell was human flesh from the burning bodies of their families. “I saw with my own eyes babies thrown onto the pile,” he said.
After 30 days at Auschwitz, Jimmy was sent to Mauthausen. By now, the prisoners had “lost our names, only number.” His was 67245. They were given a uniform, which was the only clothing they were allowed. “No buttons, only wire,” he recalled. The prisoners slept on a 30-inch-wide wood plank, four assigned to each plank.
“It was hell of hell.”
Each day, the prisoners would stand for three hours, and then sent to work. Jimmy performed jobs such as hauling human waste and bodies to the crematorium and drilling into mountains to create tunnels. “They would be beating you … faster, faster,” he said.
For Jimmy, though, the most traumatic experience was witnessing the death of his father. Through tearful eyes, he recounted that 12 men, including his father, were made to undress and then were beaten to death with a 2-by-4. He was told that if his screaming didn’t cease, he would be next. So he went silent.
“My father had piece of bread in his hand, about 2 inches by 3 inches, and he tried to give it to me, and that’s when he died,” he said.
Alone, scared, but free
Jimmy’s aforementioned foot injury, near the end of his imprisonment, prevented him from working, which meant he was invaluable and was in line to be killed. “Then, we heard rumors the Russians were coming.” Shortly thereafter – probably within a day before he may have died – the American tanks drove through the Mauthausen gates, delivering the hopeful message, “You are free. We will take care of you.”
Believing he was completely alone and with a desire to come to America, Jimmy returned to his hometown to recover about $3,200 in gold his father had buried in their garden. While there, someone told him his mother was alive. “I thought it was impossible that she had survived, but I found my mother,” he said.
A productive life
Eventually, they immigrated to America, penniless but full of hope. Jimmy secured a job in an electrical appliance company. “I worked very, very hard, went to school at night (to learn English),” he said. Working seven days a week, he banked his $50 weekly pay and lived on tips from delivering appliances and other jobs with the company.
After 15 years, he bought the company, made it highly successful and carved a productive and enjoyable life for his family -- wife, Martha, herself a Holocaust survivor, two children and four grandchildren.
With conviction in his voice, Jimmy had a message for the Heidelberg students who attended his presentation. “Stay in school, always be honest, and work hard.”
"Because this is still the best country in the world.”
Reflecting on his life’s successes, Jimmy said, “If somebody had told me I would live long enough to meet my liberators – two or three or four of them – this is something unbelievable.”
Telling his story: ‘Why me?’
For both men, it took several decades before they were able to speak about their experiences. During one night of insomnia several years ago, Jimmy had the revelation that not talking about his experience was wrong. “So I go now and I start to talk and tell my wife and my children and my grandchildren. I am happy I started to do it.”
Still, though, he asks why. “There is not a day that I do not ask God, ‘Why me?’ It hurts. … I was not smarter. I was not stronger. There is no explanation why I survived. I cannot explain it to myself, why me. I have no answer from God.”
Eternally thankful for his life, Jimmy has committed himself to helping others on a daily basis. “I am now on this side of fence, and I remember what it is like to not have,” he said, adding that he only buys American products.
He concluded: “God bless you and God bless the U.S.A. I am the most loyal person in U.S.A.”
Thanks to the graciousness and openness of Don and Jimmy, March 24-25, 2010, is a day Heidelberg University will never forget.