Just over a month ago, Armand “Steve” Baklor — a Jewish Pikesville native now living in Melbourne, Florida — called the Jewish Times to discuss details of the magazine’s Jan. 18 cover story.
The article, called “The Soap Myth,” outlined the conception of a Baltimore-born playwright’s work of the same name. The story also dug into the controversial subject of whether or not Nazi’s used parts of Jewish corpses to make products like soap.
Baklor, 96, served in the U.S. Army Air Corps — not to be confused with the Air Force, he said — from 1943 to 1946. During that time, Baklor’s regiment liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp in Bavaria, Germany. He not only photographed the atrocities he saw throughout the camp, but also interrogated the German soldiers on site. Baklor said while he was there he saw the facility where Nazis made soap and candles out of Jewish bodies.
“There was a small building they had. They would cut off the head the arms and the legs and they would cut the body in half to make them right-sized to fit in these small black caldrons where they were boiled down,” he said. “That’s what I saw. What else can I say?”
Throughout the “Soap Myth” story, there are quotes from Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust historian who previously served as project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and oversaw its creation. For decades, Berenbaum has maintained that although there is evidence the Nazis tried to make soap out of the fat from murdered Jews, they never went through with it because people were so emaciated they could not extract enough fat to make the production economically feasible.
“It annoyed the hell out of me, because they weren’t there,” Baklor said of Berenbaum’s assertions. “It was so horrible.”
Like Holocaust survivors, the number of living concentration camp liberators is shrinking. In order to preserve their stories, media outlets, museums and even liberator/survivor family members feel an urgency to document eyewitnesses’ stories.
Baklor’s service in World War II was not limited to his eyewitness account of German atrocities, and just ahead of Yom HaShoah on May 1, he shared many of his war stories — some scary, some funny — with the JT.
“There were a number of times when life wasn’t the best, but we made it,” he said. “We won that war.”
Baltimore to Bavaria
Baklor said his documentation of WWII through photographs began during Labor Day weekend in 1939, while he was still a teenager. He and four Jewish friends were at Camp Airy in Thurmont, Maryland, when they heard over the radio that Adolf Hitler and Germany had invaded Poland.
Baklor said he snapped a photograph and called it, “Look Out Hitler, We’re Coming to Get Ya!”
Sure enough, on January 29, 1943, Baklor enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Monday of this week marked the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, established by Heinrich Himmler in 1933, for political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals and others.
After Kristallnacht in 1939, the number of Jews incarcerated at Dachau increased dramatically. Many died at the camp from execution, malnutrition and disease. Between 1933 and 1945 Dachau records document nearly 32,000 prisoner deaths, though it is estimated thousands of additional deaths remain undocumented.
The Nazis made distinctions between concentration camps and death camps. In the latter, the Jews who arrived by train weren’t expected to live more than several hours. Although the Nazis didn’t designate it as a death camp, the corpses at Dachau were so copious that in 1942 a crematorium was built in order to incinerate them. Baklor remembers the stench of burning bodies to this day.
“Miles before we arrived at our destination, we smelled something,” Baklor said, reading from the notes he used for speaking engagements. “The smell of death never goes away. The noxious odor stays with you forever.”
Prior to arriving at Dachau, Baklor said he and fellow soldiers were not given much information about their mission.
“We didn’t know that we were going to Dachau. We were told what to take with us, and to get in the trucks,” Baklor said. “We rode through the countryside to Dachau concentration camp and there were infantry soldiers ahead of us. Since we were combat soldiers we followed the infantry into the camp. All of us were told by Gen. Eisenhower, nothing was to be cleaned up. Leave things as they were. Take photographs and interrogate everybody. That’s all we knew, and that’s all we did.”
Baklor described the thousands of Dachau prisoners as, “the living dead.” When army soldiers entered the gates the prisoners were, “wide eyed staring at us, not knowing what was really happening. They were dirty, skinny and emaciated. They poured out of the barracks,” he said, again reading from his notes.
He continued, “Except for the dead who were in storage vats or worse, they were in parts. Arms, legs, decapitated torsos. Put in to big black pots in which the parts were boiled for fat, later used to manufacture soap and candles. The bones were ground to be used as chicken feed, or as fertilizer.”
Baklor said he couldn’t remember if he saw bars of soap in that building.
Despite the horrific things Baklor saw at Dachau, repressing the memories has never been an option for him.
“He’s not shy about talking about anything,” said Loren Goldfarb, Baklor’s stepson. “He’s pretty much an open book. You never hear him say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about that.’”
Goldfarb’s mother Ilene married Baklor 35 years ago when Goldfarb was 12. Goldfarb said Baklor showed him his photographs of service in World War II once he thought Goldfarb was old enough.
“It came up pretty early on. It was right around the time of my bar mitzvah,” Goldfarb said. “He showed me the photographs he had from the war. Included among them were the photographs he took in Dachau. I remember it was just incredibly disturbing imagery.”
Four years ago, Goldfarb — raised in Pikesville, but now living in Indialantic, Florida, not far from his parents — began recording an oral history interview with his stepfather. He said he is concerned that as Holocaust survivors and camp liberators die, future generations will think of the Holocaust as just another topic in a history book.
“I was a Civil War buff when I was a kid,” Goldfarb said. “I just found it fascinating and interesting. But I had no emotional connection to it. It was almost like it didn’t happen. Someone could have made the whole thing up and I still would have thought it was interesting.”
Similarly, he said, if his stepfather hadn’t been the one to show him those disturbing photos, providing a detailed explanation of what they were, he might have assumed they were images from a film set.
All across the world
During his interview with the JT, Baklor recited many war stories. Once he finished one, his wife Ilene, could be heard in in the background suggesting which story he should tell next. Some stories were funny, like the time he was in Germany with his regiment, driving in an open-top vehicle through the rain. The crew stopped at what they thought was an abandoned building to dry themselves off and pulled out their power generator. The next morning they discovered an additional power cord, one that didn’t belong to them. They traced the cord down a flight of stairs and discovered they spent the night above a brewery.
“We all thought that we could drink the brewery dry, but we couldn’t,” Baklor said laughing. “I still have a mug from that brewery, and it’s still open today, I believe.”
[pullquote]“I think that what I’m talking about maybe means something to other
people. And maybe not all, but some, will rethink what they are doing. I feel that I have a duty to say it.”
The mug wasn’t the only thing Baklor found in Europe and brought back to the U.S. On a trip from northern Africa to London, Baklor and two other soldiers stopped in Paris and visited a kennel, where Baklor fell in love with an affectionate dog.
“I put my face close to the cage and this beautiful Doberman pinscher licked my face and I said, ‘Hey dog, you just bought a man,’” he said. Baklor called him Turk, and upon arriving back to the U.S., Turk lived with Baklor for nine years before dying.
“One thing I remember about him is he would look at me when I was talking to him, and he looked like he was about to say something,” Baklor said. “Of course I knew dogs didn’t talk – I was pretty sure – but he looked like he could. He was a wonderful dog. I still love him.”
Some of the stories were not so funny. Once Baklor’s plane was failing and he couldn’t find his parachute. Another time, his finger became infected, sending gangrene from his hand to his armpit. Still, Baklor told even the scariest stories with a sense of humor. But whenever Baklor talked about Dachau he became very serious.
“I’m convinced that the world is made up of civilized people and barbaric people,” Baklor said. “The barbarians look just like us. And sometimes they cause us civilized people to behave in a barbaric way.”
He added that because of this, something like the Holocaust, “can happen again, because so many humans are barbaric. If they weren’t so barbaric it wouldn’t happen again, but I feel that I have to do what I can, and that is to tell what happened.”
Recently, Baklor has been in and out of the hospital, and mostly keeps to his bed when he is home. He doesn’t have as many opportunities to speak at area high schools about his service and his eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities, but Baklor knows his story still has value.
“There aren’t many times when one can do something that means something to other people,” Baklor said. “I think that what I’m talking about maybe means something to other people. And maybe not all, but some, will rethink what they are doing. I feel that I have a duty to say it.”
Discovery Channel Tells Camp Liberator’s Stories
On Wednesday, the Discovery Channel premieres a new documentary called “Liberation Heroes: The Last Eyewitnesses.” The film is comprised of oral histories collected by filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California.
More than a dozen military personnel — soldiers, nurses, chaplains — from U.S., British, and Soviet Armies retell their eyewitness accounts of liberating Nazi concentration camps.
An emotionally charged section of the film, which is made almost entirely of poignant moments, is when most interviewees admit that for years, sometimes decades, after the war ended, they could not bring themselves to confide in their loved ones, repressing the inhumanity they witnessed.
Retired Maj. Gen. William P. Levine said, “I was keeping it a secret. I was dead wrong.” The interviewer can be heard off camera asking Levine if he ever told his first wife, who died in 1975, about liberating a camp. Brought to tears, Levine replied, “She never knew. I couldn’t tell her.”
Not knowing something when one should is a major theme in the documentary. No matter which country the military personnel came from, or what position they held, nearly every eyewitness said a version of the same thing: they knew that Hitler was targeting Jewish people throughout Europe, but upon arriving to whichever camp they liberated, were completely unprepared for what they were about to see. It is suggested later in the film that the U.S. had enough information to better prepare soldiers.
“We heard rumors there was a camp for Jews a few kilometers down the road. We knew Hitler wasn’t crazy about Jews. But we didn’t know about concentration camps,” said Alan Moskin, an infantry staff sergeant who liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp, speaking to a group of privates at the Rutgers University Army ROTC. “Entering that camp was the most horrific sight I’ve ever seen and hope to see the rest of my life.”
As its title suggests, the film celebrates the service of camp liberators, but it also critiques the response by the U.S. to enter into the war and take action liberating concentration and death camps.
“The World Jewish Congress sent telegrams Aug. 29, 1942 [describing what was happening in concentration camps],” said Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum. He added that the headlines in American newspaper were buried deep within the paper, not as front page news, and weren’t cited as confirmed government reports, but as claims made by Jewish officials. “Those who wanted to know could know. The information was all out there, but it hadn’t reached the threshold in which it hit you over the head.”
Toward the end of the film, Moskin plainly states the important roles that young members of the military have for standing up to hate and genocide across the world.
“I want you to be an upstander, not a bystander. You’re going to be the last generation to ever hear from people like me and hear people like the survivors,” Moskin said, again speaking to the soldiers at Rutgers. “You’re generation has to get rid of all this. My generation didn’t do it.”