Friday, May 23, 2014

Free at last ... but then what?

Louis Van Thyn, pre-World War II photo
(22nd in a series)
     "You was not normal. On one side, we were happy, and on the other side, we were not happy."
      -- Louis Van Thyn, on liberation from concentration camp
      One early January morning in 1945, all was quiet in the camp hospital at the Janina coal-mine, sub-concentration camp in south Poland. It must've been strange; it must've left my father (Louis Van Thyn) and 26 other men confined there wondering.
      No Nazi guards around, no activity. What the hell was going on?
      That sound of silence was the sound of freedom. But how could they know that?
      What they soon realized, what they certainly hoped, was this: The Nazis had abandoned camp, had bolted, and probably were on the run, trying to save their own lives.
      Same was true for the nearby big camp, the camp of death -- of the gas chambers -- at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Nazis gone, camp empty.
      There, and at Janina and other places, only a few days earlier, they had taken all the able prisoners -- many sick, deathly, many ravished and diminished to sub-human condition -- and marched them for miles and miles and days and days, the infamous "Death Marches."
       It was obvious, and had been for some time (or since D-Day -- June 6, 1944) that the Allied forces were coming, that they -- Germany, the Nazis -- would not win the war, that their world was about to be destroyed, just as they had destroyed most of Europe.
      My mother and the women imprisoned in Block 10 -- the grotesque medical-experimentation block -- were among those who were marched into the woods, into the middle of nowhere. How, in the middle of the usual brutally cold winter in Germany and Poland, did they survive that, on top of 2 1/2 years in the concentration camp?
       But Dad was lucky ... if you consider taking a copper hammer to the left elbow lucky.
       Because he lost count counting the prisoners coming out of a mine shaft where they were helping build an elevator, a Nazi guard -- a kapo (German criminals used as guards in the camps) -- got angry and struck him on the elbow. The wound required an operation and a camp hospital stay.
       When the "Death March" began -- Dad recalled that as Jan. 6 or 8 -- Dad and the others were left behind.
       So it was quiet ... and there was hope. Was this the day they must've thought about so often, just as they must've thought that this could be their final day?
       Can you imagine, can you put yourself in their place? This thought just haunts me, and it always will. How could my father (and mother) and all those Holocaust survivors not have come away from the imprisonment, and the punishment -- some of it severe -- and the starvation and sickness and, yes, death all around them, and not be scarred mentally?
       There was also fear, just as there had been for almost five years. Here is what else faced Dad and his fellow prisoners: What to do next?
        For the first time in those years, there was no one to give them orders, to abuse them or harass them ... or feed them the slop they'd (barely) lived on.   
        How could they leave that camp and be sure that the Nazis weren't waiting for them around the next turn? What was out there? Where was food and housing? How to get back to Antwerp, where Dad had lived with his wife and in-laws before (and after) the German invasion? How to get back to Amsterdam, where he'd grown up, where his parents and brothers and so many friends lived?
        And, what had happened to all his people? Were they alive?
        So, as Dad recalled in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview, they just stayed where they were. For two weeks, they just stayed right there in the Janina camp. It actually seemed the safest place to be.
        "Where could we go? We didn't know where to go," Dad told the interviewer. "We no spoke the [Polish] language. We don't know where to go. Where do you have to go? You never been there before in your life. I mean, I know where to go to the coal mines; we walked to the coal mines every day; that was about a half mile walking."
         For eight days, the prisoners roamed the camp, looking for food, for supplies, for clothes perhaps ... hoping, waiting, and no doubt anxious about what was in their immediate future.
         "How did you know when you were free?" the interviewer asked Dad.
        "When the Russian Army came in the camp," he answered, recalling the events of 51 years earlier. "After eight days -- we heard shooting and everything in the days before -- then a Russian officer came in with some soldiers.
        "The officer, he was not older than 20 years, he was a Jewish boy, he says, 'The next war is against the United States.' That's what he was telling us. He spoke German. And then he left ... he left."
        (And you could say that the Russian officer was correct -- the next war was against the U.S., but it was a Cold War.)
        "There was no Red Cross, there was nothing there," Dad said of the liberation. "You know there was no organization in 1945. The Polish people [in the area] were mad that the Russians were coming in; they were scared of the Russians, too."
         Interviewer: Can you describe the day you were liberated?
         Dad: "Yeah, yeah. I was still lying on the bed, but I could walk already. We no had no food the last couple of days. People were not coming in the camp; the civilians was not coming in the camp. The gate was open, I remember that. We walk in the camp met [with] a couple more [men]. We were with two from Holland, one Joe DeHaardt (don't know if he's still living, but I saw him after the war a couple of times), and then we saw the Russian Army coming in."
         Free, but not really free -- and certainly not "home," whatever meaning that had by then.
         And what of their mindset? The interviewer asked Dad to describe how he felt.
         "You was not normal," Dad said. "On one side, we were happy, and on the other side, we were not happy. And then we find out that Auschwitz was liberated, too, and there was a place in Katowice [Poland] where we could go and they would care of us."
          Interviewer: "I understand why you were happy, but why weren't you happy?"
         "Boy, that is something I nimmer [never] realize," Dad answered. "You was happy for yourself, but then you find out what happened around you, you couldn't be happy. ..."
          Next: The meaning of D-Day.



  1. From Tommy Youngblood: An amazing story. Well-written.

  2. From Maxie Hays: Your Dad and those that survived with him were strong people both mentally and physically. WOW!!!! Love the story but it is so sad.

  3. From Tommy Canterbury: Your series on your Dad should be a TV documentary. It is terribly fascinating and unbelievable (I realize that is an unusual term but I do not know how to explain the feelings). Amazing how humans can treat each other like this and even more amazing some can survive mentally and physically. I am really at a loss for words with the writing but also spellbound. Thanks for the courage to write it.