I interviewed a Holocaust refugee and another liberator on Friday last… rolled into one! A special man. A German Jew whose father was mortally injured on Kristalnacht, Henry Birnbrey was sponsored and got out of Germany as a young teen and was given special permission from FDR to join the Army-previously classified “enemy alien” for his German birth- and stumbled upon the train as a forward artillery spotter scouting positions in the lead up to the final battle at Magdeburg. Henry was in the 531st AAA of the 30th Infantry Division- Survivor Steve Barry mentions forward artillery spotters in his memoirs- and Henry was one of them. Much of what follows is his testimony as given to the Breman Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, interspersed with his memories as privately published in his war memoirs.
I was born in Dortmund, Germany in 1923. During 1937 and 1938 my parents made applications for me to emigrate to Palestine, New Zealand and the USA. The USA visa came in first and an emergency visa was issued to me the week Hitler invaded Austria, as the various agencies feared that this invasion would be followed by war.
I left Germany on March 31, 1938, leaving my parents behind. In the meanwhile, my father had already been arrested. He was accused of having made statements against the government. He was released with the promise to abandon his business and livelihood. Consequently, we lived without income during the years 1937 and 1938. After I left Germany, my father was picked up again on Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) and he died a couple of months later from the wounds received when he was picked up and arrested. My mother died a few months later. The death certificate of my father stated the cause of death as “heart failure” and only in 1999 did I finally locate the documents that verified what happened in 1938, but too late to entitle me to compensation, which had been denied because their records showed a natural death.
The Birmingham Section of the council of Jewish Women sponsored my immigration to the US, and the social services were provided by the Jewish Children Service here in Atlanta. I moved to Atlanta in January 1939. In Birmingham and Atlanta I lived in foster homes.
I supported myself by working in a clothing store, later managing a shoe store, and in 1942 I went to work for a local accountant. In 1943 I joined the US Army. In 1944 I was with the Normandy invasion forces. During my service in the army, but towards the end of the war, I came across a train of cattle cars full of Jewish concentration camp survivors and people who did not survive. We opened the cars and were shocked to see the condition of the occupants of these cattle cars. During this same week as we were advancing toward the Oder River, we passed ditches full of corpses of concentration camp inmates who had been marched to the West to escape the Russian advance. Around April 1945, I became a counter intelligence agent and interrogated German POWs and citizens.
After the war, I found out that most of my family had perished in the concentration camps. My mother was one of ten children, and out of that family, two first cousins survived. These cousins had made aliyah in 1937. My father was one of three brothers and again, two first cousins survived. One had made aliyah to Israel in 1938 and the other one survived behind the Iron Curtain. The rest of the family perished. I found documents in the Berlin archive that showed when these people were born and when they died. What I was not prepared for was the detail of information which included the place they were assembled, the number of the transport which took them to the concentration camp and all sort of sordid details.
Henry continues: During World War II, I wanted to get to our hometown but I could not because the British Army was over there and we were a little bit south of there, but my experience as a soldier I think is worth mentioning. First of all, we were in the neighborhood of Magdeburg on reconnaissance. And we had, we had this horrible odor. We didn’t know what was happening. And it turned out to be one of the freight trains full of Jews being shipped from one concentration camp to another. And therefore I was able to personally witness this terrible inhumanity that was taking place. And all of these were my fellow Jews and brothers and everything else. They were almost, they had been reduced to such a non-human state it was impossible to communicate with them. I mean, all we could do is to try to get them food and ask for help. There was nothing we could do. These people were half dead, half crazy. I mean they’d been locked in these cars, were lying on the floor. It was just a horrible thing to witness, and something I’ll never forget as long as I live.
And from Henry’s memoirs…. skeptics note again a liberator describing “walking skeletons” ….We moved on to the Braunschweig (Brunswick) area. Here, along the highway, we encountered ditches full of dead concentration camp prisoners who had been marched from one camp to another and were shot before they had a chance to be liberated.
…In April of 1945 while on reconnaissance near Magdeburg we encountered a horrible odor. As we got closer we discovered an abandoned train of cattle cars. When we opened the cars they were filled with half dead and dead Jews being transported from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to another camp. The sub-human conditions to which these people were subjected to had reduced them to a very sorry state. We did not know how long they had been in those cars, they looked like walking skeletons and could barely speak. Unfortunately we had no food to share with them, which gave us a very helpless feeling. When headquarters was notified, someone evacuated all German civilians from a nearby village, Hillersleben and turned this village into a hospital. Unfortunately we could not stay around to learn more, to speak to and encourage these people or perform other deeds of human kindness…I was reminded of the words of the prophet Ezekiel-”He took me down in the spirit of G-d and set me down in the valley. It was full of bones.”
…and this is where I (MR) am trying to put the pieces of the story together….Click below to see Henry telling his story… from the Breman Museum.