My father was a liberator, but not with me.
When I began teaching composition and rhetoric to freshmen at St. Edward’s University in Austin, I found repeatedly that I was the first Jew they had met. I wondered if I could put my exotic heritage to use, and with the blessings of my department, I created a course on literature of the Holocaust. The curriculum included work by Elie Weisel, Charlotte Delbo, Primo Levi, Victor Frankl and, in what seemed an afterthought, oral histories by World War II GIs who had liberated the camps. The grandfathers of many students were World War II veterans.
I did not anticipate the question students would ask: Did the trauma of the liberators affect their children, just as the trauma of the survivors had affected theirs?
Their question shook me.
My father had been a liberator.
Days after my fifth birthday, my mother and I went shopping for white sneakers to match the poodle-dog skirt I had received as a present. Instead of the sneakers, the sales clerk returned with a policeman who arrested my mother for shoplifting. Her face turned white; her hand clutched mine.
In the police car, she squeezed my arm. “Don’t leave me, Leila. Whatever you do, don’t let them take you,” she said. “If you go, I’ll never see you again.”
At the station, they disentwined our hands and led me away, her cries following me down the stairs to where my father stood.
I never saw my mother again. My father never spoke of her again. It was as if she had never existed.
I became the good daughter who made excellent grades in school, who was quiet and obedient. It took 20 years and law school to crack my façade. Nightmares began to haunt me. Panic attacks locked me in my house. I went to a counselor, who told me I needed to grieve for my mother. I needed to learn her story so I could recover my own.
I flew to New Jersey to talk to my father. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the kitchen of his medical office. He tried to convince me to stay in law school. “A career in law will always provide work, and work is everything,” he said. “Because no matter what else happens, you always have your work.”
As we rinsed our dishes, I took a deep breath: “Dad, I need to ask you something.”
Silence. I pushed ahead.
“I’ve started seeing a counselor,” I said. “I’ve been having nightmares. Everything has caught up with me.”
“We’ve acted as if nothing bad has happened to us or as if everything that went wrong didn’t affect us,” I said. “But it did, and I’m trying to figure out how it did.”
He turned away and looked out the window.
“So, Dad, I need to know: What happened to her—to my mother?”
Tears ran down my father’s face and fell onto his pressed, light blue Brooks Brothers shirt.
“I can’t talk about it—not yet,” he said in a soft voice. “Maybe someday … ”
I wrapped my arms around him, my own tears spotting his shirt. He pulled away. “We can’t cry,” he said. “We have to be strong. We can’t stop now, after all this time.”
When he died five years later, I thought I would never know my story. Days after his death, my brother and I found his World War II Army trunk in the basement of his office. Inside, under his captain’s jacket, sat a box brimming with photographs he took during his time as a doctor in Europe during the war. Under the images of Utah Beach, the French countryside and families (his arms embracing the children), the ruined churches and tanks, lay blurred images of skeletal bodies in striped pajamas. My father’s seismographic handwriting noted on the backs of the photos: “Nordhausen Concentration Camp, April 12, 1945.”
The horrific images of bodies, of endless graves, cartwheeled in my mind. What were these doing in my father’s trunk? He had never seen a concentration camp. They must have belonged to someone else.
“No,” my aunt told me a few days later, “They were his.” His division had liberated Nordhausen. Being a doctor, he stayed to treat survivors. After a few weeks, he had a mental breakdown.
Until then, “mental breakdown” had described my mother, not my father. He had denigrated therapists and psychologists every chance he had. His mantras had been, “Keep the flag flying.” “We pick ourselves up by our bootstraps.” “We must be strong.”
When my brother said he would ship the trunk—photos and all—to his home in Ohio, I said, “Sure, fine.”
In the next 12 years I married and had children. I forgot the photos.
One day, my sons came running into the house. “Mommy, the UPS man is bringing us a trunk,” one said. My brother had decided to divest himself of the trunk.
The next year, I began teaching the Holocaust literature course. When I told my husband my students’ question, he said, “Maybe it’s time to pay attention.”
What had witnessing the Holocaust in its final, awful moments done to American GIs? I could not find any books that explored this question; no books even used the word “trauma” in relationship to the liberators. I set out to talk with liberators so I could ask what no one had asked: How did it change your life to witness the camp? The answers became the basis for my book, Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma.
“The shock was complete and total,” George Kaiser told me. In Dachau, along with the 42nd Infantry Division, he came upon hundreds of prisoners in barracks lying on bare wooden shelves, four or five high.
“We weren’t forewarned,” he said. “We had no idea what we would find.” Five minutes later, he said, “But, no, it didn’t traumatize me.” When he began to relate details, he stopped speaking, covered his face with his hands and hurried from the room.
“I’m still not ready for it,” said Edgar Edelsack, who liberated Mauthausen with the 11th Armored Division. “That’s why I don’t like to stir up the sand. That’s why I gave away the awful photos I took.”
“Yes, it changed me,” Al Hirsch said, referring to Ohrdruf, which he liberated with the 89th Infantry Division. “Times I wondered—did you ever change back?” Later he said, “I was very bitter when I returned. People seemed so oblivious, unconcerned. ‘Oh, aren’t those concentration camps terrible.’ I heard them say more about going to a bad movie. It’s all laminated.”
Nat Futterman, who accompanied an officer to “some place called Buchenwald,” could barely speak of his memories. “When we got near Buchenwald,” he said, “you could smell that something was wrong. Smell it. The thing that got me was the gray leaves. I rubbed one; it was covered with ash. And, wha, wha, what is this? Then when we walked through the gates … .”
His hands froze in midair.
“That’s why he doesn’t talk about it,” his wife said.
“It’s very hard to even think about it because it was so overwhelming when you walked through those gates,” Futterman said. “We didn’t know what to do. Some started feeding rations to the prisoners. I said, ‘That’ll kill them.’ And then … .”
His body shuddered.
“They came over and kissed our feet. And they, they were—it was …” Tears ran down his cheeks; his voice cracked. “This has to be hell, this cannot be this world, can’t be … ” He pushed at the air.
Only one veteran continued speaking when he recalled walking through the camp gates. All the other men broke off, changing the subject or leaving the room. The one veteran able to step back far enough to observe himself, Carold Bland, said, “If I try to get too graphic, it’s pretty hard to keep talking.”
Only in the last 20 years have these liberators shared stories with their spouses (my stepmother learned of Nordhausen from me), and only a few have told their children.
This was not my story alone, though the veterans’ stories led me to my own.
Dr. Levinson at Cannes after the war. photo copyright 2011 Reuben Levinson Collection
My father had returned home with the sights and smells of Nordhausen engulfing him. Could he, like the people I interviewed, have remained in the grip of terror and trauma? They repressed the memories and locked the photographs away, not realizing that, along with grief and terror, the repression buried most other emotions as well.
For decades they did not speak of what they witnessed, first because no one wanted to hear it, then because they believed their suffering inconsequential compared with that of survivors. Besides, where would they have found help? The Veterans Administration performed lobotomies on more than 50,000 World War II veterans with psychological problems. If they had a choice, who would choose that?
When my father died, I learned from one of my mother’s sisters that after her arrest, the judge had presented her with a choice: She could commit herself to the state psychiatric institution or she could go to jail. She went into the institution. My father divorced her and won custody. At some point, she left the institution. Her shame and misery apparently intensified her drinking, and she died alone and destitute.
Had my father’s trauma prevented him from recognizing that my mother was mentally ill and self-medicating with alcohol? Had it prevented him from protecting me from her destructive behavior? Had it prevented him from helping me to grieve? My grief would have faced him with his own.
I have yet to learn specifics about my mother or her years after our separation. Now that I have gained some understanding and forgiveness for my father, I am ready to begin learning about my mother.
My husband observed that, in a sense, Hitler’s victims included my family. The GI liberators brought the trauma of the Holocaust home with them. Those words provided the last piece of my puzzle, which, completed, gave me the gift of forgiveness for my father and my mother—and for me. It was forgiveness that I needed to heal and create new possibilities—as a daughter, a wife and a mother.
Veterans need to know that silence does not protect our children. Children feel the anguish and absorb the pain, a fog that obscures insight and exit routes. No pharmaceutical company can find the right pill for what ails us. The only cure is for veterans to tell their stories and for us to listen. We all must face the trauma together.
Leila Levinson lives in Austin. She is the author of Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma.