Toward the end of World War II, Sid Shafner was headed toward Munich with the U.S. Army’s 42nd Infantry Division when he and his reconnaissance detail spotted the church steeple of a German town that was labeled on their map as Dachau.
As was customary, the U.S. soldiers opened fire on the steeple, because that’s where German snipers typically hid. But this time, Shafner remembers, the reaction was different.
“All hell broke loose in the village,” he says. “All sorts of people showed up in strange clothes, speaking a strange language. Some said, ‘Thank you, liberators.’ Some fell down and couldn’t stand up.”
Shafner recalls two kids telling the U.S. soldiers that the Germans were killing people in a concentration camp there and, at first, Shafner didn’t believe it.
Then the U.S. forces stormed the camp and found the horror.
“You want to talk about inhumanity to man,” he says. “What people saw in the newspapers was a Boy Scout picnic compared to what we saw. They were machine-gunning them right into box cars.”
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Shafner, a radio operator in the war, is one of the speakers at Holocaust Awareness Week, which is being held March 8–11 at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The concentration camp liberator, who is now 88 years old, will talk about his experiences at 11 a.m. on Monday, March 8, in the University Memorial Center, Room 235.
Shafner recalls that his fellow soldiers found some German guards that hadn’t already fled Dachau. “They started running like hell,” he says. “So we rounded them up and had the inmates tell us who did most of the tormenting.”
One of the older American soldiers, whose family had fled Germany in the 1930s, lined up some of the Germans who had been identified by the prisoners as the worst offenders and shot them, Shafner says.
That soldier was turned in by the Swiss Red Cross and faced a court martial. According to Shafner, General George Patton himself defended the soldier, saying he would have done the same thing.
The soldier was found not guilty. And the two kids who told Shafner and his fellow soldiers about the concentration camp continued on to Munich with them and stayed with the division until the end of the war, performing kitchen and cooking chores in exchange for food.
Shafner took those kids under his wing, he says, and to this day he still stays in touch with one who now lives in Israel, although now it’s by e-mail instead of handwritten letter.
He says he will bring not only his stories but some of his memorabilia to his March 8 talk, partly in case any Holocaust deniers show up.
“If anybody thinks it didn’t happen, I’ll have enough evidence to show it did happen.”
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Holocaust Awareness Week, now in its 26th year, features several guest speakers and films, including Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh. The film’s director,
Roberta Grossman, will host a question-and-answer session after the 7 p.m. screening of the film, which has won audience awards at 11 film festivals, including the 2009 Denver Jewish Film Festival.
The film is about Senesh, a 22-year-old woman who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944 with a group of Jewish volunteers from Palestine so that she could try to rescue Jews from her native Hungary. She was captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis, and her beloved mother witnessed the ordeal, first as a fellow prisoner and finally as an advocate who tried to save her daughter.
Grossman told Boulder Weekly that she first read Senesh’s diary when she was in junior high school, and “was immediately taken by Hannah and her intensity and her view of the world. It was just one teenage girl reading another teenage girl’s diary.” Since that time, she always wanted to make a film about Senesh, Grossman says.
It didn’t happen until she had a daughter of her own. (She has two daughters and a son.) Grossman says the film can be seen as “a mother/ daughter love story” that often takes the perspective of Senesh’s mother, who is forced to watch her daughter make choices that were not just controversial, but dangerous.
Grossman says that during the Q&A session that follows screenings of the film, she is often asked why she leaves open the question of what motivated Senesh to join that mission, what the impact of the mission was, and what happened to Senesh’s mother and brother, who she says lived on and kept telling Senesh’s story publicly.
A shortened version of the film, which got a limited theatrical release, will be shown on PBS on April 13, Grossman says.