Homecrest World War II veteran Seymour Kaplan was a baby-faced, 19-year-old machine gunner with the 42nd Infantry Division in Munich when his captain brought him to Dachau concentration camp as a Yiddish interpreter on April 29, 1945 — 71 years ago today.
But don’t call him a Holocaust liberator.
“The moment belonged to the people who survived the camp,” says Kaplan, 90. “I only walked in.”
The horrors he witnessed at Nazi Germany’s first death depot were appalling and frightening. Outside stood a train of 36 boxcars overflowing with the rotting corpses of prisoners transferred from other camps in the last weeks of the war.
Inside roved the restless spirits of the countless thousands who were starved and gassed to death, and the thousands more who endured torturous and often deadly experiments without their consent, including naked immersions in icy water, exposure to noxious gases, and sterilizations developed expressly for the mass genocide of Jews, Roma, and other groups Hitler considered racially or genetically bottom-rung.
Dachau’s diabolical conditions overloaded the young soldier’s senses.
“Things happened to your mind,” Kaplan says. “Part of the feeling I had was walking on ground that was wet and slippery from urine and excrement.”
He remembers coming upon a heap of ashes in front of a gas chamber.
“I picked them up and wondered how many people I was holding and who they were,” he says. “I was afraid to put them down.”
After the war, the heroic freedom fighter began a new life and kept his ghastly memories corked for 50 years.
“When I came home, my mother and father couldn’t stand listening to it, and I felt dirtied by it; the war just disappeared from my mind,” says Kaplan, who started his own garment-manufacturing company, married, became a father, and attended evening classes at Brooklyn College, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree.
The fiendish flashbacks throbbing silently at the heart of his soul finally returned with a vengeance — accompanied by sobbing fits and recurrent nightmares — when he attended an army reunion, and later discovered he had post-traumatic stress disorder, a demon he battles these days with award-winning public talks about his compelling rescue work during one of history’s darkest periods.
A Muslim high-school student, struck by Kaplan’s comment that you couldn’t be among the dead without hearing them talk, asked him what they said.
“I told her they said, ‘You must tell everybody,’ ” he says.
Follow me on Twitter @BritShavana