Morton Waitzman wasn’t even off his D-Day troop transport ship when he witnessed death for the first time in his young life.
“It was about 4 or 5 in the morning, June 6, 1944,” he recalls. “The weather was miserable. We had to climb down these nets and jump into an infantry landing craft.
“The nets were swaying from side to side. If you missed your jump, you were into the sea and gone.”
For an 18-year-old kid from Chicago, the sight of comrades sinking to their deaths under the churning waters of the English Channel was a sickening prelude to one of the bloodiest days in military history. Clinging to the netting, he eyed the yawning gap between himself and the landing craft.
“On my back I had a radio. I had hand grenades, a rifle, ammunition, and wire for my communications unit. It all weighed more than I did, I believe.”
Waitzman made the jump safely, but he didn’t land with the main Allied forces that morning. He was taken to a relatively quiet stretch of beach where he set up radio communications with the French Underground—and also with the Allied forces, to report on how accurate their bombardments were.
“There was tremendous loss of life on D-Day, terrible injuries,” he says. “But by the end of the first night we were able to get beyond the beach and the seawall to the hills beyond.”
Waitzman had joined the Army in January 1943, largely motivated by his Jewish faith. He’d he’d heard about the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.
Still, nothing could have prepared him for what he discovered in the spring of 1945, as his unit pushed into a small German town and blew down the walls of what appeared to be a military camp.
“There were a couple of thousand dead bodies in there,” Waitzman recalls. Gasoline had been poured on these people. It was impossible to identify them.
“It was our first exposure to what would become known as the Holocaust.”
Sitting in the bright, colorful living room of the Atlanta apartment he shares with his wife of 70 years, Aviva, 96-year-old Waitzman says those words with the matter-of-fact resolution of a man who has relived the moment countless times. But his hands, resting in his lap, clench at the memory.
Behind him, a bookcase is topped by a delicate menorah. The shelves groan with volumes that alternate between titles like James Holland’s Normandy '44 and Rabbi Abner Weiss’s Connecting to God.
For Waitzman, the insistently bright surroundings of his home seem designed to cast light into the dark shadows of his wartime memories.
Following their grim discovery, Waitzman’s unit, the 115th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division, continued to push east. They entered Hamelin—of Pied Piper fame—where they freed prisoners of a Nazi forced labor camp. Because the Third Reich needed the prisoners’ labor, the Germans had reason to keep those prisoners minimally fed and marginally healthy. But they had no such sense of responsibility for the poor souls at the next camp Waitzman’s unit came upon: The extermination camp at Dora-Mittelbau—a truly horrendous place where prisoners too weak to work in the nearby mines were taken to die of starvation and sickness.
“We blew the walls and again were greeted by the sight of thousands of dead bodies,” he says. “Thousands of them. The stench was beyond imagination. It was awful.”
Waitzman’s unit continued east toward the Elbe River. In town after town, they found small forced labor camps where prisoners had been compelled to build components of the Nazi war machine.
Then, in the village of Gardelegen, they discovered the barn.
“It was an unbelievably large barn,” says Waitzman. “The Germans had taken all the Jews and put them in there. Gasoline was poured on them. The doors and windows had been locked in various ways.
“They were burned alive.”
In all, 1,016 people were incinerated in the massacre at Gardelegen. When Waitzman’s company came through on April 15, the still smoldering hulk had been cooling for just two days.
“Several years ago,” he says, “I was speaking at Fort Benning, Georgia, and a soldier asked me if we were trained for what we found in the concentration camps. The answer was: It was on-the-job training.”
So, how did a young man from Chicago handle the slaughter of untold thousands of fellow Jews?
Waitzman pauses for a moment, his gaze downward.
“In one camp we found gas chambers and about 15 ovens,” he says. “We were told to identify what was going on in those ovens. The first several were still very hot. We opened one up—and found bones and ashes.
“Another one, the walls were cold. Our commanding office said, ‘Be ginger opening that one.’
“Six of us went to the oven. We opened the door.
“Inside was a German officer with a Luger pistol in his hand. He was gonna kill as many of us as possible.”
Waitzman and his five comrades each held an M1 rifle. One rifle held eight shots. One shot from one rifle would have finished the officer.
“We fired 48 bullets into the oven,” Waitzman says softly. “He never fired a shot.”
But the men, surrounded by the stench of death, weren’t satisfied.
“Our first desire was to kill all the German guards in that camp. But our commanding officer told us, ‘We operate under the rules of the Geneva Convention.’
“We didn’t kill them. We put them in prisoner of war camps.
“We were humane. But it wasn’t easy.
“How do you survive after seeing things like this?,” he asks plaintively. He answers his own question: “To this day it doesn’t go away. I’m doing the best that I can.”
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