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Celebrating Survival : L.A. Victims of Holocaust Return to Germany for 50th Anniversary of Liberation

April 26, 1995|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eta and Sam Moss of Woodland Hills met behind the wire fences of a Bavarian slave labor camp. A sadistic work boss with a weakness for music wanted someone who could sing while Sam played the accordion.

The pair did not share a common language. She was from a Hungarian-speaking town in what is now Slovakia; he was from Salonica, Greece. But they were married within a month of their liberation, she in a dress made from a bedsheet, he in a suit cut from a U.S. Army blanket.

Now the Mosses are returning for the first time to the German village of Seeshaupt, where they gained their freedom. On April 30, 1945, in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, their freight train full of dead and dying concentration camp inmates was liberated by advancing soldiers of Patton's 3rd Army. The event gave many of the village residents their first look at Nazi crimes.

The Mosses will take part Sunday in ceremonies that Seeshaupt is holding to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation. Several other local residents who were freed from the Nazi train will be there, including Carl and Blanka Friedman of Hollywood, longtime friends of the Mosses; Jack Bresler of West Los Angeles, and Louis Sneh of Santa Monica.

"As much as we want to forget the memories, it's still good we have the memories," Sam Moss said. "That way, we can appreciate life more and be able to tell the people the events or even tell our own children what happened."

Bresler, wiping his eyes and blowing his nose as emotion welled up, added: "It's as fresh to me as when it happened 50 years ago. . . . I wonder sometimes how we made a life. We don't need drugs or alcohol or any of those substances. To us, life itself was a drug. It still is."

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The train that brought them to Seeshaupt 50 years ago carried 3,000 prisoners when it left the concentration camp at Muhldorf, near Munich. They were locked in boxcars without food for nearly a week, rattling toward what was to have been a mass execution somewhere in the Alps.

Unlike most of their relatives, their lives had not been claimed by the Nazi gas chambers. They had spent months or years in brutal labor camps, working seven days a week on minimal rations, racked by lice and disease, and shot if they fell from fatigue.

Many of the men on the train had been assigned to carry 50-kilo cement bags to help build an underground jet factory at Muhldorf. Earlier, they had cleared the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Jewish resistance fighters were crushed by German troops.

Sam Moss said he only survived the camp at Muhldorf because of his musical skills. (He had played for German officers in Salonica nightclubs before being deported.) But even that was not a sure thing.

The civilian superintendent of the work camp horsewhipped an earlier candidate for the accordionist's job, but he took to Moss' tunes and told the cooks to keep him fed.

With the Allies closing in at the end of the war, the Muhldorf inmates were bundled onto the train, where they lived through a strafing attack by American fighters who mistook the train for a German troop transport.

Then the train stopped, and there was a false report of liberation. The inmates fled, only to be frightened back by gunfire. Eta Moss' sister barely survived when a bullet grazed her eyelid.

After dropping some cars in nearby villages, the train finally came to a stop in Seeshaupt, either because the engineers ran away or because American forces cut the train's electric power.

The prisoners knew they were free when SS guards fled, discarding their guns and uniforms, and American soldiers tore down the train's doors and tossed in food.

"I do not believe any man or pen has been created to describe that scene, emaciated bodies, barely alive, crawling on their bellies to touch the tanks of the liberator," Jack Bresler said.

Weeks later, the Mosses married. Their wedding banquet of government-issue chile con carne was the only alternative after their friends' effort to steal a lamb was foiled by police. They moved from one camp to another for displaced persons in Germany until they were able to come to the United States in 1949.

Staying first with an aunt in Detroit, Sam Moss worked in auto plants and later as a traveling salesman and musician in dance bands. His wife worked as a manicurist. In 1977, they moved to Southern California with their three children.

To outsiders, they rarely spoke of the unspeakable. With fellow survivors such as Carl and Blanka Friedman, memories could surface. Eta and Blanka had grown up together and were in the same camps; their husbands were on work details that helped clear the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto. To this day the couples still play cards together.

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