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3 O.C. Veterans Who Helped Open Death Camps Recall Pain

April 13, 2002|TINA BORGATTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ward Payne remembers the day his infantry unit walked through the gates of Nordhausen, the Nazi concentration camp where inmates too weak or ill to work were sent to die--not in the gas chamber, but in bunkers and trenches where they would suffer slow and agonizing deaths from starvation and disease.

"This is what I saw," he said, tapping a finger on a photograph of a ditch filled with mud-covered bodies, some living, some dead. "It looked just like this."

For decades, Payne kept his memories largely to himself. Only when he got together with old wartime buddies would he talk about what he had seen in April 1945.

But Payne, 82, stepped forward to share his experience when he spotted a small ad in a community newsletter seeking veterans who had witnessed the liberation of the Nazi death camps. So did two of his Leisure World neighbors--Theodore Frumes, 78, and Chester Kozik, 83.

The trio, who had never met, were brought together by Lee Kobin, the director of education at Reform Temple in the Laguna Woods retirement community who placed the ad in an effort to find veterans to chronicle the experience of soldiers who witnessed the opening of the camps.

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They will share their stories, which have been recorded and filmed, with Kobin's congregation during a Holocaust Remembrance program Thursday. Kobin said theirs is an American perspective not often heard.

"These men were called to wage a war on European soil," said Marilyn Harran, director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University. "But their service must have never had more meaning than the moment they saw these camps and realized the responsibility to bring that kind of evil to an end."

For Kozik, the experience grounded him in faith. He considered becoming a priest. Frumes found new appreciation for tolerance and democracy. Payne pursued a military career and went on to fight in the Korean War, where he earned a Silver Star.

Each has carried his memories quietly. "The people who were the liberators and saw the atrocities of concentration camps are, in many ways, also victims of the Nazis," said Esther Giller, director of the Sidran Institute in Maryland, which provides education on post traumatic stress disorder. "People from that generation, survivors of the Holocaust and war veterans, often lived with the symptoms of post traumatic stress--they just didn't tell you about it."

Frumes, a husky man with a warm smile, is stoic when he talks about the day his tank rolled up to Dachau, a notorious concentration camp outside Munich.

He recalls his confusion as he watched thin, almost ghostly figures slip between the loosely chained gates.

It was happenstance that the unit--the 9th Tank Battalion of the 20th Armored Division--arrived at the camp at all. The men were en route to Berlin, where they were to meet up with Gen. George Patton's forces. Freeing Jewish captives wasn't part of the mission.

That's why members of the unit were stunned to see these men shuffling past the tanks, heads bowed, their bodies draped in striped uniforms with the yellow Star of David sewn on the shoulder.

"I was puzzled," Frumes said. "The Army never told us anything about the concentration camps."

He asked in English what they were doing, but no one answered. Then he heard someone ask for food in Yiddish, the language Frumes spoke with his grandmother.

The tank was loaded with 500 pounds of food--plenty to spare. Frumes tossed the men boxed meals, lots of them. They disappeared back into the camp.

Later he learned it was the wrong thing to do. The inmates were starving. They gorged themselves. Some died.

Kozik had heard rumors about the concentration camps. In the spring of 1945, he was a young soldier, a radio technician in the 4th Infantry, full of curiosity. He stepped forward when his commander called for volunteers to secure a small camp near the Germany-Austria border.

He remembers little about the camp itself, not even its name, only that it was sparse, and the accommodations were crude. He was briefed by an appointed member of the camp who spoke of the deplorable conditions in which they had been forced to live, the inhumane treatment, the deaths of so many.

The next day, he and his buddies rounded up gifts to take the women in the camp--stockings, chocolate and candles. Most of the women were in their late teens and early 20s, and Kozik and his comrades wanted them to feel young and pretty again.

He remembers the women placing the candles on top of lockers in the barracks. In the pale glow of the candlelight, everyone looked surprisingly lovely given the grim conditions, he said.

The women made the soldiers potato pancakes from supplies they raided from the officers' quarters.

"These are the details I remember," Kozik said. "That way, I don't have to think about all the agony."

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