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Saved by a Saint in a Tank

Sam Goetz long wondered about the larger-than-life soldier who liberated him from a Nazi camp. Decades later, they met again.

November 04, 2005|Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writer

For 60 years it percolated in Sam Goetz's mind, rising to the level of obsession -- this need to find the American soldier who had loomed so large in the most critical moment of Goetz's life.

On May 6, 1945, Goetz, then 16, was among 18,000 prisoners liberated from the Nazi concentration camp at Ebensee, Austria, by the U.S. Army's 3rd Cavalry. The squadron commander, a tall, young sergeant, climbed down from his tank and pronounced them free.

We "kissed his hands and touched his uniform, as if touching a saint," Goetz would recall years later in his memoir, "I Never Saw My Face."

"Each of us wanted to make sure the man was real ... that this was neither an illusion or a dream ... "

Goetz spent years combing through war archives in Washington, D.C., without ever learning the soldier's identity. "I was haunted by it," says Goetz, now an optometrist in West L.A. "Who was that man in the first tank? What is his name? Is he alive today?"

On Saturday, Bob Persinger -- now a bespectacled, gray-haired veteran -- strode through the lobby of a Century City hotel and reached out to shake Goetz's hand. The Holocaust survivor stared back, measured reality against his memories, then opened his arms for an embrace.

And the soldier who had seemed so tall 60 years ago stood cheek to cheek with the man he had saved.

The Final Chapter

The Holocaust is not the kind of experience you put behind you. For most survivors, there's no making peace with memories from concentration camps where millions were humiliated, tortured and forced to witness unspeakable brutality.

How do you write the final chapter of the story, now that both generations -- victims and liberators -- are passing?

About 120,000 Holocaust survivors live in the United States -- about 10,000 of them in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Los Angeles is home to one of the largest and most active survivors groups in the world, The 1939 Club, which takes its name from the year Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. Goetz served as the club's president in 1965-66.

Some survivors emerged warped by anger and bitterness. Others spent years locked in silence and shame. Most, like Goetz, healed through hard work -- avenging, through their eventual success, the evil done to them.

"For years, many didn't even talk about it with their children," Goetz said. "They didn't want to impart guilt to the kids. And the kids wanted to know, but didn't know how to ask."

It wasn't until the 1970s, "when these Holocaust deniers began to surface, with all their talk about the 'lies of the 6 million' [Jews killed], that I couldn't keep quiet. I said education is the only way we can leave our legacy."

So Goetz proposed to UCLA a chair on Holocaust studies. He helped raise the money, most of it through small individual donations, because institutions and corporations "didn't want to get involved." The chair was created in 1979, the first at a U.S. public university.

Twenty years ago, Goetz organized a project to videotape the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. "I realized the survivors are dying at a fast rate," he said. "There's a great danger of losing their stories, of not knowing.

"But it was difficult getting people to participate. We had 600 members. Only 30 responded. It's too painful."

Ultimately, 56 survivors agreed to share their stories. "And once they got started, they couldn't stop," Goetz said. "We had to go to two-hour tapes."

Still, many couldn't confront some memories, like "the moment of separation from their parents. They would go round and round it.... To see your parents taken away, without even a kiss, a goodbye. Those moments stay with you the rest of your life. There is no healing, no closure."

Death Comes to Tarnow

For Goetz, that moment came the week after his 14th birthday, in June 1942. The schools in Tarnow, Poland, had already been closed to Jewish children. Parks, skating rinks, movie theaters, even city streets were off-limits. Gestapo agents began roaming the city's Jewish quarter, randomly shooting Jews.

Sam's parents were herded at gunpoint with thousands of their neighbors onto trains bound for Belzec, a death camp in Poland where German officials were pioneering the use of gas chambers for mass killings.

In one week, 8,000 of Tarnow's Jews -- one-third of the population -- would be executed or imprisoned at Belzec. During its 10 months of operation in 1942, historians say, 434,508 Jews died in Belzec's three gas chambers. Only a handful survived.

In September 1943, Sam too was deported from the Tarnow ghetto and moved to a series of concentration camps in Eastern Europe, where inmates were beaten, starved, forced to endure biting winters without shoes and dressed only in flimsy cotton pajamas. They were worked to the point of collapse and death.

For inmates, the sight of smoke and the smell of bodies burning in the camps' crematoriums were a grim and constant torment.

Answering the Call

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