This season of Yom HaShoah, three Holocaust survivors recently shared their stories at a“Prejudice & Memory: A Holocaust Exhibit” housed at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base’s U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
“Prejudice & Memory: A Holocaust Exhibit” is comprised of the photographs, artifacts, and recorded memories of concentration camp survivors, their families, liberators, and “righteous Gentiles” (non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust), who now live in the Dayton, Ohio, area. The Holocaust Exhibit in Dayton is one of several in the U.S. constructed to honor and remember community members’ connections with the Nazis’ institutionalized genocide of Jews.
This is Larry’s story.
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Earl Lawrence “Larry” Reynolds found himself in Germany as a medic in the 5th Infantry Rifle Company, 71st Infantry Division, U.S. Army, at the end of World War II. While he saw combat, he got his fill of inhumanity off the battlefield.
One day, two of his fellow soldiers were traveling along a road in a jeep. One, an avid amateur photographer, had two cameras strapped across his chest, scouring the landscape for an interesting picture. They noticed something in the road. As they approached, they observed what Larry described, as a “’bag of bones’ trying to crawl down the road.”
The soldiers immediately contacted their commander for help. After the Red Cross arrived, the battalion began to investigate. What they discovered was Gunskirchen Lager, one of the many hidden starvation camps the Nazis constructed to irradiate the Jews.
Located midway between Lambach and Wels, Austria, and camouflaged by a beautiful forest, the Nazis had fenced off a section to use as a starvation camp.
When the 71st Infantry arrived, they discovered an incomplete barracks, which allowed the cold air to infiltrate the building while prisoners huddled inside. There was one cot and one blanket for each already barely clothed prisoner.
Larry remarked that while Dachau and other camps were originally built to hold political prisoners, the Nazis needed more space to hold more Jews, and more efficient, less expensive ways to kill them.
Many stories have been told about the Nazis digging ditches, lining up Jews, and shooting them. They would throw lime on the dead bodies, before setting up the next group to be executed. Once the war started, however, Hitler found this method to be too expensive, costing ammunition and valuable manpower needed on the Russian front.
To save ammunition, the Nazis next lined up their targets five deep, using one bullet to pierce through them all. Next, they would be pushed into the ditch, often while some were still alive, only to have lime and more bodies thrown on top of them while they gasped for air.
Architect Albert Speer offered an even more economic resolution to accelerate the Holocaust: the gas chamber. It was Speer who designed the gas chamber and the furnace used in concentration camps to quickly and easily dispose of Jews and other undesirables. These more efficient killing methods enabled Hitler to free up the resources he needed on the battlefield.
However, Larry pointed out that not all concentration camps used these methods. Gunskirchen Lager chose starvation.
The only food available to Jewish prisoners was what they could forage on the forest floor. At night, with only one blanket apiece, the prisoners would huddle up, layering the blankets and using body heat to keep warm. Inevitably, starvation, dehydration, and cold would claim a few casualties overnight.
On May 4, 1945, the 71st Infantry Division liberated Gunskirchen, one of the many sub-camps of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Some of the victims became honorary members of the unit.
Over the years, Larry visited with survivors of the camp. He recounted a visit he had with a survivor who in desperation had once swallowed whole snails, as that was all he could find to eat. Even though he could feel the snails moving in his stomach, he was thankful for the nourishment.
Larry relayed another man’s experience, which rendered the audience silent.
Upon arriving at the camp with his parents, sister, and her newborn baby, the sister pleaded with the guards not to harm her baby. One guard promptly grabbed the infant by its legs, smashed its head against a rock, and then casually threw it into the bushes. He then directed each family member where they should stand, acting as if his actions were nothing more than standard operating procedure.
Larry has also reunited with fellow veterans. The amateur photographer who discovered the escaped prisoner had a warming story about his hobby. As a traveling salesman, he often had spare time with nothing to do. While in Chicago, he noticed a business across the street from his hotel that advertised book binding. Having his box of war photos in the car trunk, he wondered if they could do something with them.
After proposing his idea to the woman at the front desk, she started going through the box of pictures to see what he had. She stopped on one photo, screamed, and then ran to the back office, frantically talking to her associate. A moment later, a man emerged and began inquiring about the photo.
“Where did you get this?” he asked.
“I took it,” Larry’s friend said.
“Where?” the man asked.
The soldier turned the photo over to find the date and location scribbled on the back. After relaying the information to the business owner, the man replied,
“This is my sister. We thought she was dead.”
His soldier friend never found out if the couple was able to locate his sister, but he was happy that he could give them hope.
Americans were not fully made aware of the atrocities of the Holocaust until LIFE Magazine found and published many photographs taken by the U.S. military.
Roosevelt knew. High ranking officials knew. But the average American citizen and active soldier during the war did not know. It was not until units like the 71st found and liberated the camps during the occupation after the war, that the true savage nature of the Nazi regime became exposed.
Many of those liberated from Gunskirchen Lager were fortunate to go on to have families and lead happy lives. One woman’s granddaughter even married Larry’s nephew. In fact, Earl Lawrence “Larry” Reynolds is my uncle.
It is imperative that Americans never forget what happened, and continue to discover and tell these stories from survivors and camp liberators. The fastest way for these atrocities to happen again is for us to live as if they never happened.
A partial or full audio tour of the museum can be heard on the Museum’s podcasts.
Hear another eye witness testimony of a 71st Division veteran who helped liberate Gunskirchen Lager: