by Airman 1st Class Sarah Breer
6th Air Mobility Wing public affairs
4/19/2013 - MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- World
War II saw the Axis powers and Allied powers fighting battles across
Europe, the Soviet Union and the Pacific. While the whole world focused
on the fighting that was going on between nations, something more
horrific than war was going on in death and concentration camps across
Europe from 1933 to 1945.
Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party chose to imprison and
systematically murder many groups of people who they considered
inferior, undesirable or dangerous. Mainly, the plan focused on
eliminating the Jewish population of Europe. Also targeted were Poles,
other Slavic people, Soviet people, Gypsies, disabled people, homosexual
and transsexual people, political opponents and religious dissidents
such as Jehovah's Witnesses.
During World War II approximately 17 million people were killed in
prison camps, including about six million Jewish people in what is known
as the Holocaust.
As the war ended in Europe the camps were liberated by Allied troops, such as the United States and the Soviet Union.
Few people survived the death and concentration camps.
Philip Gans survived.
Speaking to members of Team MacDill April 11 at a Holocaust memorial
service, Gans explained his life, struggles and survival of
concentration camps, death marches and the Holocaust overall during
World War II to a raptly attentive audience.
Born in 1928, Gans was just 15 when he and his family were arrested by
Nazi soldiers July 24, 1943, his father's birthday after hiding for a
After being arrested, the Gans family was held at the Westerbork
detention camp in Holland for about a month. From there the family was
transported to Auschwitz.
His name changed to a number which is tattooed on his left forearm: 139755.
Gas chambers at Auschwitz II took the lives of his mother and sister.
Gans, his brother and father were sent to Auschwitz III, a slave labor
camp. During his time in the camps his brother and father would also die
at the hands of their captors.
Gans described his day-to-day life at the camp, as well as some of his
most impactful experiences. He outlined being beaten, starved, nearly
frozen during the winters, wearing clothes that were not the proper size
or made for the weather, wearing wooden shoes and getting blisters
because the shoes had no laces and many other horrific details.
Gans told of how, while in captivity, he survived because of the words of his father.
"One night I asked my father a question, I don't remember the question
now," Gans recalled, waving his hand in front of his face. "He said,
'we'll talk about it when we get home.' You see, he always expected to
survive the camps. He never gave up hope."
The younger Gans refused to give up hope as well.
While surviving at Auschwitz III he did whatever he needed to in order
to stay alive, but made a point to help his fellow prisoners.
One day another man was too sick to go to work. Gans stayed behind in
the barracks where they slept to take care of him. When guards noticed
they were missing, they beat both of them with a hose. Gans was able to
proceed to work, so they let him go. The other man could not go to work,
and so he was killed.
In captivity, he witnessed other people go through torture, watched
others executed and witnessed those who tried to escape decompose as
their bodies hung in the camps as a message to others: do not try to
Through all of the terrible things he witnessed, Gans professed, he never gave up the hope his father gave him.
Captivity is something Tech. Sgt. Roger Zehr, 6th Operation Support
Squadron survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist, knows a
"I also enjoy learning about the common trends of captivity throughout
history," Zehr said. "Anyone who experienced captivity will tell you
that they all had to deal with boredom, fear, shock, loneliness and an
overwhelming desire to return home. I enjoy hearing how people dealt
with and overcame these feelings."
He attended the event to learn more about Gans' experience.
"I attended for two reasons, to hear the unique story of Mr. Gans and to
further educate myself on the topic of captivity," Zehr said. "I
strongly believe that we owe it to Mr. Gans to take a little bit of time
out of our schedule to hear his message. As a SERE specialist I also
owe it to my students to take advantage of every opportunity learn about
Gans survived more than just captivity.
As the Germans moved prisoners around in April 1945 in response to the
Allied advances, Gans left Auschwitz during a death march. Guards walked
prisoners over long distances and if someone stopped even for a second,
they would be shot. Gans remembers the march all too well.
"My shoes were wooden, and I kept wire in them to keep them tight," Gans
said. "I bent to tie the wire and realized I was last in line. I caught
up so that they wouldn't shoot me."
Allied troops liberated Gans and his fellow prisoners in April 1945. Gans was 17.
Not a sound could be heard in the room as Gans told his story, and as he
ended, he made a point of telling those in attendance a few main
"Erase the word hate from your vocabulary, because that is what started it all," Gans said.
After his speech, Gans met with those in attendance and spoke to people.
Tears clouded eyes as person after person thanked Gans for sharing his
Pictures depicting the horrors of the Holocaust were laid out on tables
for people to view. As people looked at the photos, looks of disgust and
confusion passed over faces. One woman put her hand over her face and
gasped as she viewed a picture of a mother, her young child and her baby
in a mass grave after liberation.
Holocaust observances and guest speakers like Philip Gans serve to keep
the history of the Holocaust alive, bring a message of the dangers of
hate, and the hope that the lessons learned will prevent future