Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Erase the hate: observing the atrocities of the Holocaust

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 year.

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.

Humanity disappeared.

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 escape.

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 lot about.

"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 captivity."

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 points.

"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 story.

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 tragedies.

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