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June 26, 2020 1:24 pm

New Book Tells Tale of Black US Soldiers Who Took in Jewish Holocaust Survivors After Liberating Nazi Camps

avatar by Gary Shapiro

The cover of ‘Balm in Gilead: A Story from the War.’

Lieutenant John L. Withers Sr. knew he was breaking military rules but did so anyway.

He took in two young Jewish Polish Holocaust survivors just after the end of World War II in 1945. The pair had been in Dachau and other Nazi concentration camps. The two arrived in Dachau two or three days before the Americans got there to liberate it.

They came to live and work in an all-black US Army truck company that Withers Sr. commanded. He could have faced dishonorable discharge from the army had it learned of it. Hiding refugees was obviously against military orders.

This story is told in John L. Withers II’s new book about his father, titled “Balm in Gilead: A Story from the War.” The biblical reference from Jeremiah is used in a line from a slave song, about whether spiritually “there is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.”

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The publication of the book coincided with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau.

Withers Sr. did not resemble the action heroes one sees in movies, his son said.

“My father was 120 lbs and was 5’4” tall,” Withers II told The Algemeiner.  “He never lost his sense of compassion.”

The pair of young Holocaust survivors were given nicknames “Peewee” (Mieczyslaw) and “Salomon” (Shlomo). Peewee and Salomon were skin and bones.

“They were emaciated, pale, and covered with sores. They grabbed my father around the knees weeping, asking for them to be taken in,” Withers II said.

PeeWee had moved from one nightmare camp to another: Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau, among others. Peewee knew that it was the Americans who had arrived to liberate Dachau when he saw the military jeeps arrive stenciled with white stars.

“This story is timely,” said Withers II.

“Despite all that Withers Sr. had endured under segregation — the physical and emotional abuse, the demeaning of his community, the denial of his fundamental humanity — Withers Sr. remained determined to rise above the hatred and preserve his rightful place as a caring human being,” he added.

“Don’t let hate turn you into hater, be better than that,” was the outlook his father adopted, Withers II recalled.

He began researching and writing the book nearly two decades ago. Withers II lived much of his youth overseas due to his parents being in the foreign service. He earned a BA from Harvard and PhD in history from Yale. He went on to become ambassador to Albania.

The first part of the book tells of his father’s life. The second part of the book lays out the research done in seeking to track down documentary materials and witnesses who knew his father Withers Sr.

His father arrived in Europe with his company in October 1944. The two Jewish Holocaust survivors were with his company from summer 1945 to the end of 1946.

Withers Sr. grew up a studious kid in Greensboro, North Carolina, during the Jim Crow era. Withers II’s grandfather was a janitor and grandmother a seamstress.

Withers Sr. was shunted out of state under a plan by which he was given out-of-state tuition and transportation in order to prevent him from studying at one of North Carolina’s all-white universities.

Then Withers Sr. learned that the US government was drafting him into its segregated army. He was ready to serve the country and did so, but he found “on a personal level, its segregation was difficult,” Withers II said.

Withers Sr. fell out of touch with the pair of Jewish Holocaust survivors after he returned to the US in 1946.

In time, Peewee became a businessman living in Connecticut, before dying in 2003.

Salomon had already passed away in 1993. He had boarded a leaky boat to British Mandatory Palestine that almost sank. He was interned in Cyprus for a year, and ended up eventually in Ramat Gan, next to Tel Aviv.

The author’s research, which is covered in the book’s epilogue, finds answers but also raises just as many questions. “Why did they take them in, why hide them, why care for them so long and so well? What motivated them to take risks in defying the Army’s orders? Were there doubters among them?” he asked.

Withers II writes in the epilogue, “I speculate often on these questions, but reach no conclusions.”

“It is still rather a mystery,” he told The Algemeiner. “Why did they do this? There was something in these kids’ plight that touched the essential humanity in the black soldiers.”

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