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Harry Gerenstein oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (38 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (14 p.)
Concentration camp liberators oral history project
This interview was conducted as research for The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust / Michael Hirsch (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).
Interview conducted May 10, 2008.
The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust (New York: Bantam Books, 2010) and Concentration Camp Liberators Oral History Project, University of South Florida Libraries, 2010 Michael Hirsh.
Transcripts, excerpts, or any component of this interview may be used without the author's express written permission only for educational or research purposes. No portion of the interview audio or text may be broadcast, cablecast, webcast, or distributed without the author's express written permission.
This is an oral history interview with Holocaust concentration camp liberator Harry Gerenstein. Gerenstein was a truck driver with the 6th Armored Division, which liberated Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. Their convoy encountered some Russians who told them about the camp where they had been prisoners, so Gerenstein and his comrades decided to go see it. They did not spend very long at the camp, feeling overwhelmed by the sights and the smell, but Gerenstein took several photographs of the crematorium. He also helped liberate a small camp of Hungarian Jewish women who were used as factory workers, giving one his spare pair of shoes. In this interview, Gerenstein also describes some of his other wartime experiences as well as his lifelong correspondence with a Belgian woman he met during the Battle of the Bulge.
Armored Division, 6th.
Armored Division, 6th
v Personal narratives.
Buchenwald (Concentration camp)
Ardennes, Battle of the, 1944-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
World War, 1939-1945
Personal narratives, American.
World War, 1939-1945
Crimes against humanity.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center.
University of South Florida.
Special & Digital Collections.
Oral History Program.
Holocaust & genocide studies oral history projects.
Concentration camp liberators oral history project.
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xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Michael Hirsh: Just so I have your name right, its Harry Gerenstein, G-e-r-e-n
Harry Gerenstein: Gerenstein. (corrects pronunciation)
MH: Gerenstein. G-e-r-e-n-s-t-e-i-n.
MH: Whats your date of birth?
HG: 8-8-17 [August 8, 1917].
MH: 8-8-17. Okay. Just tell me, when did you go in the Army?
HG: December 1942.
MH: Whered they send you?
HG: Well, from New York, they sent me, believe it or not, to the Mojave Desert for desert training. We were scheduled to go to Africa. I was in a tank division. By the time we got through with our desert training, the African war ended. So, I was very happy.
MH: So, now what do they do with you?
HG: Well, we went to a camp called Camp Cooke, which is Vandenberg Air Force Base now, and we got six months training there. From there, we got a convoy going to England, and we arrived in Englandwell, arrived in Scotlandthe beginning of February of 1944. Then we took a train to a camp, an old Army camp in Britain in a little town called Broadway and spent close to five months there, waiting for the invasion of France.
MH: What unit were you in at the time?
HG: Beg pardon?
MH: What unit were you in at the time?
HG: What unit?
MH: Yes. What division?
HG: I was in a tank division.
MH: Which division?
HG: 6th Armored Division.
MH: 6th Armored. Okay. So, when did they send you across the channel?
HG: It was about the middle of July of forty-four ; in other words, almost a month after D-Day, because a tank division cant get in on the invasion. They only use the infantry, I guess. As a matter of fact, when I drove down to Southampton to get on the LST [Landing Ship, Tank], I took a nap. I was driving practically all night. And when I got up from my sleepthey woke me up because my vehicle has to get on the LSTI found my fingernails were manicured while I was sleeping. It was a big joke to them. Here were going into combat, and they manicured my fingernails.
MH: Who did this? What, they brought British girls in to do this?
HG: No, one of the fellows from my outfit. I never did find out who did it. Anyway, we got on the LST, we got to France, we crossed the channel. When we got to France, I saw all those ships that they sunk there, and it was a disaster just seeing that. It was scary; Ill put it that way. Up until then, it didnt mean a thing to me. Then we got into an assembly area, into the division, and made the trip across and got together.
And instead of heading east, like going towards Germany, my division went west. The reason they went west, we were heading for the seaport city of Brest; the Germans had a submarine base there, and we were out to get them. The 4th Armored Division and the 6th Armored Division, we went to Brest; the other went to Lorient, which is also a seaport. As a matter of fact, I have an article that was in the paper that we covered 200lets see. I forgot how many miles it was. Anyway, it was ten miles of combat in ten days. We set a record for combat in a tank division.
MH: What was your rank at the time?
HG: At that time, I was only a PFC [private first class], but right after thatonce we got into combat, I became a sergeant.
MH: And you were on the tank, in the tank?
HG: No, actually, I didnt drive a tank; I drove a truck. I was in the supply outfit for the division. We suppliedmy truck had all GMC parts. We supplied was parts for every truck, but we were always behind. The division is divided into three parts: Combat Command A, Combat Command B, and Reserve. Now, we always followed the Combat Command that was in action. We had to be right near them to help them with any parts they might need for breakdown. So, if the Reserve got a break or Combat Command B was somewhere behind, we just moved to the main outfit that was in combat.
I drove a truck with a trailer. We had no top, no doors, no windshield, and my partner had ammunition with a .50 caliber machine gun, what they call ring mount. It was on the truck, and it goes all around, and he just stood there. I drove all through France, Belgium, Luxembourg; rain or shine, we never had a top on the truck.
MH: Whose decision was that?
HG: Beg pardon?
MH: Whose decision was that, not to have a top?
HG: The Army. Because you have the ring mount with the .50 caliber machine gun; you cant have a windshield, with a reflection. And he was always on the gun. We were in combat many a time, using the .50 caliber. We have a photo thatwe captured a German airfield. We captured 1,500 Germans, plus about ten to fifteen new German planes. So, the United Press took a picture of a few of us looking at one of the German planes and published that. I have the photo.
MH: You still have got the picture?
HG: Oh, yes.
MH: So, tell me aboutat that point in the war, did you know anything about concentration camps?
HG: No. They never mentioned a word about it.
MH: And you hadnt heard about it from your family back home?
HG: No, nobody knew about it at that time. It seemed that when we heard about the concentration campthats maybe a day before we got to Buchenwaldwe heard theres a concentration camp. We wanted to know what that was. We had no idea.
MH: What did they tell you it was at that point?
HG: It was a prison camp, and they called it concentration. As a matter of fact, about eight or nine years ago, I spoke at Nellis Air Force Base to a group, and some of them were liberated, people that were in the camp; they had plenty of guests there. I spoke there at a luncheon.
MH: Tell me about how you got to Buchenwald and what happened.
HG: Well, how I got to Buchenwald? Our radio man heard that wed liberated Buchenwald. Each company has a radio man. And we were toldas a matter of fact, we were only a few miles from there at that time. What happened, it seems that four menI think it was in the newspaper recentlyfour men and a Jeep, a captain and three enlisted men, saw Russian soldiersnot soldiers, Russian peoplerunning. They got out of the camp somehow, and they stopped them. One fellow understood Russian, and he said they escaped from the camp.
So, they got out of the convoywith permission, of courseand the Russian was sitting in the motor of the Jeep, and they showed us which way the camp was. And when they got there, they radioed my outfit right away for more help, medics, whatever, and the next day, we found out about it. We took the Jeep, three of us got in the Jeep and went back to the camp, and thats when I went to the camp.
MH: Tell me what you saw. As you approach in a Jeep, youre coming down a road or you have to go cross country?
HG: Well, it was outside ofoff the main roads, or whatever. We got into the camp, and there were some medics there, and they called for other help. Anyway, we were told, Dont feed them; dont give them any food. The food were eating will kill them. And the wound up wasI saw the ovens there, I took some photos of it, and there was about 200 bodies in there that the Germans never had a chance to cover them up. I went into the barracks, and I sawI dont know if youd call them barracks: the living quarters. I went in there, and it stunk like hell. And we stayed there not even five minutes. I couldnt stand the odor. We took off and went back to our outfit. I only spent about a half-hour in the camp. We had to get out.
MH: What else did you see as you were walking in the camp?
HG: Well, some of the people, some of the inmates, were able to get around. Some could hardly walk; some just laid in their bunks, they couldnt move. They were in bad shape. And we did captureI mean, the fellows that came in there the day before, they captured some of the guards, which were trying to get out. But the inmates actually held them down till we got there. And it was an awful thing to see, Ill put it that way.
MH: Did you talk about it after you left the camp?
HG: No. You know, we got into the Jeep, and not one word was said between us. We were dumbfounded. And of course, when I got home, after the Armyafter the war, I should sayI showed some of the photos that I took at the camp, and a lot of people say, Its disgusting. How could you keep these photos? And the ones thatthe ones of the pit and the ovens, I tore them up, like a dummy. It was a stupid thing to do.
MH: Because it was evidence.
HG: Well, of course, others had evidence, so it didnt matter.
MH: When did you first startyou got married when you came home?
HG: Not when I came home; about a year later.
MH: About a year later. Whens the first time you told your wife about what you had seen?
HG: I really didnt talk about it. I mean, she knew I was in the Army, I was with the 6th Armored Division, and thats about it. I didnt talk about the concentration camp. I spoke about some things that were more interesting, you know, pleasant or whatever. Like during the Battle of the BulgeI guess you heard about that
MH: Of course.
HG: we came into a town called Houdemont in Belgium, which is only about three or four miles from Bastogne. We used that as a base during the Battle of the Bulge. I asked the Belgian people there if we couldmatter of fact, we pulled into that town; it was January 1, 1945. It was January 2, 1945, and I asked the people there, the Belgian people, if during our time off, could we sleep near the stove on the floor in their home. So, they welcomed us. And it wound upthey had four children, two boys and two girls, and the seventeen-year-old girl got a crush on me. Any time I had my free time, she was with me, teaching me how to spin wool and other things. Matter of fact, its over sixty years, I still write to her.
HG: Shes a great-grandmother now. All these years, weve been writing to each other. She writes in French, of courseor Flemish, whatever you call itbut I get somebody to read French, and I write in English, of course. And we have pictures of her. She was a sweet kid. That was a long time ago.
MH: A long time ago. So, whens the first time you talked publicly about Buchenwald?
HG: Well, lets see. I spoke to some people about it. They asked us if its really true they had such a thing. Of course, after the war, it was in the papers and all. And I let them know I was there, and I told them some facts thatyou know, what some of these inmates looked like: real skeletons; Im surprised they were even living. But, of course, I didnt go into details with people.
MH: You felt uncomfortable yourself, or you didnt think they wanted to hear how bad it really was?
HG: Well, they didnt want to hear what I had to say, really. The few that did mention some real details, they couldnt believe it and they didnt want to hear anymore, so I never bothered talking about it.
MH: I see.
HG: It took me years before I really mentioned, you know, about Buchenwald.
MH: Its amazing that an experience that may have only lasted, what, a half hour or an hour, can
HG: Well, its in your mind, and you dont forget these things. Its something that I used to dream about it, but I fought it off.
MH: Has that stopped?
HG: Beg pardon?
MH: Do the dreams still come?
HG: No, no. Its been a long time since I dreamt about these things. Matter of fact, its been a long time since I even spoke about it. I dont even talk about it.
MH: Were you from a religious family before you went in the war?
HG: Well, my parents were religious, but I wasnt, of course.
MH: Did your experience in the war change any of that?
HG: In what way?
MH: Make you more religious, less religious?
HG: Well, not religion, but I just felt sorry for these people that were in the camp, you know. It bothered me. I did go to temple to pray for some of these people, and thats about all you can do.
MH: Anything else that you can recall that I havent asked you about that deals with this subject?
HG: Well, theres other things that happened, but this issometime, like now, I dont even think about some of these things. Like near Brest, the city of Brest that we were supposed to liberate, we could never get in there for the simple reason that they had the wholethe Germans had it reinforced so the Army couldnt get in there. And we had the German artillery division that was coming toward us, because we were between Brest and the road that goes to Brest, and we found out the German artillery division is going into Brest, and were in between. So, we got out.
I was on guard duty that morning. I got off guard duty at six am, and my general told me I have to get into a Jeep. Somebody was driving, and they put this .80 caliber machine gun on the hood of the Jeep, and two of us were driven out about a half-mile from our outfit and got into a high mount. Some tanks were there, waiting. They backed into barnyards with the tanks, waiting for the Germans to come. As a matter of fact, Ill never forget; it was my birthday that day. We wound up with our helmets, digging in for protection, and put hand grenades around us.
Luckily, U.S. P-38s, fighter planes, came in, and there was a horse-drawn division. Seems they were running short of gas, and they start shooting, and they killed the horses. Now, they couldnt bring the equipment in. So they start marching towards us, and of course, they took off their helmets and put on their overseas cap, put their hands on their heads so we dont shoot them. We captured 500 Germans that day. Of course, we put them into a field with guards, and we waited for some of the infantry to come to take over, because we couldnt stay. Justsmall things I have.
MH: What about combat operations after you were at Buchenwald? Did they change because of what the Americans had seen?
HG: Well, when we captured Buchenwald, which was April 11, 1945, it was going towards the end of the war already. We wound upwe were, of course, in Germany then, and there was some opposition, you know, small groups of Germans. But we didnt have too much trouble. We did some firing with our .50 caliber. If we killed themmatter of fact, General [George S.] Patton, before we left for France, told us, We dont take prisoners in the tank division. Either you kill them or leave them alone. Because wheres a tank division going to keep prisoners?
MH: Right. Huh. Leave them alone meaning you just let them loose?
HG: Yeah. The infantry was behind us somewhere. There were times they were fifty miles behind us, but dont forget, they walk and we drive. In my division, nobody walked. Its all mobile.
MH: When did you finally come home to the States?
HG: In December forty-five .
MH: Where did you go home to?
HG: Well, New York, where I lived. As a matter of fact, during the war, Ill never forget these little things. We were in an area where we moved in in the morning, somewhere in France, and it was a big battle during the night. And, of course, the Germans took off, and we went out looking for whatever Germans were around. We captured some, walking of course, a short distance. And my battalion doctoreach battalion has a doctorset up a tent cause we had some Americans that were wounded, and we got stretchers and brought them into the tent. And he told us, If there are any Germans that are wounded, bring them in, too, which was strange to me.
So, anyway, sure enough, I picked up a German; you know, two of us put him on the stretcher and bring him in. And the funniest thing, the doctor says to me, Harry, dont drop him. (laughs) In other words, he knew I didnt like him. And one of my buddiesas a matter of fact, we lived in the same neighborhoodhe got three bullets in his leg. I carried him in as soon as I saw him. He was in my division, but a different battalion. He was what they called armored infantry.
MH: Were you wounded at all over there?
HG: Yeah, I was wounded one time. We were attached by nine German planes, and after the battle, I was shootingI got a .50 caliber and was shooting them. We shot down two planes out of the nine; one came down and parachuted, and somebody was shooting the parachute. They didnt want to see him make a good landing. He was quite a ways from us. And, sure enough, he came down: once he hit the ground that was it. Im sure he didnt live through that.
After the battle, I see that my foots wet. I got shot in the anklenot shot, shrapnel in my ankle. I went to the doctor, and he treated me and he said hell put me in for a Purple Heart. And it wasnt a wound where I couldnt continue with my outfit; its just that he treated me and bandaged me up, and that was it. It wound uphe says, Ill put you in for the Purple Heart. I said, Forget it, its not that bad. Like a dummy, I turned it down.
MH: That feeling, I understand.
HG: Whats that?
MH: I said, that I understand. I was in Vietnam: same kind of thing.
HG: Yeah, you get a lot of that. As a matter of fact, we liberated one place, a town in Germany where there was 120 Hungarian Jewish women that they keptnot in a camp, but they lived in the barnyard of, these German people. I guess they fed them breakfast, whatever, I dont know. And then, they marched them into the woods and had a hand grenade factory, which was camouflaged.
Anyway, we liberated them. They told usthe Hungarian women said every day they put a handful of sand in their pockets, and when they got to the factory, each one filled a hand grenade with sand instead of gunpowder. So, I took pictures. I have pictures of two of the women, and one of them told me thatoh, yeah, one of them didnt have any shoes. She wore house slippers. I had two pairs of shoes; I can only wear one, so I gave her a pair of my shoes. So, she wanted to repay me some way. I said, Forget it. I took a picture of them, and that was it. Then we left.
MH: Was that after Buchenwald or before Buchenwald?
MH: Before Buchenwald.
HG: Yeah, long before.
MH: Long before. So, when; you think in March, or even before that?
HG: I really dont remember what month that was.
MH: Would you know what town it was near?
HG: No. I have no idea. I took pictures, never marked. Once youwe stayed in one town; you could be in one town one day, and the next day in another town.
MH: Right. How did you
HG: Somebody asked my daughter where was I stationed in Europe during the war, and my daughter said, Theyre not stationed anywhere; they move every day.
MH: How did you find those women, the Hungarian Jewish women?
HG: I dont know. We came into this town, we saw them, and we liberated them. The Germans took off. And they told us aboutthat they worked in the hand grenade factory.
MH: Were these old women, young women?
HG: Young women.
MH: And they told you they were Hungarian Jews.
MH: You spoke Yiddish to them?
HG: Yeah, I spoke Yiddish to them. Thats one thing I was able to do.
MH: What else do you remember? I mean, this is a story I havent heard, and Im really interested. What else can you tell me about that?
HG: Well, you know, we just spent onenot even a day there, you know? But I justI felt sorry for these women, and we gave them some of our rations.
MH: I was gonna ask, did they look like theyd been fed properly?
HG: No, they looked pretty taken care of.
MH: Were they wearing regular clothes, or were they wearing prisoners?
HG: Regular clothes.
MH: Regular clothes.
HG: And I just spoke to two of them, so I dont know much about them.
MH: Do you still have the pictures?
HG: Whats that? Beg pardon?
MH: Do you still have the pictures?
HG: Oh, yeah. Of the women?
HG: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that I kept.
MH: Would it be possible to make a copy of those pictures of the women? And Id also like to get a picture of you from World War II; do you have one?
HG: I have many of them. (laughs)
MH: You do?
HG: What a question!
MH: What a question? Well, you know, some guys have a lot; and some guys, they moved so many times that they got lost or thrown out or whatever.
HG: Well, I kept a record of most of the photos I took.
MH: If I send you an envelope, could I borrow some of these pictures and then Ill scan and then send them back to you?
HG: Ill make you copies. What kind of pictures do you want?
MH: First of all, Id like a good picture of you from World War II.
HG: I can make a copy of that.
MH: Okay. Id like a picture of the women.
MH: And Id like a current picture of you.
HG: I havent got too many pictures of myself now, but I have pictures that I took with this Belgian girl.
HG: Like I said, I still write to her. And what else?
MH: The only thing about making copies is that they need to be good enough so that the publisher can use them.
HG: Beg pardon? Wait, I cant hear you.
MH: I said, the only thing about making copies is they need to be good enough so that the publisher can use them. See, if I
HG: Oh, I go to Smiths Drugstore, and they have a machine there that makes copies. They look like the original ones.
MH: Okay. I mean, Ill be happy to pay for whatever it costs.
HG: What could it be? About ten cents a copy, whatever; I dont know.
MH: Do you have an e-mail address?
HG: Its no big deal.
MH: Do you have e-mail?
HG: No, I dont.
MH: No? Okay. Well, I can either mail you an envelope, or I can just give you my address, whichever works.
HG: You can mail me an envelope.
MH: Okay, Ill mail you an envelope. Tell me something: once you came back to the U.S., what did you do as a business or career for the rest of your life?
HG: Well, I was in the plumbing line before I went to the Army. As a matter of fact, I worked in Washington, D.C., I worked in Maryland in a Navy base, building theI worked in Blackstone, Virginia, and in Blackstone, Virginia, theres an Army camp they were building, Camp Pickett. I worked ten hours a day, seven days a week. We were making good money, but what good is the money if you cant spend it? I wound upafter about six or eight months, I quit, and they said, You cant quit; we need you, and I said, I cant take it anymore. They said, If you quit, youll wind up in the Army. I said, Anything is better than this. I didnt know any better.
MH: I see. (laughs)
HG: (laughs) So, two weeks after I quit, I got my Army notice.
MH: Okay. What did you do later on in life? You stayed in the plumbing business?
HG: Yeah, I stayed in the plumbing business.
MH: Do you have children?
HG: Yeah, I have two children.
MH: Two children.
HG: One lives in Las Vegas, thats why Im here.
MH: Oh, okay. All right. Well, I will send you an envelopeIll send you a letter that tells you
HG: Send me a letter with who you are. As a matter of fact, I didnt ask you, who are you from? Who are you with?
MH: Well, the books gonna be published by Bantam Dell Publishing, which is a division of Random House.
HG: Oh, youre writing a book about it?
MH: Yeah, Im writing a book. Thisll be my sixth book.
HG: Oh, God.
MH: I was actuallyI was embedded with U.S. Air Force pararescue guys in Pakistan and Afghanistan to write a book. I wrote Michael Schiavos book about the Terri Schiavo case a couple years ago.
HG: Somebody wrote a book about my division, and it was published.
MH: Yeah, Im sure theres been probably several books about the 6th Armored. And, what else? Now Im writing this book thatll be out in early 2010.
HG: I hope Im here by then.
MH: I hope you are, too. Pronounce your last name for me?
MH: Gerenstein, okay.
HG: By the way, many years agoI say many; about ten years agoI was in Washington, D.C., and I went to thewhats it called?
MH: The Holocaust Museum?
HG: The Holocaust Museum. And they had my division flag there, and underneath the flag, it says, Liberated Buchenwald.
MH: Right. I know that. Ive talked to a number of people from the 6th Armored.
HG: Oh, you did?
MH: Yes. Ive also talked to people from the 4th Armored.
HG: Howd you get their numbershowd you get name and numbers?
MH: One person leads you to another person. Ive been doing this nowIve been working on this for about five months, and Ive probably interviewed over 100 guys by now.
HG: Oh, God. Oh, so you get all kind of stories.
MH: Yeah, all kinds of stories, all different camps, cause the bookll really follow the last six weeks of the war, from the time they liberated the first camp, Ohrdrufitll actually probably pick up right at the Battle of the Bulge, and then jump ahead to late March and then go all the way through the end of the war. So, Ive been to a number of division reunions. I was just at the reunion of the 80th Infantry Division that was also at Buchenwald.
HG: Oh. Well, actually, we had our last reunion in 2000. As a matter of fact, I made a motion many years ago to have the reunion in Albuquerquethats where I lived at that time. And Pennsylvania wantedHarrisburg; I dont know what cityhad a board meeting from the division, and they said, Albuquerque? Its a desert. I said, No, its not. Anyway, I won, and I wound up having the reunion in Albuquerque at the Marriott Hotel there, and I had 700 people attend.
HG: Right. I went to Old Town asking for donations from the storekeepers, and I got quite a few, some interesting donations, which we raffled off to get some money. We had a banquet for 700 people there. I also arranged a tour for Kirkland Air Force Base, which is in Albuquerque.
MH: Right. Thats where they train the Air Force pararescue guys.
HG: Right. Oh, I was at the base many times, and I spoke to one of the executives thereI dont know what she was therein the administration building. She welcomed us. I arranged for a luncheon for them; they said they can only accommodate 350 people for a luncheon. Of course, my secretary/treasurer, he announced the names in the bulletin that the first 350 would be able to attend. He said they filled it right up. Kirklands a beautiful place. Otherwiseeh, I guess theres not much I can tell you.
MH: Okay. Well, I thank
HG: As far as an envelope, you dont have to. Just send me who you are and give me an address, and Ill send you a few photos.
MH: Okay. Thank you very, very much, Harry. I appreciate it.
MH: Okay. Bye-bye.
HG: Take care. Bye.
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