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Eli Heimberg oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (37 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (13 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 September 21, 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 Eli Heimberg. Heimberg was an assistant chaplain in the 42nd Infantry Division, which liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945. He and chaplain Rabbi Eli Bohnen heard about the camp several hours after it was first discovered and decided to go there. Upon arriving, they asked where the Jewish prisoners were and spent a couple of hours with a group of about twenty-five Polish Jews. Many of them had relatives in America, and Heimberg and Bohnen took their names and contact information. Rabbi Bohnen also recited the Prayer for the Dead before they left. In this interview, Heimberg, who is Jewish, describes his reactions to the camp and how it affected his sense of identity as a Jew.
Infantry Division, 42nd.
Infantry Division, 42nd
v Personal narratives.
Dachau (Concentration camp)
World War, 1939-1945
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.
y USF ONLINE ACCESS
xml version 1.0 encoding UTF-8 transcript
text Michael Hirsh: Okay, just so I have it, would you give me your name and spell it for me, please?
Eli Heimberg: First name is Eli, E-l-i, and the second name is Heimberg, H-e-i-m as in Mary-b-e-r-g.
MH: And your address, please?
MH: And your phone is?
MH: You were with the 42nd Infantry Division that got to Dachau?
MH: Whats your date of birth, please?
EH: May 29, 1917. That makes me ninety-one.
MH: Mazel tov. When did you go in the Army?
EH: In August ofI was drafted. Ive lost track. I think I went in August of 19hey, Fran, when did I go in the Army? What year? What year did I go into the Army? Yeah.
Fran Heimberg: Nineteen forty-five.
EH: Nineteen forty-five.
MH: You went in in forty-five ?
MH: You went in in forty five ?
EH: I went into the Army, was drafted.
MH: Right. But 1945 was almost the end of the war. Well, we can figure it out in another way. Where were you when you were drafted?
EH: I lived in Yonkers, New York.
MH: What were you doing at the time?
EH: Wait a minute. Lets see. Yeah, I was a manager in a factory, a curtain factory.
MH: And you got drafted. When did you get to the 42nd Infantry Division?
EH: I was drafted and right after myright after I was drafted, the first place I went was a staging area in Fort Dix [New Jersey], and I was immediately sent to Camp Gruber [Oklahoma] to the 42nd Division.
MH: Do you recall when you went overseas with the 42nd?
EH: Fran? When did I go overseas?
FH: Nineteen forty-five .
EH: Nineteen forty-five .
MH: What was the first action that you saw?
EH: We went up through Marseilles. I landed in France and rode up the Rhne Valley, and I think at that time, they were negotiating for peace.
MH: So, you were there after the Battle of the Bulge?
EH: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact, the Battle of the Bulge was a very interesting thing. They needed infantrymen so badly that they even took the generals and moved them out from the SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force], our commanding generals troops that were his protection troops.
MH: Were you a rifleman?
EH: No, I was a chaplains assistant.
MH: Which meant you were part of the headquarters unit?
EH: I was the chaplain, the assistant division chaplain; and, of course, being his aide, I was with him. The riflemen were sent over overseas to the Battle of the Bulge immediately. They took every rifleman they could, and then we went over later on. I remember that we were going to Fort Dix and waited at Fort Dix on Christmas night, because it was so bad in the Battle of the Bulge that they decided to bring the division over quicker.
MH: What was your rank by the time you got to Europe?
MH: Corporal, okay. How did you happen to become a chaplains assistant?
EH: I was very lonely, and we used toFriday night was the night that we washed the barracks floors. I didnt want them to think I was a goof-off, so I said I would take KP [kitchen patrol] on Sundays if I could be left off to go to services. I was very lonely, so I used to go to services every Friday night, and during servicesI knew a little bit about playing an organ, so the chaplain put me to work playing the organ. But I made so many bloopers later on that I stopped playing the organ. But, anyway, he was a brand-new chaplain, and he needed an assistant, and he took me on.
MH: Okay. Had you been a very religious Jew?
EH: It was Chaplain [Eli] Bohnen.
EH: B-o-h-n-e-n, which means Beans.
MH: Did you come from an Orthodox Jewish family?
EH: No. I was a Conservative. But Friday nightsyou know, it was a brand-new place. I was lonely at Camp Gruber, so Friday nights was a good way of going and finding solace.
MH: What did you know about the Holocaust before you went overseas?
EH: I heard about the concentration camps and Hitlers doing in Germany, while I didnt know to what extent. In other words, I didnt knowI heard about concentration camps, but I didnt know what they were.
MH: Did the Army tell you anything about them?
EH: The Army? No.
MH: No? Okay. So, once youre over in Europe and the division gets into Germany, did you hear any more about these camps being discovered?
MH: Were still in the war. You got to the DP campyou saw a DP camp before you got to Dachau?
EH: No, my memorys a little mixed up on this.
MH: Tell me about getting to Dachau. What happened that day?
EH: The chaplain decided to visit Dachau, because that day, the 45th Division and the 42nd Division, early in the morning, took over Dachau, and the 222nd Regiment of the 42nd Division took over one section. When the chaplain heard about it, we decided that he would visit the camp as soon as possible, and we took off to go to Dachau. We were in, I think, Salzburg then.
MH: And you went with the chaplain. You were driving in his Jeep?
EH: I was his assistant. I was his driver, and since he couldnt carry a rifle, I carried the rifle, too. I was the assistant to the chaplain. I was not only his guard, but helped him set up services and things like that.
MH: What was your first sight of Dachau? Do you remember?
EH: I remember very vividlyit remains as a nightmare sometimescrossing a moat, crossing the moat on a bridge, enough for one car at a time. And on the other side of the bridge was a pile ofseveral big piles of clothing. Lots of clothing.
EH: I would say about three feet high and quite a few piles about ten feet square.
MH: But this is outside? Not inside a building?
MH: So, thats the first thing you see.
MH: Do you remember what the chaplain said or what you said?
EH: When we crossed the bridge?
EH: No, we were very quiet, both of us. We were observing.
MH: You cross the bridge and youre driving your Jeep.
MH: And you go inside the gate?
EH: We went inside the gate.
MH: With the Jeep?
EH: With the Jeep.
MH: Okay, now what happens?
EH: And when we went in, we asked for a Jewish section, because there were other people, too, other inmates. And we went to the Jewish section there. And we sawthere werent too many people there that were Jewish.
MH: Right, it was down to about 2,000.
EH: Yeah, we saw less than that in the barracks that we went. We saw them, theyI had a dog with me.
MH: A dog?
MH: What kind of a dog?
EH: He was a mongrel, but he was like a mongreloh, what do you call it? A short-haired, about fifteen inches high, brown, and I called him
MH: What was his name?
EH: I called him Hundt.
MH: Hundt? Okay.
EH: Which means dog.
MH: Of course.
EH: We went into the Jewish barracks, but there werent too many people there; evidently, they had moved. They didnt have too many in Dachau, and they were all afraid of the dog when I came in, and I said to them in Yiddish, Dont be afraid of the dog. He understands Yiddish, and hes not afraid, and he likes Juden.
MH: How do you say that in Yiddish?
EH: (inaudible) nish kein (inaudible) yiddishe hundt. And I said, (inaudible) and I said to the dog, (inaudible), which means Sit down, and of course, he sat down because he goes by the inflection of my voice, which is the same as saying it in English, Hundt, sit down. He sat down, and he sat about one foot behind me on my right, and they said, What do you call him? and I said, I call him Hundt. They said, That means dog. I said, Yes, I call him Dog, he calls me Man. They (MH laughs) smiled, and I thought Id bring a little levity into their lives.
MH: You were inside a barrack at this point?
MH: What did the barrack look like? Because Ive heard nightmare descriptions of the smell and the crowding and the filth, what did this look like?
EH: It seemed to be clean. Not barracks clean like the army, but it seemed to be all right. Either that, or I didnt notice my surroundings, because if anything, I was more interested in the people. Oh, immediately, [they] said, Thank God, and they immediately told us they had families in New York and they wanted us to get in touch with them. And wherever we could, if we could get telephone numbers, some people said, Look, just ask forhe lives in New York, my uncle. His name is Sam Cohen. Youll find him. (MH laughs) So, we took the names anyway, and where we could find or get a telephone number, wed take a telephone number.
MH: How did these people react to the fact that they were sitting there with a Jewish rabbi in the American army?
EH: They saidI think they saidI was more interested at that moment, I wasnt listening so much as watching their reaction, looking to see, looking around the room to see what it looked like. However, that wasnt the place where they stayed. I believeI think they were taken out for us to see.
MH: I see. So, what happens next?
EH: Well, we took their names, and we took addresses. And we tried to call up. Chaplain Bohnen contacted people. You see, we didnt have direct lines to the United States, only on certain occasions. So, he sent letters out.
MH: So, how long did you sit in that one place with these people, and about how many Jewish inmates were in there with you, do you think?
EH: I would say around twenty-five. We were only there for aboutI would say less than two hours.
MH: Did they tell you where they had come from?
EH: Oh, they were talking about the other concentration camps. They didnt say where theythey were talking about Bergen-Belsen, Birkenau. How they got to the place where we met them, I dont remember. I dont recall.
MH: Were these Hungarian Jews or Polish Jews?
EH: These were Polish Jews.
MH: Polish Jews, okay. Do you remember
EH: By the way, the Polish Jews were the ones that were the most harassed and the most put to death. It seemed thatincluding Poles; they werent there, but it seemed that Hitler had a hatred for anything Polish, including the Poles.
MH: Do any of the prisoners, these inmates, any of them particular come to mind? Did you have a conversation with any one of them?
EH: Well, I had a conversation with all of them. Well, not all of them; most of them.
MH: Any one that stands out in your mind sixty years later?
MH: No, okay. Then what happens? Were you there on April 29, which was the day of liberation, or were you there on the thirtieth?
EH: I believe it was the twenty-ninth.
MH: The twenty-ninth.. On the thirtieth
EH: The day, April 29, the early morning of the twenty-ninth, I think, Dachau was liberated by the 45th and the 42nd.
MH: Thats right.
EH: The early morning. And we were there because we heard that it was liberated. We hopped in my Jeep, and we went over there and were there around two oclock in the afternoon.
MH: How long do you think you stayed there?
EH: I would say less than two hours.
MH: Then went back to headquarters?
MH: Did you go back there the next day?
EH: No. Dont forget, the division was on the move, and we had to catch up. As a matter of fact, the division had already moved, and we had tofortunately, we had the freedom of passage from the division.
MH: Right. Was there any effort that first day that you were there to
MH: Did yourdid the rabbi hold any services that day?
EH: I think he had the El Male Rachamim there that day: the Prayer for the Dead.
MH: Where did he say that? Outdoors or indoors?
EH: No, it was indoors, in where they were. Right when we went indont forget, they were still prisonersnot prisoners but incarcerated, because they werent let out into the general population.
MH: When he said the El Male Rachamim
EH: El Male Rachamim.
MH: El Male Rachamim, that was in the room you were in.
EH: The same room. We only saw them in the same room. And there was a wail [that] came from everybody in remembering the dead.
MH: Did he chant it or did he read it? I mean, I know the melody to El Male RachamimIve heard it with old-time cantors, whowhats the word, (inaudible)? Theyre almost crying when they say it.
EH: He chanted it.
MH: And the reaction was?
EH: Not in a cantorial way.
MH: And the reaction, you said, was a wail?
EH: A wail came up and everybody started crying, or most of them started crying.
MH: That had to be an incredibly emotional moment.
EH: It was.
MH: To say that prayer at the location of so many deathsmurders, really.
EH: Right. They were deathdid I mention to you they were deathly afraid of the dog?
MH: You told me that.
EH: And they told me the reason why is that the Germans used to sic on them the German police dogs.
MH: Right. Yeah, I assumed as much. When you came out of that building, do you remember if the sun was shining or if it was a cloudy day?
EH: I dont remember.
MH: What did it feel like for you to come out of that building after experiencing that moment?
EH: I was shook up. There was a gulp in my throat, and honestly, I was glad to get out of the building. It was a traumatic experience. It was traumatic; the moment that bridge we rode over the moat, and seeing the piles of clothing, told me that I was going to expect something that I would never forget. Because the piles of clothing immediately in my mind told me that there were people who wore those clothes once. And believe me, they didnt have a second set of clothes to wear.
MH: Right. When did you finally come home to the States? Late in 1945, or did you stay on occupation duty?
EH: We stayed on occupation, and I wasI was married in 1944.
MH: So, you got married just before you went overseas.
MH: Whats your wifes name?
MH: And so, when you came home, did you write home and tell her about Dachau?
EH: Yes. I dont know what happened to all my letters. I used to write the letters, hopefully, that I would be able to give them to my children. And Id tell what happened by writing the letter.
MH: Eli, when did you first tell people about Dachau back in the States?
EH: I wrote it in the letter. I wrote it in my letter.
MH: But when you came home, did you ever talk to people about it, or did people ask you about it?
EH: By that time, there were a lot of people who came to the United States who were displaced persons, who were in camps that were even more brutal. Birkenau camp, another campa couple camps they had that were extermination camps. And by the way, the Germans called them extermination camps, and you know why they called them extermination camps? Because, what do you exterminate?
EH: Thats the way they saw it. See, they didnt think in terms of their killing Jewish people or innocent people. They thought they were notthey thoughtin order to cover themselves, to save their minds, the things that they had done that were so terrible, they couldnt in their own minds [think] that they were killing people. They were exterminating, exterminating vermin.
MH: Do you think your experience in the war and at Dachau made you more religious, less religious, or had no effect on it?
EH: It didnt affect my religion so much as it affected my sense of identity of being Jewish.
MH: In what way?
EH: In the fact that this thing could happen to people who are no different than I was, to be picked up because of my background, my genealogy, and my religion.
MH: When did that notion strike you?
EH: The moment Iwell, the moment I crossed that bridge and met with these people.
MH: Did you have children?
EH: Not then.
MH: No, I mean later.
EH: Later on, I had three children.
MH: Did you tell them about what you had seen in Dachau?
MH: How old were they when you talked to them about it?
EH: I only talked to them when the occasion was in reference to Dachau.
MH: Do you remember any of those conversations?
EH: No, I dont.
MH: Im just wondering how a Jewish father explains to a Jewish child that he saw the most horrible thing possible.
EH: Number one, I didnt want to scare them about their genealogy, so I didnt say too much about it.
MH: Did you have nightmares about what you had seen?
MH: How long did they last?
EH: I would say it came on and off for about two years.
MH: What did you do as a business or career after you came back from the war?
EH: Well, I originally was a manager in a curtain factory in Yonkers, N.Y. Our company decided to open up and eventually make aopen up a factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts. They wanted me to be the manager, and in becoming manager, I had more responsibility. I was not only a manager, but the board elected me as president of the manufacturing organization here in New Bedford.
MH: How long did you stay with that company?
EH: Well, I came up here in 1950 and retired in 1965, but in total, I was with the company around fifty-six years. I started out originallymy job was tying boxes at twenty-five cents an hour.
MH: Where is South Dartmouth?
EH: Pardon me?
MH: Where is South Dartmouth, Massachusetts?
EH: South Dartmouth is one of the communities outside of New Bedford. Its just southeast of New Bedford.
MH: Whats the VA hospital nearest to you?
EH: Pardon me?
MH: Do you know whatwhats the name of the VA hospital near you?
EH: Oh, theres a hospital inFran! Bella! Excuse me.
MH: Its okay.
MH: Its okay. I just thought you might know. Its okay.
EH: Oh, Bellas gone? Fran, whats the name of the VA hospital over here?
EH: Yeah, in Brockton.
MH: Oh, its in Brockton, okay.
EH: Brockton, Massachusetts. Thank you.
MH: All right. Anything else youd want to tell me about the experience?
EH: Nothing that comes to mind now.
MH: Okay. Do you have a picture of yourself from World War II?
EH: By the way, I have a pictureI dont know where it is, but I made up a collection of my experiences in World War II from the moment, including beginning of themy first draft card to shaking hands with the officer who discharged me. The collection resides in the Jewish War Veterans Museum of Jewish Military History.
MH: In Washington?
MH: But do you still have a photograph of yourself from World War II days?
EH: I have it somewhere, I guess. You know, Im blind, so I cant find these things, you know.
MH: Is it likely that your wife would be able to find one?
EH: No. But you may be able to get a lot of the stuff from the collection I had at the museum.
MH: You think theres a picture of you in that collection.
MH: Okay. Ill
EH: I wish I could give you
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