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Leo Serian oral history interview
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Michael Hirsh.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (28 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (16 p.)
Concentration camp liberators oral history project
This interview was conducted as research for The Liberators: America's Witnesses to the Holocaust / Michael Hirsh (New York: Bantam Books, 2010).
Interview conducted September 5, 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.
Oral history interview with Holocaust concentration camp liberator Leo Serian. Serian was a member of the 65th Infantry Division, which liberated Hersbruck, a sub-camp of Flossenbrg on April 20, 1945. The day they discovered the camp, his company was on their way to rendezvous with other units when they came across a gate, out of which two German trucks fled. The division went into the camp and saw dozens of bodies, including a stack of corpses Serian estimates to have been about eight feet high; some of the prisoners were still alive and crawled towards the soldiers. The soldieres did not walk around the camp but tried to comfort the inmates, though they did not have enough rations to give them any. Serian's unit was only in Hersbruck for a short time before they were relieved. In 1995, he began speaking about his experience and, though the National Holocaust Museum, wrote letters to the survivors he liberated.
Infantry Division, 65th.
Infantry Division, 65th
v Personal narratives.
Hersbruck (Concentration camp)
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 MH: Your name is Leo Serian, S-e-r-i-a-n?
LS: Yes, sir.
MH: Â You were with the 65th Infantry Division.
MH: And I know one of the camps I know you got to is called Hersbruck?
LS: The concentration camps?
LS: Yeah, thats Hersbruck.
MH: Hersbruck. Â Whats your date of birth?
LS: October 3, 1925.
MH: Can you just tell me, where were you before you went in the army?
LS: Well, I was born and brought up in New York.
MH: Okay, and
LS: In Sunnyside, New York.
MH: And were you drafted, or did you enlist?
LS: I was draftedI tried to enlist, but my father wouldnt let me, (laughs) when I was seventeen.
MH: So, what year did you get drafted?
LS: December 27, 1943, I got into the Army.
MH: And then what happens?
LS: Well, and then I had my basic training at Camp Blanding, Florida, for seventeen weeks. Â And then after that, you know, my memory always fails me when I need to
MH: Thats okay.
LS: Yeah, after that, I think we were supposed to go overseas, but I dont know what happened. Â We were supposed to go to the Pacific but then plans were changed, and they sent us to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where I entered the 69th Division, and then they left me behind; and in the same camp, they transferred me to the 65th Infantry Division. Â And from there is when I went overseas, with the division, and we went overseas. Â We were the last division in the war to go overseas.
MH: When did you go over?
LS: Januaryabout January 25  we arrived in Le Havre, France. Â Yeah.
MH: So the Bulge is over.
MH: Where do you end up going?
LS: Well, we stayed until March in a recaptured airfield named after a cigarette, Camp Lucky Strike. Â We were there, and then we went toin March we arrived at the border of Germany and France and Germany, and thats when we first heard in the distance the sound of cannons, you know. Â And then shortly afterwards we entered into combat.
MH: Â What was that experience like for you?
LS: Excuse me?
MH: What was that experience like for you?
LS: Well, you know, all the while we were gung ho, but then as soon as we entered combat, which was unexpected, actually; it was horrifying, because here men that we trained with and that wed come to love as comrades, we saw them getting killed and wounded all around us, and nothing happened to me. Â And then see, what happened is we were headedour company was headed towards a larger force to engage in battle, and then we got word that on the way, theres a small town with a handful of Germans, and to wipe em out and then go on your way.
Well, what a surprise we were in for: when we got there to that town, on the road in front of the town, we noticed that there were three American airplanes in a circular fashion. Â They would come down and machine gun the town, then go around and rocket the town, shoot rockets, and then go around and drop bombs. Â The three airplanes did that for about forty-five minutes or an hour, and then after they left, we got the order to spread out and to advance. Â No sooner than we got the order to advance, we were sprayed with machine gun fire, and that waswe werent very gung ho at that moment.
MH: What town was that?
LS: I dont know the name of the town; in fact, all the places we went to, I dont remember, except I found out the names of places after the war when I joined the Association and got a lot of history through our books that were written, you know, and twice a year we have a periodical that comes out. Â I learned the names of the towns through those.
MH: When you went overseas, what did you know about the concentration camps or the Holocaust or anything?
MH: Not a thing.
LS: No. Â The Red Cross, after the war, counted over 5,000 concentration camps of all sorts. Â And many Americans died in them, also.
MH: Yes. Â But the army didnt tell you anything about them?
MH: So, whens the first time you come across one of these; or did you come across any of the death marches first?
LS: Just that one experience. Â In fact, my company was the only company in the whole division to actually liberate a camp; but there were a few of the units that entered in the camps shortlyalmost immediately after they were liberated.
MH: Tell me how you found the camp.
LS: Well, we were headed on our way to join up with other forces one morning, and we noticed several hundred feet in front of us, suddenly two large gates opened wide and we were kind of curious, you know. Â And two German trucks pulled out and a handful of Germans jumped in those two trucks and fled: because towards the end of the war, many thousands of Germans were either fleeing or surrendering. Â Well, this handful decided to flee rather than confront us, because we were a couple of hundred men.
MH: Did you go after them?
LS: Well, we were on foot, and they were in trucks. Â (laughs) We couldnt go after them.
MH: Were you shooting at them?
LS: No, no, because they disappeared before we could even raise our rifles. Â And then slowly we approached those open gates, we walked in, and the sight before our eyes caused us to freeze, like we were almost in a coma. Â To our left on the ground were dozens of bodies like twigs that fell off from a tree, and most of them were dead. Â Some came crawling towards us. Â Oh, by the way, and to our rightdo you know what a pyre is?
LS: There was a pyre of human bodies about maybe eight feet high. Â Im assuming maybe they were going tosee, they didnt have any furnaces there to burn bodies, so Im assuming they were going to burn these bodies, just throw gasoline on them. Â Well, anyway, we saw that pyre of bodies and those bodies laying down on the ground. Â Some came walking towards, haltingly, again; some came crawling. Â And we didnt have anything to give to them because we ourselves were half-starved all the time. Â So
MH: What goes through your mind when you see that happening?
LS: Excuse me?
MH: What goes through your mind when youre confronted with that?
LS: Well, the cruelty of man to man. Â You know? Â It was hard to even think, have thoughts in your head at that time, you know. Â It was only afterwards that when we came to our senses that we realized this was mans inhumanity to man, you know?
MH: Before you can have essentially a philosophical thought, do you have a physical reaction? Â I mean like, Dont touch me, as theyre coming towards you, or?
MH: Theres no reaction like that.
LS: No, no. Â In fact, when they came to us, we were still like in a frozen position. Â You mean the inmates?
LS: No, our hearts went out to them.
MH: Youre carrying rifles?
LS: Excuse me?
MH: You were carrying a rifle?
LS: Yeah, an M1.
MH: An M1. Â So, wheres the M1 when youre standing there? Â Is it?
LS: Well, we had them on our shoulders.
MH: So, its slung on your shoulder with the strap.
LS: Yeah. Â I put it this way: we stayed there for only a short while until all the forces came to take care of them.
MH: How long were you there?
LS: I dont know, maybe an hour or two at the most. Â And I put it this way: those poor souls went in through the gates of death, but then they came out through the gates of freedom. Â Thats how I put it.
MH: But you didnt put it that way then.
LS: No, no. Â I didnt put itI put this maybe fifty years after the war.
MH: But letsback to when youre actually there, standing there, what do you do? Â You were there for an hour and theyre coming towards you, and youve got death all around you. Â So what do you and your buddies do?
LS: Well, we didnt do much except just try to comfort them, you know?
MH: How do you do that?
MH: How do you do that?
LS: Well, we only spoke English, and we didnt understand the language that they spoke; and they were a number of other nationalities in the camp besides just Jews. Â Yeah.
MH: Did the Jews have stars on their uniforms?
LS: I dont remember. Â Some of them almost were completely nude.
MH: Do you give them cigarettes, do you give them C rations?
LS: We didnt have anything to give to them except the freedom. Â Like, there were many times for a whole day and even two days, we didnt have any food.
MH: You guys didnt?
MH: Why was that?
LS: Well, because supply just didnt catch up with us. Â I mean, this was a common experience during the war. Â In fact, I think one dayI could be mistakenI thought about three days we didnt have anything to eat and some fellows were eating dead grass, eating the bark off trees, and one guy was chewing on the tongue of a boot.
MH: These are American soldiers?
MH: Ive never heard that, that you guys didnt have Cs or Ks or something, or even the D ration candy bar.
LS: In fact, the one timeonce in a while the kitchen would catch up with us, you know, to give us a hot meal. Â But they couldnt always do it because of circumstances, when theres action taking place all the time. Â So, this one time the kitchen caught up with us, and we were so happy we were going to have a hot meal. Â And so when we went to the kitchen crew, you know, we were thanking them for coming and they said, We have to disappoint you. Â We said, Why? Â They said because the food supplies didnt reach them. Â We didnt have anything. Â But we were by a German farm, and there were chickens, so I killed thirteen chickenswhen I was told not to do it, but I did it anyway. Â I killed thirteen chickens and took it to the kitchen crew and told them, Here, de-feather these and cook it for us.
MH: And did they do it?
LS: Yeah. Â They were upset because besides my sergeant and the kitchen crew, all had long, even beforehandbecause I would do things like that. Â I like to gather farm animals and have maybe a possibility of killing one or two and having something to eat. Â But we were always hungry. Â When I entered the Army, I was 217 lbs. Â Im only 56 now. Â And by the time we were in combat, you know, I figure I was down to about 150.
MH: So, (laughs) the Army either starved you or got you in shape; which one you going to pick?
LS: Say that again?
MH: They either starved you or they got you in shape, which one do you want to pick?
LS: I still didnt get
MH: I said, so the army ever starved you
LS: Oh, yeah.
MH: Or they got you in great shape
LS: Yeah, thats right. Â Well, they didnt have a choice, you know. Â I mean during combat, what can you do?
MH: How do you catch the chickens and kill them?
LS: How do I what?
MH: How did you catch the chickens?
LS: Oh, they were in the barn; in fact, my sergeant told me when we first got there, just for like a temporary lull. Â He warned me, Dont touch those chickens. Â My sergeant was a German who had fled Germany just before Hitler took over, and he was a diehard American soldier, a great soldier. Â And he warned me, Dont touch those chickens. Â He said, I promised the German farmer that we wouldnt touch his chickens. Â But after I did that dirty deedwell, I didthere was one rooster and thirteen chickens. Â After I killed the chickens, I felt sorry for the farmer and left the rooster. Â So, afteroh hell, when I digress, I lose my trend of thought.
MH: Oh, thats okay. Â So, did you leave him at least one hen?
LS: No, I killed the thirteen chickens and just left the rooster. Â I mean, we were so hungry, I dont even think those thirteen chickens fed the whole company.
MH: I dont see how they could.
LS: And the thing about it, at the time that happened, the German farmer left to go somewhere and the sergeant left to go somewhere, and thats when I decided to go in the barn and get those chickens and hope all the while that the farmer and my sergeant wouldnt come back. Â Then it was a few hours by the time all this happened, and they didnt come back. Â So, I guess God was watching over me. Â (laughs)
MH: I suppose. Â So, lets go back to the camp again. Â Did you walk through the camp and go in any of the buildings?
LS: No, it was a very small camp. Â We didnt walk around. Â We just milled about in that immediate area. Â We just milled about, you know, and tried to comfort the inmates.
MH: Did the inmates try and talk to you?
LS: Oh, yeah, but we didnt understand them. Â There may have been some who did understand, but I dont recall, you know.
MH: Were there men and women?
LS: Just men.
MH: Just men. Â And could you tell if it was a slave labor camp?
LS: Well, yeah, thats what all concentration camps are.
MH: Well, some of them were just to kill people.
LS: Oh, well, they did slave labor also. Â They had to dig tunnels. Â You know what I can do, I can send youif you give me your address, I can send you my experience and I could give you information how you could get some books from our division. Â Our historian has compiled nineteen books, over seven thousand pages.
MH: Okay. Â Well, I mean, I can find the camp; certainly the Holocaust Museum has the records of it. Â You know, I can get some of that. Â But if you have your own story written out?
LS: Oh, yeah, I was interviewed about three years ago by a reporter. Â And it was in the Dallas Morning News.
MH: When did you come back from the war?
LS: Well, being that I didnt have enough points like many of the soldiers did, I had to wait until all of those who had enough points left to go home, when it was our turn. Â I got home May forty-six .
MH: May of forty-six . Â So when you came home, did you get married, or not for a while?
LS: Well, I got engaged to the girl next door, but it didnt work out. Â But then I found another good girl who happened to be here studying at a Bible college. Â I would go there every week and play ping-pong with a friend of mine, and I saw this girl there. Â And then she had to have some practical experience in teaching Sunday school, and she was assigned to a church from the school. Â And it just so happened I started going to that church and thats when I got to meet her.
MH: And what year did you get married?
LS: Nineteen fifty-three.
MH: Fifty-three .
LS: But then twelve years ago, my wife went to be with the Lord; shecancer took her.
MH: Do you have children?
LS: I have three.
MH: Three. Â When did you start telling people about what you had seen at that camp?
LS: You know, when the fiftieth anniversary took place, thats when the whole country took an interest in World War II veterans. Â And thats going back, lets see, 1965forty-five  the war ended.
MH: So, it would be 1995.
LS: Yeah. Â Thats when people started taking interest and you know, thanking us for all we didbut for almost fifty years I had heard almost nothing. Â Except when I immediately came home, most of my relatives were thankful.
MH: When did you start telling people about the concentration camp?
LS: Well, its like I saidabout the fiftieth anniversary, at the end of the war which is also the [anniversary of liberating the] concentration camps, I started telling people. Â And I always wanted to know the name of the concentration camp. Â Across the street from me is a retired colonel, and I told him. Â And he said, Look, write to the Department of the Army. Â So, I wrote, and lo and behold, the first letter I get states the name of the camp. The units of the 65th Infantry Division liberated Hersbruck concentration camp.
And then, later on, I was wondering if I could make contact with any of the survivors. Â And through a friend, I got the address of a survivor and I wrote to him, but he had died; but his son answered me, and his son told me about his father. Â And he said, Look, why dont you write to the National Holocaust Museum and they have a tremendous list of survivors. Â So, I wrote to them, and they said that, We have 186,000 survivors from all over the world, and there were twenty-seven survivors from the camp that your company liberated. Â I thought, Oh, great, and she said, We have a certain form that you have to abide by if you want your letters to be sent to those survivors.
So, I wrote a letter and sent it to the Holocaust Museum and they okayed it, and I made twenty-six, twenty-seven more copies and sent those copies to the Holocaust Museum, and they sent one each to those twenty-seven survivors. Â And I got seventeen replies. Â Five of them were from foreign countriesone was from, actually, the very town where we liberated, a German who was anti-Nazi, anti-Fascist, who ended up in that camp. Â And then from Prague, Czechoslovakia; from Verona, Italy; a town in Israel; and La Paz, Bolivia.
MH: And what about from the U.S.?
LS: The other twelve were from the U.S., from California, Connecticut, Florida. Â But what happened was, when Ioh, when I got a letter from the survivor in Israel, he wrote it in Hebrew. Â Just one sentence, he wrote. Â Well, I took it to the nearest synagogue here, and asked them if they would translate it, and I also took some documents that I had, you know, on the concentration camps. Â And the lady who was in charge said to me, Wed like it if you could come and give your experience to our tenth grade students. Â I said Id be glad to do it, Id never done it before; and I said I know another liberator who has a tremendous story to tell: his unit liberated Dachau. Â So, I contacted him, and the both of us came to that synagogue and we gave our experiences, and we were hailed as heroes.
Well, anyway, when I gave these documents to the lady there, she sent copies to the Dallas Morning News, and then I got a call from a reporter. Â And the reporter said that he got information from this synagogue, and said, Id like to come and interview you. Â So, I said, Great! Â So it was in April of 2005, and he came and interviewed me, and it was in the Dallas Morning News two weeks later. Â He also contacted one of the survivors in Florida.
MH: Have you ever met one of the survivors in person?
LS: No, I just spoke to one once, this one survivoror two of them.
MH: What was that like?
LS: Well, they just gave me their experience, you know. Â This is over fifty years later. Â They gave me their experiences. Â And the others were just my letter.
MH: Do you still have a copy of the letter you wrote?
LS: Not theoh, a copy of the letter that I wrote at first?
MH: Id actually like to get a copy of that, if its possible. Â And if theres, you know, a couple of the answers that you got back in the mail that I could get copies of.
LS: Okay, well, yougive me your address.
MH: Do you have e-mail?
LS: No, I dont have one, no.
MH: You know what Ill do? Â Let me mail you an envelope, because the other thing Id likedo you have a picture of yourself from World War II?
LS: Yeah. Â Before going overseas.
MH: Thats okay. Â What Id like to do is borrow a picture of you from before World War II or from World War II; and then, do you have a picture of yourselfyou know, a recent picture?
LS: I havent had a picture in years taken in several years. Â I guess you keep busy all the time writing, huh?
MH: I try.
LS: I was hoping I could write a book of my experiences, but Im far from a writer. Â I just remember incidents, you know, and write down the incidents. Â Lets see, Scott, Scott, where are you? Â Its Jerry Scott and his phone is. I hope hes still around; hes older than I am.
MH: What unit was he in?
LS: Excuse me?
MH: Do you remember what unit he was in?
LS: No, I dont remember.
MH: Howd you meet him?
LS: I guess when they had the fiftieth anniversary, you know.
MH: Well, Ill try calling him.
LS: He was the one who got meoh, by the way, when the article on me came out in the newspaper, I got many phone calls from morning until evening. Â One phone call was from a town fifty miles away from here to come and speak to a group of servicemen. Â But for the past six years, Ive had a bad case of vertigo which has sidelined me. Â I just cant do anything. Â And then I got another call from the Jewish center here, which really surprised me. Â They said, Look, theres a Jewish event thats going to take place in Austin, and theres a busload thats going there, and we want you to come with us, because they read my article in the newspaper. Â I said, Well, what do you want me to go with you for? Â What for? Â He said, Because we want you to speak to the Texas legislature. Â I almost fainted, I couldnt believe it. Â I said, Thats like speaking to the Congress of the United States of America. Â But you know what, to both places I couldnt go, because I was so dizzy. Â Yeah.
MH: All right. Â Well, I thank you very much, and Ill send you a letter that has the information about the book, and asks you for the photos and the copies of the letters.
LS: And I want you to know how thankful I am to you, Vietnam veterans. Â Ill never forget what you guys did.
MH: Youre quite welcome. Â Thank you very much, Leo, I appreciate it.
LS: Your name was what?
MH: Michael Hirsh, H-i-r-s-h.
LS: Okay, Michael.
MH: Okay, thank you, sir.
MH: Yeah. Â Bye-bye.
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