“The pain never goes away,” George Kaiser continued, returning to the subject of Dachau. He described how he couldn’t talk about it right after he saw it, and then once he returned stateside, no one wanted to hear about it. “There was nothing to brag about; we had survivors from the camps here in Winthrop, so I just sort of divorced myself from it, because I figured what had I got to add, they were the ones who went through hell.”
The vibrant man I met at the front door faded as Mr. Kaiser’s body sank into the chair, his eyes losing focus. Bring him back, I told myself, as the silence became intolerable. I asked, “How did your platoon happen to enter Dachau?”
He hadn’t been with his regular squad, part of the 20th Armored Division. He had been sent to escort vehicles on a munitions run and was heading back on an unfamiliar road. A sentry stepped out of the woods and told his driver to pull over because of enemy fire ahead. They fell in with a group from the 42nd Infantry Division and came upon a double barbed-wire fence. Some bodies in striped pajamas lay there.
“We had no idea where we were, and then we’re coming up to these gates, and I realize: this is one of those camps we had heard a little about—where they were supposedly keeping Jews. I wanted to get out and see if we could help; my driver didn’t want to come with me. He said, ‘What do I need with some Jews?’“
When Mr. Kaiser got out of the truck and walked into the camp, it was as if he had entered hell. The second barrack he went into had hundreds of prisoners lying on shelves, four or five high, covered with some straw. They were too weak to get up; some could barely turn their heads. Their eyes were the only indication they were alive. Several banged their tin cups on the side of the bunks because they were too weak to get up. The smell was so overpowering, he became sick and ran out.
“Out in the courtyard, I couldn’t move,” he said. “My mind froze; the shock was complete and total. Especially when we saw the crematorium—with these piles of bodies, stacked five bodies high….”
His voice, which had been getting quieter and quieter, broke off. He put his head down into the cup of his palms, his shoulders shaking. He then excused himself, stood, and left the room. My hands were up around my glasses to hide my tears. His words echoed in my head, overwhelming my thinking.
Seconds later, his wife, Cyma, walked into the room. She was a tall, graceful woman, quite a bit younger than her spouse, her hair just beginning to gray, her step sure and energetic. She asked how her husband was doing.
“I’m afraid I’ve stirred up a lot of pain.”
“Don’t worry,” she told me. “It was his decision to talk with you. It’s as if he needs to talk about it. After never saying a word about it for twenty years, he hasn’t stopped talking about it in the last twenty. But I guess that’s what trauma is.”
“Has he talked about it with your children?”
She paused. “The children? I don’t know; I guess on some level, but not directly. He’s never sat down and told them anything. It’s all reading between the lines. They learned more from reading an interview a newspaper did with him.”
When Mr. Kaiser returned to the room, his wife offered us some kugel and iced tea.
“Wonderful!” I answered, listening enthusiastically as her husband told me what a great kugel his wife made.
Mrs. Kaiser’s remarks about her husband not having shared his experiences with their children had magnetized my thoughts, and my mind flipped through questions that might get him to talk about that. I asked him how he thought witnessing Dachau might have affected him emotionally, and how he dealt with it.
“Humor helps,” he answered—words I had often heard from my father, especially as I got older. Mr. Kaiser told of how he found humor in things that had absolutely none—like having spent a night sleeping next to what he discovered in the morning to be a dead German. “I lost my faith,” he said. “How could God exist if this could happen?”