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Holocaust Survivor, Camp Liberator Share Memories

Edelsack, left, and Weiss at NPR.
Avie Schneider, NPR /
Edelsack, left, and Weiss at NPR.

Holocaust victims and liberators of concentration camps are gathered in Washington, D.C., for a 60th anniversary commemoration. A former U.S. soldier who helped liberate one of the Nazi-run death camps in Austria and a survivor of a related camp meet to share memories of the end of World War II.

In 1944, Martin Weiss was 15 years old when he was shipped from his native Hungary and eventually imprisoned at Gunskirchen, a concentration camp in Austria. Edgar Edelsack was 21 when he arrived at the Mauthausen camp as part of the 11th Armored Division in Gen. Patton's 3rd Army.

Weiss, who is retired from the food service industry, and Edelsack, a retired physicist, talk with Robert Siegel.

Weiss says that by the time of the liberation, "we were all living corpses rather than people. We were completely dehumanized. We had no strength. We were literally starved. Every day there were loads of people dying." The end of their captivity was so "unbelievable," that the survivors remained in the camp an extra day because they thought the liberation was a trap, he says.

Edelsack had been in the Army for three years when the war ended, and he says U.S. soldiers had no idea of the existence of the camps. "We were never informed about it, so coming in and seeing these emaciated people of skin and bones really hit a very resonant note in me." He says he took photographs but gave them away years later because they upset him so much.

Martin Weiss' Holocaust Experience

Weiss was one of nine children born to orthodox Jewish parents in Polana, a rural village in the Carpathian Mountains. His father owned a farm and a meat business, and his mother attended to the children and the home. Everyone in the family helped take care of the horses and cows.

1933-39: Weiss attended the village's Czech schools, which were quite progressive. Like many of the other children, he looked forward to leaving the provincial life in Polana. In March 1939, his life was changed dramatically when Nazi Germany and its allies dismembered Czechoslovakia.

Hungarian troops occupied Polana, and Jews were subjected to discriminatory legislation. Czech schools were closed, and the students had to learn Hungarian. The villagers all resented the new rulers, and the democratic freedoms that they had enjoyed under Czechoslovakian rule disappeared.

1940-44: After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, conditions in Polana worsened. Two of Weiss' brothers were conscripted into forced labor battalions. The family soon learned that some Jews from the area had been deported to the occupied Ukraine where they were killed by SS units. In April 1944, Hungarian gendarmes transported the village's Jews, including Martin's family, to the Munkacs ghetto. In May, they were deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Weiss, his father, brother and two uncles were selected for forced labor; the other family members were sent to the gas chambers. Weiss and his father were sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, and then to the subcamp of Melk, where they were forced to build tunnels into the side of the mountains. His father perished there.

Weiss was liberated at the Gunskirchen camp by U.S. troops in May 1945. He was 16 years old. Weiss returned to Czechoslovakia, where he found some surviving family members. In 1946 they immigrated to the United States.

Source: United States Holocaust Museum

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