Irving Heymont, 90, Commanded Displaced Persons Camp After WWII

Maj. Irving Heymont talks with David Ben-Gurion at the camp in 1945.
Maj. Irving Heymont talks with David Ben-Gurion at the camp in 1945. (By George Kadish -- Zvi Kadushin)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Irving Heymont, 90, a retired Army colonel who commanded one of the largest displaced persons camps for European Jews in Europe immediately after World War II, died March 17 at his home in Fort Belvoir. He had sick sinus syndrome, a heart disease.

When Col. Heymont, then a 27-year-old major, was assigned to command the Landsberg, Germany, displaced persons camp in September 1945, all the non-Jewish residents had been transferred to other locations. About 5,000 people, mostly Russian, Latvian and Lithuanian survivors of the war, remained.

"With few exceptions, the people of the camp themselves appear demoralized beyond hope of rehabilitation," Col. Heymont told his wife in a letter. "They appear to be beaten both spiritually and physically, with no hopes or incentives for the future."

Without telling anyone that he was Jewish for fear of subverting military discipline, the spit-and-polish, by-the-book officer helped restore residents' dignity by treating them as humans. One resident told his son that Col. Heymont was "one of those non-Jews with a Jewish heart."

But first, as the survivors regrouped, the camp became a thriving community. Residents began preparing kosher meat, organized multiple schools and started a Yiddish language newspaper and theater. In October 1945, David Ben-Gurion, an architect of the state of Israel who later became its first prime minister, paid a surprise visit to the camp, and Col. Heymont noted that, "To the people of the camp, he is God"

Abraham Peck, director of the Academic Council for Post-Holocaust Christian, Jewish and Islamic Studies at the University of Southern Maine, said Col. Heymont's three and a half months at Landsberg became a turning point in Jewish history, because the "surviving remnant" of Eastern European Jews developed their will to never let the world forget what happened in the Holocaust.

"Heymont allowed these people their own sense of humanity," said Peck, who was born in the camp and later edited Col. Heymont's wartime letters to his wife. "They needed to tell the world it could happen again. The survivors really believed that they could become this force to change the nature of humanity because they'd seen it at its worst."

Irving Heymont was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and worked as a metallurgical chemist before enlisting in the Army in 1940. He served in the Panama Canal Zone until the United States was drawn into World War II. He fought in the infantry in Germany and Austria, where his regiment liberated Gunskirchen, a sub-camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Col. Heymont went on to serve in Korea, studied and taught at the Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. After his retirement from the Army in 1964, he was a vice president for 17 years at General Research Corp. in McLean.

He was awarded the Silver Star for his service in World War II and two awards of the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Korea.

He wrote two books, "Combat Intelligence in Modern Warfare" (1960) and "Among the Survivors of the Holocaust 1945: The Landsberg DP Camp Letters of Major Irving Heymont, United States Army" (1982), which has become a standard resource for people investigating the Holocaust.

One of his retirement projects was to work with a group of local people in Landsberg to educate them about the Holocaust crimes committed there. The city is where Nazi leader Adolf Hitler dictated "Mein Kampf" to his secretary, Rudolf Hess, and it became a place of pilgrimage for Nazi youth.

Col. Heymont sponsored an essay contest for local students on the city's history in the rise of Nazism and its role in World War II. In 1998, the Landsberg City Council named a street after him in recognition of his activities at the DP camp. Col. Heymont also frequently spoke at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where his original letters are on display.

Col. Heymont was a resident of the Washington area since 1962 and a member of the Fort Belvoir Jewish Congregation.

His wife of 54 years, Joan Heymont, died in 1994. Survivors include two children, Paul Heymont of Brooklyn and Laurie Weinberg of Wilbraham, Mass.; eight grandchildren; and five great grandchildren.

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