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Concentration camp liberators gather in Washington

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Arthur Mainzer, a young cameraman with the Army in 1945 captured one of the most chilling moments of the liberation: American authorities forcing German townsfolk who lived near the camps to see the atrocities. With a 16mm Kodachrome movie camera, Mainzer recorded the reaction of residents of the town of Weimar who lived near the Buchenwald concentration camp.

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By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010

The 120 veterans wore red, white and blue tags emblazoned with the word "Liberator" and crept along on walkers. Others could hardly hear as they toured the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday. But the memories of the atrocities they witnessed in the waning months of World War II -- when soldiers from several armored and infantry divisions liberated concentration camps throughout Germany and Austria -- remained achingly clear.

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Some attending what museum officials said is one of the largest gatherings of liberators ever held remembered cremation ovens were still warm, ashes fuzzing the foul air. Stacks of bodies on railroad cars. How their hearts ached when commanding officers forbade them from passing along rations to the starving people, for fear the rich food would sicken them further.

Fletcher Thorne-Thomsen said he would never forget one emaciated man who was so happy to see the American he tried to hug him with fragile arms.

"I can still see a pair of eyes," he said. The man's look was penetrating. It's haunted him for 65 years.

Thorne-Thomsen, 87, is among the dwindling number of soldiers who helped liberate death camps in World War II and who traveled to Washington for this week's National Days of Remembrance, which will culminate in a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Thursday. Museum officials said that given the advancing age of many of the men -- most are in their late 80s or older -- it could be one of the last gatherings of its kind.

"They have a story of enormous importance to share with new generations . . . and so we wanted for one last time to bring them all together," said Sara J. Bloomfield, the director of the museum, where historians spent time this week capturing some of their stories for its archives.

"We all have different stories to tell, but we all feel the same thing: How could a human being inflict such pain on another human being?" said Edward Ichiyama, a Japanese-American liberator from Hawaii who, because of his ancestry, wasn't allowed to enlist in the Army until well into the war. "We have to speak in one voice. We lived through one of the most terrible ordeals in history."

Ichiyama said that over the years he has often given speeches about his experiences liberating a sub-camp of Dachau at schools and universities. Invariably, even today, he says he gets questions from skeptical audience members who don't believe the Holocaust happened.

His answer?

"There are millions of naysayers who don't believe that the Holocaust happened," he said. "But all I can say is, 'I was a witness.' "

Ralph DiCecco, 85, of Seattle said he and his fellow soldiers didn't understand what they were fighting for until that fateful moment April 29, 1945, when his division entered Dachau's gate. In the days that followed, the young men retreated from the horrifying scene -- with its stench and piles of human flesh -- to bombed-out buildings in Munich to camp and to try to make sense of what happened.

"We began to realize what we were fighting against, not what we were fighting for. Does that make sense?" he said. After Dachau, "it began to sink in."


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