WWII veteran Alan Moskin spoke to Y’s Men last Thursday, emotionally recounting the overwhelming task his unit — the 66th Infantry Regiment, 71st Division, “part of the 3rd Army commanded by General George S. Patton himself” — confronted in liberating the Gunskirchen concentration camp in May, 1945, when he was a Staff Sergeant at the age of 18.
While liberating a a POW camp of RAF captives near Lambach, Austria, Moskin’s unit was told there was a “camp for Jews a few kilometers down the road.”
They were led to it by a “most offensive nauseating stench, a smell you don’t get over… You couldn’t breathe.”
“Entering that camp was the most horrific sight I’ve ever seen. On the left was a pile of skeleton-like bodies, and on the right, another,” all with broomstick arms and legs and hollowed out cheeks, all clothed in filthy gray and white striped pajamas.
“Essen bitte, Zigaretten bitte, wasser bitte.” GIs handed out cigarettes. They reached for matches, but were shocked to see these wraiths tear open the cigarettes to eat them. “You have to see what starvation does to you.”
We gave them food from our rations. They immediately began gagging. The medics started yelling “No solid food, no solid food!… When you’re starving you can’t swallow. Your esophagus clamps up.”
Many looked scared of us — “they don’t know who we are.” His Lieutenant said. Talk to them — in Hebrew, in Yiddish, anything. Moskin knew not a word of either — “when my grandparents left the old country they became Americans. They spoke only English — at least in the kitchen. What they spoke in the bedroom, I don’t know.”
Moskin told them “Ich bin auch ein Jude,” I am also a Jew. One man dropped to his knees to kiss his mud, blood and feces covered boots. Now, 75 years later he still gets emotional recalling this scene.
This, what Moskin called the second part of his story, was preceded by Army culture shock. Born in 1926, and raised in Englewood, NJ, he graduated from high school at 17, entered Syracuse University, and received his draft notice immediately after his 18th birthday. “Greetings… it was like an invitation to a bar mitzvah.”
He did basic training in northern Florida, where he was thrown in with “southern boys.” He had never shot a rifle in his life, while southern boys, “who were brought up huntin’ and fishin’ since they were three years old” were right at home. But when he got into combat, his M1 never left his side.
He put up photos of friends and family at the head of his bunk. One showed him with his arms around black teammates celebrating a high school basketball tournament title. The southern boys saw the photo, looked at Moskin, who had been nicknamed “College Boy,” and called him “Nigger Lover.”
And, Moskin added, this was only the first of even worse and more personal epithets.
Following basic he was shipped overseas in a Liberty ship convoy. “Liberty ships were not meant to be on the ocean. Every guy was on all fours, going from both ends. It wasn’t pretty.” Deployed to Europe, he fought in battles in France, Germany and Austria.
What was combat like? He mentioned one incident. “Something hit the top of my head. I reached up and I got a blood soaked arm with the fingers still moving. On the wrist is a tattoo of an eagle. I start screaming “Willsey, Willsey, Willsey,” because he had an eagle on his wrist. He’s going to soar like an eagle after the war. Now I’m holding his arm. That shook me up.”
Running through his talk was a feeling that “Maybe there’s a higher power that had his arm on my shoulder. I went through a lot of guilt.” And he became almost overwrought listing buddies who “made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Moskin kept these memories bottled up, afraid of what would emerge if he faced them, until he was almost badgered to speak about the liberation in 1995. Not knowing what to expect of himself, he launched into a stream of consciousness that went on for about two hours.
Not only did he not find himself scared and shocked in telling his story, he found it to be cathartic, it unleashed long buried ghosts. Since then he has talked regularly to groups, particularly groups of young people, reminding them that his generation, though called the “Greatest Generation,” failed to wipe out hate and extremism. He tells them they are the last generation that will hear the men and women who fought Nazi evil, and that the task of eliminating hate now falls to them.
Photo by Roy Fuchs