Archives for category: Soldier

LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn, 1945

Pete Petersohn 2001-v3

LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn, 2001

I’d like to introduce you to a really important person who unwittingly made a huge difference in my life. His name is LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn and he was a medic in the United States Army during WWII. He’s the other protagonist in my book, along with my mother-in-law, Hana. He’s truly the yin to her yang. Without him she wouldn’t exist. I’ve been working on the chapters about him recently and well, Memorial Day just snuck up on me. I want to dedicate this post to him, because without him my husband would not be here, and as you can gather, neither would my children. Pete saved Hana’s life when he discovered her at three-weeks-old at Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945, and swiftly administered medical care that staved off fatal infection. He was a war hero through and through.

He died in 2010 at age 87, but I did have an opportunity to meet him in 2008 when he was presented with the Golden Shofar Award in Albany, New York. I am in regular contact with his youngest son, Brian Petersohn, who has been generously sharing all of his father’s clippings, writings, photos and other war-related mementos with me over the past few years. Most endearing, however, are Brian’s own memories and stories of growing up with him. He sounds like one of those dads every kid wishes he or she could have, someone who’s loving, kind, fun and funny. It gets emotional at times, but it’s been so beautiful to share my journey with one of Pete’s kids. Pete really feels like family now, and indeed, he is. Thank you Brian, for bringing your father vividly to life for me and for the future readers of the book.

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Hitler's food taster, Margot Woelk. Photo: Markus Schreiber, AP.

Hitler’s food taster, Margot Woelk. Photo: Markus Schreiber, AP.

Margot Woelk, the sole survivor of Hitler’s 15 food tasters, has recently come forward about her wartime experience. She is 95 years old and never told a soul until recently.

The food was delicious, only the best vegetables, asparagus, bell peppers, everything you can imagine. And always with a side of rice or pasta,” she recalled. “But this constant fear — we knew of all those poisoning rumors and could never enjoy the food. Every day we feared it was going to be our last meal.”

What a paradox. Indulging in gourmet fare at every meal when the rest of the world is scrounging for scraps, yet knowing any forkful could be the last. And yet, it was all to protect a megalomaniacal mass murderer. At first it seems difficult to reconcile, but after reading this important part of the story that was left out (!!!) by nearly every news outlet that reported on this in the last couple of days, I realized she too was a victim. According to an article in Spiegel, April 2, 2013,

…[the] young woman who had refused to join the League of German Girls (BDM), the girl’s version of Hitler Youth, and whose father had been hauled off for refusing to join the Nazi party, became Hitler’s helper. Each day, her life was on the line for a man she deeply despised.”

Why did she come forward now, 68 years after the war ended? “For decades, I tried to shake off those memories,” she said. “But they always came back to haunt me at night.” Well into her twilight years, frail and home-bound (there’s no elevator in her Berlin apartment building), she feels compelled to share her story and try to make peace with what she did. According to Spiegel,

It wasn’t until this winter, when a local journalist paid her a visit for her 95th birthday and began asking questions, that she spoke about what she calls the worst years of her life. At that moment, she suddenly decided to break her silence. ‘I just wanted to say what happened there,’ she says. ‘That Hitler was a really repugnant man. And a pig.’

The other 14 tasters—all young women in their early 20s like Ms. Woelk—were shot by the Russians. Only Ms. Woelk survived because she heeded the advice of an SS friend, and fled Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in the nick of time and took a train to Berlin. But her deeds did not go unpunished.

“The Russians then came to Berlin and got me, too,” Woelk said. “They took me to a doctor’s apartment and raped me for 14 consecutive days. That’s why I could never have children. They destroyed everything.”

It’s a very sad story and something I never really thought about, even though I vaguely knew there were food tasters for Hitler. It’s amazing that she kept the story to herself; she never even told her  husband. What a burden to carry for an entire life, especially one that’s lasted as long as hers. I know some people won’t feel compassion for her, and I agree on some level it’s not easy, but she suffered too at the hands of the Russians. Read more of her story here and let me know what you think.

The eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I remember and I honor you. With me, this is personal: Without you my mother would’ve perished in the death camp. Thank you to that one vet who saved her from certain death and to the countless others who risk their lives every day to save the innocent. – Thomas Berger (aka, my husband)

This blog post is in honor of LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn, who made my husband’s existence, and subsequently my two children’s, possible. Below is an abridged version of his obituary from the Beacon News, his employer of 44 years.

LeRoy Emil Petersohn LeRoy “Pete” Emil Petersohn, 87, of Montgomery, [Illinois] passed away Monday June 14, 2010 at his home. He was born August 14, 1922 in Aurora the son of the late Emil and Minnie (Schmitt) Petersohn.

Pete retired from the Beacon News after 44 years and was a 60 year member of the Chicago Typographical Union. He was a life member of Montgomery VFW and a member of the American Legion.

A veteran of World War II, in October 2008 he received a prestigious Shofar of Freedom award from Temple Israel in Albany, NY; for being a liberator, witness, and providing much needed medical care to the victims of the Holocaust at  Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz, Austria. He was a medic with Patton’s Third Army, Eleventh Armored Division Headquarters Combat Command B. He entered the war at Bastogne, Belgium and received his purple heart during the Battle of the Bulge. He was an original liberator at  Mauthausen concentration camp, while there he convinced his Major that a very ill, three-week old baby was worth saving. Sixty years later, the baby and he were reunited during a celebration of the liberation, at Mauthausen. Their story has recently been published in a book titled The Liberators: America’s Witnesses to the Holocaust, by Michael Hirsh. In 2005 he received the Golden Badge of Honor from the Austrian government.

He is survived by a very close and dear friend Dolly Wilson of Montgomery, his daughter Sandra Whiting of Black Forest Colorado, sons, Gary (Bobbie) May of Aurora Colorado, David (Sally) Petersohn of Oswego, Randy (Donna) Petersohn of Lombard, Brian (Debbie) Petersohn of Montgomery, a special niece Bonnie (Dwight) Evinger McConnell of Montgomery and a very special “Baby” Dr. Hana Berger Moran of Orinda, California, 13 grandchildren, 10 great grandchildren, numerous family members and an unbelievable amount of wonderful and supportive friends.

That “very ill, three-week old baby worth saving” refers to my mother-in-law, Hana Berger Moran. Her only child, Tom Berger, is my husband and the father of my two children, third generation Holocaust survivors.
Thank you Pete. It was an honor to meet you in Albany when you received the Golden Shofar Award. My family and I are forever grateful for your service.

Holocaust trunk by Crabapple Middle School students in Roswell, Ga.

For years Holocaust survivors have been visiting schools telling wide-eyed students about their days spent in camps and ghettos or hiding in the forest or someone’s attic. But it’s not often that a retired Army General from World War II visits schools, telling the same story from a different vantage point.

Middle school students in Georgia are lucky. They get to meet Brigadier General Russel Weiskircher in person. And he’s quite the storyteller, channeling the gravely voice of George C. Scott as General Patton.

Gen. Weiskircher; Photo: Tom Reed

He tells 50 rapt sixth graders at South Hall Middle School: “We asked the people in Dachau, ‘Where’s the prison camp?’ They didn’t know. Shook their heads.”

Gen. Weiskircher, WWII-era

He pauses for a moment and deepens his voice: “One old man!” he booms, “held his nose and pointed. In sign language he said, ‘Follow your nose, you’ll find it.’

There’s an inaudible gasp in the room. “I don’t mean to be vulgar,” says the retired General. “But the stench, I cannot describe to you.”

Although the 5:44 video is rough-shod, the General also had my rapt attention. (I recommend stopping at 4:34, though, as it’s mostly background noise after that).

South Hall Middle School sixth grader, 11-year-old Mason Barnes, said he could have listened all day to the General, says Access North Georgia.

As vice chairman of the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust, a state agency that uses the lessons of the Holocaust to teach about injustice, stereotyping, discrimination and bigotry, 88-year-old Weiskircher’s goal is to help today’s students cultivate an open mind. To do this, he goes from school to school as part of the Commission’s Holocaust Learning Trunk Project.

If the video wasn’t of such poor quality, I might have felt the same way. It’s a short video and I would love to know more of what the general spoke about. (Do I sound like Woody Allen when he complained about how terrible the food was but in such small portions?).

One thing that caught my attention, because I’ve heard about it before but never from someone first-hand, was IBM’s role in the war. Here’s what he told the students:

“[When] we pried the gate open [at Dachau], the first thing we found was a room with IBM key-punch cards. With a card for every prisoner in the German political system. It was being maintained by former IBM employees, Germans who had been trained to do it. There was a key-punch card for over 11 million people. That covered all over Europe, all of the prisoners, many of whom were dead.”


 

Jenna Blum's novel, "Those Who Save Us"

I just finished Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, a novel that toggles between one woman’s shameful past in Nazi Germany and her daughter’s attempt to uncover the truth in present-day Minnesota. I’m impressed by how real it feels, especially as a novel about the Holocaust.

Apparently it was her first book, which impresses me even more. Curious about why she wrote it as fiction and wondering if it was based on personal family history, I checked out her site. I soon discovered I wasn’t the only reader who wanted to know the book’s back story. She explains:

“Readers assume Those Who Save Us is autobiographical—they often look surprised when they meet me and see I’m not an eighty-something German woman or embittered fifty-something German history professor. I take it as the highest compliment when my readers think my characters and their situations must be real. But in fact, I invented their stories.”

Wow. I knew it was fiction but assumed it was founded on some semblance of fact. I often wonder why people choose to write novels about the Holocaust when the real-life stories are endless and endlessly fascinating.

Like me, Ms. Blum is interested in the enduring impact of the Holocaust some 65+ years later. I got excited about how well she was able to impress upon the reader the transfer of trauma from one generation to the next, both through her main characters and even some peripheral ones like a man who witnessed the murder of his mother and younger brother at the hands of a Nazi. He spent the remainder of his life haunted by the fact that he did nothing to help save them.

As I read more about Ms. Blum, I noticed other similarities between us. She was introduced to the Holocaust at the age of five through a book called, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. My interest began at a young age too, when I met and spoke with real Holocaust survivors at my synagogue. We grew up in neighboring New Jersey towns during the 1970s and 1980s (am pretty sure we’re the exact same age, too) and although both intrigued by the Holocaust and its effects on subsequent generations, we’re both only tangentially connected to it. Haven’t gotten around to it but am thinking of contacting her and inviting her to lunch or coffee or some such if she lives in the tri-state area.

Anyway, if you like a page-turner and are as interested in character-driven Holocaust stories, you should consider picking up this book. It’s a fast read and it’s really well done. Let me know what you think of it too!

Eric F. Ross

 

My heart is bursting!

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum just received a record gift of $17.2 million from Eric F. Ross, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 91. The first article I saw didn’t mention his Ritchie Boy status, but I connected the dots when I read he’d fled Germany in 1938 and enlisted in the U.S. army in 1942. (ed., learn more about the Ritchie Boys from my earlier post.)

Well, it was confirmed that he was, indeed, a Ritchie Boy! These men are my newest most favorite heroes. Is it weird to have a crush on a bunch of octo- and nonagenarians? If you watch the documentary, you might develop one too.

Sara J. Bloomfeld, the museum’s director, said, “Having experienced firsthand Nazi antisemitism and hatred, Eric and [wife] Lore Ross became determined and generous investors in Holocaust education. Their loss and suffering inspired remarkable generosity.”

Lore and Eric F. Ross

According to a Museum press release, the donation will go toward the Museum’s endowment fund, which provides permanent resources to secure the Museum’s future. Even from his grave Ross is telling Hitler and his henchmen that the world will never forget. Thanks to Ross’s generous donation, my kids, both of whom are third-generation survivors, will be able to know their history.