Death camp liberator, survivor share friendship, mission on Long Island
They may have glimpsed each other on that fateful day in May 1945 -- the wide-eyed liberator and the hollow-eyed prisoner.
Army medic John D'Aquila arrived at the Nazi death camp in Mauthausen, Austria, with the 11th Armored Division. Werner Reich, then 17, was near death after two years of starvation and forced labor.
The soldier and the survivor, who eventually moved to within miles of each other in Suffolk County, now share a devotion to telling the world of the Holocaust horrors they witnessed.
D'Aquila, the Catholic, and Reich, the Jew, are friends, and often travel together to speaking engagements.
"What we saw was unbelievable. Emaciated bodies . . . dying, dead . . . and a stench that cannot be duplicated," D'Aquila, a retired attorney who lives in Belle Terre, said of his arrival at the concentration camp.
When the American troops rolled in on May 5, 1945, two days before Germany surrendered, Reich was clinging to life. He weighed just 64 pounds.
"If I hadn't been liberated then, in two or three days I would have been dead," recalled Reich, 86, of Smithtown.
Sundown Sunday marks the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates Jewish victims of Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution." About 6 million Jews were executed, starved or worked to death by the Nazis, mostly in concentration camps placed throughout Europe to provide slave labor for the war effort.
Seven decades later, Reich and D'Aquila, who met years ago on the speaking circuit, are still sharing their stories.
Reich, whose arm bears a faded tattoo -- Nazi identification number A-1828 -- will share his experiences with three other Holocaust survivors May 7 at Suffolk Community College's Shea Theater.
Born in Berlin, Reich fled with his family to Yugoslavia in 1933 when he was 5. His mother sent him into hiding when Germany invaded in 1941, but he was discovered two years later.
Assigned to work crews, he spent the remainder of the war surviving one camp after another: Theresienstadt, Birkenau, Auschwitz and Mauthausen-Gusen.
"People were fighting and killing each other over food," recalled Reich, who came to America in 1955. "I was fighting for survival. Morality and ethics didn't exist."
D'Aquila may be the last local camp liberator still healthy enough and willing to address audiences, according to the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, which arranges speaking engagements.
"I think it is important to remember that a man like Hitler could be able to take charge of a nation," D'Aquila, 91, said last week.
Reich, seated in D'Aquila's living room, convulsed with indignation. He said he witnessed Mauthausen's guards torture and humiliate the Jewish prisoners to amuse themselves.
Some made a point of forcing families to beg for mercy as loved ones were killed in front of them, he said. Public hangings were carried out to further terrorize the captives.
Falls by starving quarry workers hauling heavy slabs up Mauthausen's treacherous "Stairs of Death" caused gruesome injuries. Those too weak to keep pace were beaten to death, according to the late Vincenzo Pappalettera, an Italian historian who survived the camp and later wrote "You Are Going Up The Chimney: Life and Death at Mauthausen."
Of about 320,000 prisoners who passed through Mauthausen and its sub-camps, only 80,000 survived, according to estimates pieced together from records that Mauthausen officials attempted to destroy as Allied troops closed in.
"When people talk about the Holocaust, 'Holocaust' is almost too neat a word," Reich said, stabbing the air with a finger. "These were things beyond words. It was systematic torture."
The number of Long Islanders who served as witnesses to the Holocaust is dwindling.
This year, two of the last camp liberators to make frequent public appearances on Long Island -- Herman "Hy" Horowitz, 94, of East Meadow, and Morris Sunshine, 89, of North Bellmore -- were forced to stop due to health problems.
In April 1945, Horowitz, a tank driver, was among the first U.S. troops to free prisoners from a concentration camp, when he arrived at the Buchenwald complex in central Germany.
"It was something young eyes should never see," said Horowitz, who now uses a wheelchair. "There were dead bodies piled one on another like a carpet."
Historians and researchers have relied on eyewitness accounts of liberating soldiers to provide independent confirmation of the horrors done there, said Beth Lilach, education director at the Holocaust Memorial in Glen Cove.
As the veterans tell audiences of their experiences liberating the camps, the sorrow, anger and disbelief they share goes far beyond numbers and black-and-white photographs in a history book, Lilach said.
"They are as integral to our understanding of the Holocaust as are the survivors," she said. "When the last survivors and the last liberators pass on, we won't have that immediate connection. You can't get that from textbooks."