‘What we saw there was so horrific’

‘What we saw there was so horrific’

Nanuet’s Alan Moskin liberated a concentration camp when he was 18

Alan Moskin talks about the horror of the Holocaust.
Alan Moskin talks about the horror of the Holocaust.

It took Alan Moskin, who turns 92 on Wednesday, 50 years to start talking about his experiences during and after World War II.

On Sunday, June 3, he will talk about it at the Rockland Jewish Film Festival as part of the screening of the film “G.I. Jews,” in which he appears.

Mr. Moskin was one of the half million American Jews who served in the U.S. military during World War II, the subject of the 90 minute film that recently aired on PBS. They made up about 3 percent of the 16 million Americans mobilized, but they were a full eighth of the American Jewish population at the time.

Mr. Moskin was born and raised in Englewood, and returned there after the war and after law school. He practiced law in Englewood and Hackensack for many years before moving to Rockland County. He now lives in Nanuet.

His grandfather, Max Moskin, was one of the founders of Congregation Ahavath Torah. His father, Albert Moskin, was a pharmacist and the mayor of Englewood for three years in the 1950s. “My grandfather was very patriotic,” Mr. Moskin said. “He appreciated the country to no end.”

Others shared that patriotism. “After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, people were running to the draft board. They were lying about their age. Everybody wanted to fight.”

But Alan wasn’t old enough then. He was 15 in 1941. But when he turned 18 in 1944, he was called for his physical, and in September he was drafted and sent to basic training at Camp Blanding, Florida, to join the infantry. “We were learning how to shoot an M1 rifle, learning how to survive in combat, learning how to kill or be killed,” he said.

Growing up in Englewood’s Fourth Ward, attending Dwight Morrow High School, he took diversity for granted. There were black kids and Jewish kids, Catholics and Protestants. “It made me realize we’re more alike than different,” he said. “I didn’t think about the color of skin.”

So basic training in the south was an education. “I saw the prejudice the southerners had about colored folks, as they called them,” he said.

He saw it, and then he experienced it “when they saw me with my arms around another guy in a basketball situation. They called me a ‘nigger lover.’ I had a mark on me. They called me ‘kike’ and ‘Jew bastard.’ I had to get over it. In the south, that’s how it was.”

It was painful. “We were supposed to be the good guys fighting the Nazis.”

When he left training and arrived in Europe in early 1945, however, “none of that crap existed in combat.”

He was part of General George Patton’s 3rd Army, fighting in the Rhineland campaign that started in France and worked its way through Germany and Austria. When the Nazis surrendered on May 7, he was not yet 19. He stayed in Germany with the occupation army for another year.

As a combat soldier, “the problem we had was the Waffen SS and the Hitler Youth. They were full of hate, fanatical, only 14 or 15 years old. We didn’t have hate. We just wanted to win the war and go home.

Moskin’s infantry division published this brochure about the concentration camp it liberated.

“One of them spit in my face and called me a schweinhund. I think it means pig hound. I wanted to blow his brains out.”

Mr. Moskin’s commander stopped him. “He said he’d court martial me.”

On May 4, three days before the war’s end, Mr. Moskin’s unit was in Austria, occupying the town of Gunskirchen. And they liberated the concentration camp there, one of nearly 100 scattered throughout Austria as subdivisions of the Mauthausen camp.

“What we saw there was so horrific,” he said.

Auschwitz had been liberated by the Soviet Army back in January. But the news hadn’t made its way to Mr. Moskin and his fellow infantry grunts.

This fact surprises the school children he speaks to about his experiences. “Didn’t you go over to liberate the Jews from the camps?” they ask him. His reply: “The president knew about it. We didn’t know about it.”

Before Mr. Moskin and his comrades saw the camp, they smelled it. “The stench was so overpowering it would knock our brains out.

“We saw this barbed wire campus with ‘arbeit macht frei’ on top. We had to kill one German SS guy who wouldn’t drop his gun.

“There were piles of skeleton-like bodies on the right and on the left. Those who were alive were so emaciated it defies description. They looked like bones with no flesh, with sores all over their body.”

They were starving. He saw inmates digging with tree bark into the guts of a horse. “They reached in and pulled out the entrails of a dead horse and started biting and chewing, the blood squirting all over. That’s what starvation does to people.

“We gave out K rations. We handed out some of the food and they started choking. Our medic screamed, ‘No solid food! No solid food!’ They couldn’t take it.

“General Eisenhower told our officers to tell us that if we didn’t know what we were fighting for, we were fighting evil.

“He made us bring the people in from town to look at the bodies and the camp. They said, ‘Nobody knew anything.’ What they knew or didn’t know — hell, if all your Jewish neighbors are taken away and you see the smoke coming out of the smokestacks and you smell the smell….”

Later that year, in October, the trials of the Nazis leaders began in Nuremberg. Mr. Moskin still was in Europe, serving in the army of occupation. When he got time off, he would use his passes to go to Nuremberg and attend the trials. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “I wanted to watch what’s going on.

Alan Moskin as a soldier in World War II.

“I couldn’t believe how one group of people could treat another people like this,” he said.

“The testimony I heard there. About the mothers and their little babies, the teenage girls, going in allegedly to be deloused. They went in and the doors shut and instead of water they got gas. They killed hundreds of thousands of women and girls because they couldn’t work.

“If you heard the testimony about what Dr. Mengele did with twins — it’s so gross. You can’t believe the cruelty.

And then he came home. He resumed his studies at Syracuse University — he had enrolled at 17 before being drafted — and this time the GI Bill paid his tuition. He went to NYU Law School and went to work as an attorney. He did not tell people what he had seen, heard, and smelled.

“The main thing is that I didn’t talk about it for 50 years,” he said. “I’m sure I had PTSD like most combat soldiers. They called it shell shock.

“General Patton didn’t believe in any neurological stuff. He told us to suck it up unless you had a physical wound. He didn’t believe in it. He said, ‘I don’t want to hear about it.’

“I sucked it up for 50 years. I didn’t want to talk about it. I was scared it would bring back the terrible nightmares in the army of occupation when I couldn’t sleep because I was crying.”

And then, in 1995, “a lady from the local Holocaust museum called me on the phone. She said, ‘Is it true you’re a soldier and a liberator?’ She begged me to speak.”

When he spoke about his experiences for the first time, “It was like a catharsis of all the poison I was bottling up.”

In the more than 20 years since, he has spoken at more than 100 middle schools and high schools across the country, reaching some 75,000 students. Just last week, he was a keynote speaker at a Holocaust symposium before “a whole bunch of parochial Catholic school kids” in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and at a program in Franklin Lakes. He would welcome more chances to speak close to home, in Rockland or North Jersey — he’s finding plane travel more exhausting these days.

“It’s like a calling to me now,” he said. “I want the young people to know that the Holocaust was no myth. A lot of the wackos say the Jews made it up. We thought we got rid of all that garbage when we beat those Nazis.

“I had a kid say yesterday, ‘How can they say the Holocaust didn’t happen when all the people like you talk about where they were, when there are photographs, the Nuremberg war crime trials?

“I said, ‘Look, I can’t give you that answer. There are some people who are so anti-Semitic they’re going to deny it. That’s why I’m here to tell you and your friends. When we’re gone, the survivors, the liberators — in 10 or 15 years we’re going to be gone — your generation has go to tell what you’ve heard. When the deniers come out of the woodwork, they’ve got to hear from you. Don’t be bystanders, be upstanders. Get rid of the hate and bigotry.’

“My generation failed. We didn’t get rid of the hate and prejudice. It’s still out there. They’ve got to do the job.

“That’s the main reason I speak,” Alan Moskin said.

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