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Breaking a Painful Silence

Binyamin Rose

When Charlie Press enlisted in the US Army in 1945, he became an unwitting witness to the horrors of history in the waning days of World War II: carting away pillaged Nazi gold, capturing SS troops as they were trying to move out surviving prisoners, and aiding emaciated concentration camp inmates. But it took nearly 50 years until he was ready to talk about it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Harrisburg, PA Private First Class Charlie Press may have been a late conscript to the 90th Infantry Division in the waning days of World War II, but for the remaining survivors of the Flossenburg Concentration Camp in Bavaria, his arrival couldn’t have come a moment too soon. The division had been trailing General George S. Patton’s army during its advance through Germany in the winter of 1945 — an advance that would bring the war to a close with the defeat of Nazi Germany. Until 1944, Flossenburg was mainly a forced labor camp and counted few Jews. In the last six months of the war, though, nearly 25,000 Jews — mainly Hungarian and Polish — arrived. As US forces approached the camp in mid-April 1945, the SS began the forced evacuation of prisoners. An estimated 7,000 died en route, while thousands of others escaped, were liberated by advancing US troops, or found themselves freed when their SS guards deserted during the night. By the time Charlie’s unit arrived at Flossenburg, only about 1,500 of the most infirm people had been left behind. Unaware of the full scale of the Holocaust and Germany’s concentration camp system, it didn’t take long for it to dawn on him that this had to have been a place where the Germans were killing people. “We knew we were going to fight for the US. We really didn’t know anything else until we got there.” The revolting scenes that he observed became etched in his memory, and subsequently suppressed for decades until he finally recorded it for posterity in a June 1992 interview with the US Holocaust Museum. Press shared many of those memories with me during an interview this past summer in the Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg, where he currently resides. It was a couple of weeks after his 94th birthday, and he proudly mentioned that he just read the haftarah during Shabbos services to commemorate his bar mitzvah parshah of B’haalosecha. Despite the oxygen tubeCharlie had to wear during our interview, he looked relaxed, wearing a camel-colored, long-sleeve cardigan sweater, with his World War II cap perched on the desk. Many of his memories of the scenes that greeted him at Flossenburg remain vivid to this day.

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